How the 1952 Dallas Texans became NFL laughingstock but pulled off Thanksgiving miracle against Chicago Bears

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Editor’s note: This story about the 1952 Dallas Texans was originally published on Thanksgiving Day 2018.

“I will be the first to admit that the story that follows reads like fiction, but I assure you it is factual all the way, even to a painful degree. In so many ways it seems as if it might well have been some kind of dream.” — Giles Miller, 1952 Dallas Texans owner

OVERCOME WITH GRATITUDE before their Thanksgiving Day game in 1952, the Dallas Texans dispensed with the traditional NFL pregame introductions and, instead, scrambled into the stands to personally thank each and every one of their fans. The salutations didn’t take long. That morning, nearly 30,000 fans had packed into the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio, for a football doubleheader featuring a local high school rivalry and the NFL’s traditional holiday showcase.

At the completion of the prep game, however, roughly 28,000 of those spectators stood up en masse and returned home to eat dry turkey. By the time the Texans and the Chicago Bears were scheduled to kick off, the barren, wind-swept horseshoe stadium was so cold that players constructed fires in trash cans at either end of the bench just to try to stay warm. “We looked like a bunch of bums,” Texans defensive lineman Art Donovan told the Dallas Morning News.

By that point in the season, it was a rather generous assessment of the Dallas Texans, an orphaned group of wayward misfits that had, in one fantastic 50-day binge, turned the NFL’s first attempt to field a team in the South into the worst franchise in NFL history. “Those few months living in Dallas were some of the craziest times of my life,” the late Donovan recalled after entering the Hall of Fame in 1968. “I’d never give it up for a million bucks.”

By that Thanksgiving game, Giles Miller, 32, the Texans’ impossibly rich and brash owner, already had. At the start of the season, Miller, who had inherited a Texas textile fortune, wondered aloud if the 76,000-seat Cotton Bowl would be big enough for his ground-breaking franchise, Texas’ first integrated football team. But after nine straight blowout losses and with his fanbase drying up faster than a wildcat well, Miller was forced to turn the team over to the NFL and saddle Dallas, Texas, of all places, with the ignominy of producing the last NFL franchise to fail.

First, though, the league shipped the Texans to Hershey, Pennsylvania, and forced them to play the remainder of their season on the road, including a Thanksgiving Day game in Akron against the mighty Chicago Bears. “Texans Burial Due” read the headline above the local paper’s preview of the matchup between the Bears, who had just knocked off the defending NFL champion Detroit Lions, and the “hopeless, homeless, and hapless” Texans, who ranked dead last in every statistical category and spent most of their practice time fishing, playing volleyball or guzzling suds.

And so, roughly 1,400 miles from Dallas on Thanksgiving, after one of the most colossally bad seasons in the NFL’s century of existence, a handful of the Texans climbed into the Rubber Bowl stands to shake hands with a tiny group of their foster fans. After what they’d been through, the bizarre pregame gesture seemed perfectly normal.

The 1952 Dallas Texans would deal with rattlesnakes, abuse of grasshoppers (the drink) and a murder trial. They would bankrupt the youngest millionaire in America, produce five of the most important players in NFL history, establish a new NFL standard for carousing and create an unsavory lineage to the heralded Baltimore Colts. But on Thanksgiving Day in 1952, the Dallas Texans would produce the craziest thing of all: a football miracle.

WORD GOT OUT in early 1952 that Miller had done the unthinkable: He bought the defunct New York Yanks NFL franchise for $300,000 and was moving the team to Dallas. He immediately started receiving bags of mail from people all over the country looking for a similar handout. The letters reflected the NFL’s standing in the American sports psyche at the time. “College football was still king,” Donovan, the Texans defensive tackle, wrote in his memoir Fatso. “In national popularity polls, pro football ranked just above synchronized swimming.”

In fact, the letter writers were probably thinking that if Miller was daffy enough to invest his entire fortune in a league where 31 of the first 43 franchises had gone under, then, shoot, maybe he’s dumb enough to buy our family a new car, too. Miller told the Saturday Evening Post he considered each letter a vote. “A vote,” he laughed, “electing me the nation’s No. 1 chump of 1952.”

A short, stocky former amateur boxer with thick, slicked-back black hair, Miller’s eminently charming swagger made him the focal point of every room he entered. His grandson Rhett Miller, the lead singer of the band Old 97’s who produced a 2016 podcast about the team, says the man he called “Pop” was the personification of “all hat and no cattle,” a man who had been told his entire life he was too rich, too handsome and too smart to ever fail — and he believed every word. Legend has it, once, while Miller was walking through a crowded nightclub, a drunk patron trying to get a laugh jumped out of a dark doorway hoping to rattle the eminently self-assured and poised playboy. Miller cold-cocked the guy, re-adjusted his tie and stepped over the joker’s prostrate body without spilling so much as a drop of scotch.

In 1951, after the perpetually broke and failing Yanks were sold back to the NFL, a Dallas radio entrepreneur convinced Giles to lead a local syndicate of 12 businessmen, including his brother Connell Miller, to purchase the team and bring it to Dallas. Connell had the same amount of sports business experience as his brother, which was none. In the fall and winter, after several secret meetings with NFL commissioner Bert Bell, the deal was announced: The NFL was going to have its first franchise in the South. Chicago owner and coach George Halas said a team in Dallas gave the NFL “a true national flavor.” Steelers owner Art Rooney predicted NFL crowds in Texas would triple the Yanks’ attendance.

