The first Sunday in December of 1941 began much like Sundays have for years prior and for the 75 years since. The morning for many included a church service and then was followed by Sunday afternoon National Football League action.
Though the NFL in 1941 was not the Sunday national obsession that it has become over the past 75 years, there was still excitement for the final three games of the regular season.
In New York, a crowd of 55,051 packed the Polo Grounds for “Tuffy Leemans’ Day” as the New York Giants were recognizing their All-Pro running back in the final regular season game of his sixth NFL season. Leemans had led the NFL in rushing with 830 yards as a rookie in 1936 and as was common during the era, he was a multi-threat who also could be a passer, receiver, punt returner and play defense. He would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978.
The Giants entered the game with an 8-2 record and having already clinched the East Division title. Their opponents, the cross-town rival Brooklyn Dodgers (yes the Brooklyn Dodgers was also the name of an NFL team from 1930-1943) entered the game with a 6-4 record.
Brooklyn had defeated the Giants 16-13 earlier in the season, but a recent loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers had knocked the Dodgers out of contention for the division title.
On this afternoon, Brooklyn All-Pro Pug Manders was a one-man-show as he scored touchdown in the second, third and fourth quarters to give the Dodgers a 21-0 lead. He sandwiched touchdown runs of three and two yards with a 65-yard interception return for a score. The Giants made the final score 21-7 when Kay Fakin caught a 38-yard touchdown pass from Hank Soar.
As would be the case in all the NFL Stadiums that day, soon after the Pearl Harbor Bombing commenced at 12:55 Eastern time, the public address announcer told all servicemen in attendance to report to their units immediately.
At Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC, the Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles were each finishing out the season. The Redskins were 5-5 on the year, while the Eagles were 2-7-1 entering the final contest.
In front of a crowd of 27,102, the Eagles scored early on a run by Jack Banta. Future Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh hit Al Krueger for a 19-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to tie the contest.
The Eagles regained the lead in the third quarter with a six-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Thompson to Hank Piro to make the score 14-7.
By the time Baugh tossed a pair of fourth quarter touchdown passes to Joe Aguirre to secure the 20-14 victory, many of the initial audience was likely gone. Soon after the bombings, the Public Address Announcer started to page high-ranking government and military leaders, though he did not mention the attacks.
The game with the most playoff significance on the day was the contest held at Comiskey Park between the two Chicago teams, the Cardinals and Bears.
Though they entered the contest with a 9-1 mark, the Bears needed the victory to ensure a playoff with the Green Bay Packers for the West Division title. The Packers had already concluded the regular season with a 10-1 record.
Though they had a 3-6-1 record, the Cardinals jumped out to a quick 14-0 advantage. The first score was a fumble return by Bill Davis and the second was a 6-yard run by Marshall Goldberg.
A pair of second quarter rushing touchdowns by the Bears tied the score, but the Cardinals took a 17-14 halftime lead on a 32-yard field goal by Bill Daddio.
After Hugh Gallarneau scored on an 18-yard run to regain the lead for the Bears, the Cardinals took a 24-21 advantage early in the fourth period following a 26-yard touchdown pass from Ray Mallouf to Bert Johnson.
The remainder of the game was dominated by future Hall of Famer George McAfee. He first scored on a 39-yard touchdown pass from Sid Luckman. Then, he iced the 34-24 victory with a 70-yard scoring run.
McAfee’s dominating late-game performance would prove too be the springboard to a pair of outstanding performances for the second-year player in playoff wins the next two weeks.
Facing the Packers in the battle of 10-1 teams to claim the West Division title, McAfee rushed for 119 yards in a 33-14 victory.
Playing what would be the last NFL game for him and many of his teammates until the conclusion of World War II in 1945, McAfee rushed for 81 yards and a touchdown and also caught passes for 42 additional yards as the Bears defeated the Giants 37-9 to win their second straight NFL Championship and fifth since 1921.
December 7, 1941 started like every other Sunday, but it would prove to be one of the most significant days in the history of the United States as it forever altered the lives of millions of Americans.