Steelers and Eagles fans were once friendly


If you have ever walked around the Pitt campus on any Sunday in the fall or early winter,… If you have ever walked around the Pitt campus on any Sunday in the fall or early winter, you certainly have seen hordes of people dressed in either green and white or black and gold. This is because the University of Pittsburgh is home to thousands of loyal Eagles and Steelers fans who proudly sport their teams’ colors.

Despite playing in different conferences, the proximity of the two teams has always created a sort of “Pennsylvania rivalry” among the teams and their fans.

Taunts of all kinds are commonplace during the football season between Pitt students on opposing sides, sometimes even escalating to the point of all-out brawls. But before purchasing brass knuckles in preparation for next season, there is something every Eagles and Steelers supporter should be reminded of – a time when fans on both sides of the state harmoniously cheered for the same team. That team will forever be known as the Steagles.

Nowadays, the NFL is considered the most successful professional sports league in the country; football is truly our national pastime. For that reason, it’s hard to imagine the league struggling to survive. Yet, that was exactly the case back in 1943. For that one season, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles merged into one team and just may have saved the National Football League in the process.

With America in the midst of World War II, every NFL team was losing numerous players, coaches and owners to the various military branches. So much so, in fact, that the league could not operate without contracting, which it did by dissolving the Cleveland Rams franchise. Some believed the league should follow suit as problems persisted. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who felt that all sports should continue in the interest of national morale, frowned on this suggestion.

The shortage of players was finally resolved when a proposal by the Steelers’ Art Rooney Sr. and the Eagles management was made to merge the two teams for the 1943 season.

The Steagles were born.

Officially the team never had a city designation and was known as the Eagles-Steelers, the Steelers-Eagles or just the Eagles. The popular name of Steagles was never officially recognized by the NFL, who solely registered the team in its records as Phil-Pitt.

Although not big rivals today, in the 10-team league of the 1940s, the Steelers and Eagles were huge rivals, and many questioned the combination of enemy squads. The fact was that 600 NFL players were off at war, and after the Cleveland Rams folded, the next best option was to combine teams.

The reason the Steelers and the Eagles came to the forefront, quite honestly, was because they were both really bad and the other owners didn’t mind combining them. The 1943 Steagles were a combination of the 2-9 Eagles and 7-4 Steelers of 1942.

Bound and determined to maintain athletic entertainment on the home front, the Steagles got to work assembling their team but did not have much to work with. Their roster consisted of military draft rejects, former stars lured away from retirement and even a couple of active servicemen who managed to get leave for the games. Their starting center was deaf in one ear, the go-to wide receiver was blind in one eye (and partially blind in the other) and the halfback had bleeding ulcers.

Additionally, every Steagle worked a full-time job during the day and practiced at night. Those were the types of players that coaches Walt Kiesling of the Steelers and Greasy Neale of the Eagles had to work with.

Yet, somehow, this rag-tag crew of has-beens and handicaps managed to post a winning record at 5-4-1 – the first in the history of the Eagles and just the second in the history of the Steelers.

The Steagles played their games at Shibe Park in Philadelphia and were pretty productive, all things considered. This is especially true when considering their head coaches always disagreed. Having two egomaniacal head coaches from rival teams coming together to share responsibilities doesn’t seem like a recipe for success, and indeed it wasn’t.

Both coach Kiesling and Neale wanted to be the head honcho. Kiesling wanted to run the traditional single wing and Neale the T-formation, but their opposing philosophies often resulted in outbursts. Still, the team posted a winning record, but did not enter the postseason. The Chicago Bears went on to win the NFL Championship.

It may seem that contracting one team and combining another would produce negative results, but in fact, the 1943 season was the best year attendance-wise that the NFL had ever had up to that point. This is probably because people were starved for entertainment in those trying times.

The Steagles would not get another chance to improve on their record, however, because the merger was dissolved following the 1943 season.

It would be another 60 years before the Steagles name would be recalled. On that occasion in August of 2003, six of the nine surviving mem bers of the team were honored at halftime of the Steelers/Eagles preseason game at Heinz Field in front of thousands of cheering fans.

The Steagles story is not just another made-for-TV movie, though. Matthew Algeo, the author of the book “Last Team Standing,” based on the Steagles, argues that the merger actually saved the National Football League.

“The Steagles did save pro football in one very important way,” Algeo says in the book. “There was a point in the summer of 1943 where the NFL did consider ceasing operations. And when you look at the period right after the war in professional football history, a new league came in. The AAFC, the All-America Football Conference, started in 1946. If the NFL had suspended operations during the war, it really makes you wonder whether they would have been able to compete with the AAFC after the war. So, by combining the Steelers and the Eagles, the NFL ensured its survival.”

So the next time you Eagles fans remind Pittsburgh fans that their team missed the playoffs this year, or the next time you Steelers fans remind Philly fans that your team owns five Super Bowl rings to their team’s zero, remember the Steagles of 1943. Remember the time when Philly and Pittsburgh fans melodiously cheered for the same team – a team that helped to ensure the survival of the National Football League.