The unforgettable story of the 1943 “Steagles”


By Michael Tierney, Staff Reporter

The year is 1943 and America is deep in the throes of World War II. Although over 600 National Football League (NFL) players and coaches have been deployed overseas to fight for our country, President Franklin Roosevelt has demanded that all sports continue play.  

All that remained on the NFL teams were the players that failed their military physicals, so many of the teams recruited retired players and college football athletes to fill up their squads. Philadelphia Eagles owner Burt Bell and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney had other plans, as they decided to merge their two arch-rival teams to form the Steagles. 

This merger was not exactly a match made in heaven: issues emerged. Their quarterback had bleeding ulcers, one of their linemen was partially deaf, one of their receivers was blind in one eye and even worse: the head coaches of the teams absolutely despised each other. The coaches, Walt Kiesling of the Steelers and Greasy Neale of the Eagles, had so much enmity between each other that they had to divide duties between offense and defense so they did not have to work together. Another obstacle the team had to face was the national requirement for each of the players to complete 40 hours of war-related work every week, which allowed little time for practice. With limited practices, head coaches that loathed each other and a team full of military rejects and recycled veterans, the future did not look too bright for this team. 

Despite these challenges, the Steagles shockingly got off to a fast start and won their first two games of the season over the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. Reality set in the next two weeks as they were easily defeated by the Chicago Bears and the Giants. Fortunately, the team was able to hover above the .500 mark for the remainder of the season and finish at 5-4-1. This season marked the Eagles first winning season in franchise history since their founding in 1933 and the second for the Steelers. The Steagle’s best player, running back Jack Hinkle, finished the season with a whopping 571 rushing yards and lost the rushing title to Bill Paschal of the Giants by one measly yard. 

This unorthodox group of guys was able to unite Pennsylvania for two months when the Great Depression and World War II were in full swing. They had Pennsylvanians come together over football during extremely tough times and provided a sense of normalcy for Americans. It’s something we could never imagine happening today and shows how two arch-rivals can come together and unite our great Commonwealth for the sake of the NFL and America. 

The Steagles story shows how antagonists can join forces for a greater good in challenging times. This is analogous to our country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. People are partnering together and following new, novel rules, such as wearing face masks in public, social distancing and quarantining. Competing pharmaceutical companies are collaborating and joining forces, as the Eagles and Steelers did, to develop lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines. The football teams, drug makers, and citizens, are showing grit, resilience, and determination under the pressure of a unique challenge, just as the Steagles did in 1943.

Michael Tierney can be reached at [email protected]