The team was to be called the Dallas Texans, to preempt any future teams in Houston from acquiring the name, and would play home games in the massive Cotton Bowl. Dallas would wear navy, white and silver and carry the outline of Texas on its shoulder pads, and the team’s dark blue helmets featured a thick white stripe down the middle.

Back home after a string of press conferences, Giles counted the days until a moving truck from New York would arrive with all the Yanks’ property, which he now owned. When it pulled up in Dallas, Miller rushed to the trailer’s back doors, eager to gaze upon his inheritance. He pushed aside a few chairs, some file cabinets and a small pile of ratty equipment that was packed up front so he could get a look at the back of the truck and the rest of his haul. It was so dark back there that he had to leap up into the truck, where he found… it was completely empty.

IN 1947, DEBENNEVILLE “BERT” BELL relocated NFL headquarters (and the league’s three-person staff) from a single office in Chicago into a former dance studio in his hometown of Philadelphia. Bell, a Penn grad and a Pennsylvania blueblood through and through, chose the location in part because it was close to the Philadelphia Racquet Club, where the chain-smoking, chocoholic NFL commissioner required a daily rubdown and steam bath. Previously, in five years as a football coach and owner with the Eagles and Steelers, Bell had accumulated a record (10-46-2) that still ranks as the worst in league history.

Despite his personal track record, Bell insisted on final say in all football and management decisions in Dallas, and his heavy-handed (but well-manicured) ineptitude may have doomed the Texans from the start. Bell began by making the Dallas franchise deal contingent on Miller assuming $200,000 the Yanks still owed on an eight-year Yankee Stadium lease. Bell then traded away the Texans’ first-round pick, future Hall of Fame linebacker Les Richter. And while rumors circulated that Miller was considering Bear Bryant, Sammy Baugh and even Curly Lambeau, the commissioner vetoed those choices and forced Dallas to retain Yankees coach Jimmy Phelan.

In his prime, the gregarious, silver-haired Phelan had been a respectable college coach. By 1952, though, he had morphed into football’s version of Casey Stengel, a beloved personality who mostly contributed a sense of slapstick to the Texans. Phelan’s most rigorous drill — when he bothered to show up for practice at all — was a volleyball game between the offense and defense using the crossbar as a net. Once, while preparing to play the Los Angeles Rams, Phelan’s charges opened practice with two successful screen plays. The old man blew his whistle and put up his hands for everybody to stop. “Save it for the Rams,” Phelan yelled. “Everyone on the bus.” A half hour later the entire team was at the racetrack in Santa Anita.

Phelan held the Texans’ lone training camp at the Shiner’s Institute in Kerrville, Texas, believing it to be one of the cooler climate spots in the state. It was the opposite: The area was made infamous two years later by The Junction Boys, the Texas A&M players who survived Bear Bryant’s brutal 10-day preseason camp. The Texans trained in 100-degree heat for 22 straight days, but to very little positive effect. It was so hot, the players said, even the ants stayed underground.

But not the rattlesnakes. The team’s equipment manager, Willie Garcia, had a prosthetic leg, and when the ball bounced into the tall, rattler-infested prairie grass surrounding the Texans’ practice field, it was agreed that Garcia would retrieve it. Garcia, Phelan decided, only had a 50 percent chance of getting bitten, you see. Before each practice, Garcia would dump whatever equipment he had in a big pile in the middle of the Texans locker room and the players would fight over socks and shoulder pads.

The Texans retained only 12 players from the 1951 Yanks team that went 1-9-2 . They drafted defensive end Gino Marchetti with the No. 14 pick and signed massive 330-pound lineman Forrest “Chubby” Grigg who was, according to the team program, also an oil executive — which in his case meant he owned a rickety two-pump gas station and catfish camp in his east Texas hometown of Longview. A cartoon character come to life, with a wavy shock of strawberry-blonde hair and a giant gap in his front teeth, Grigg liked to “hide” under a parka at his locker during halftime, squeeze four concession-stand hot dogs into his meaty fist and down them all at once.

Dallas also retained Donovan, one of the greatest late bloomers in NFL history. He’d eventually become a Hall of Famer in the defensive trenches, as well as a household name later in life as a beer pitchman and professional yarn-spinner on the late-night talk show circuit. But before signing a $7,000 contract to play for the Texans, Donovan asked a longtime family friend for career advice. “There’s no future in the (pro) game in general,” he was told, “and there’s no future for you in the game in particular.”

On offense, the castaway list from the Yanks included scatback back Buddy Young and the supremely gifted George Taliaferro, who played seven different positions. Young, nicknamed the Bronze Bullet, stood just 5-foot-4, 175 pounds but had all-world speed. Years later his team bio would read, “the only player in the world who can block you at the knees without bending down.”

In 1949, after leading Indiana to its first Big Ten title, Taliaferro became the first African-American drafted into the NFL, taken in the 13th round by the Chicago Bears. Growing up in Gary, Indiana, it was Taliaferro’s childhood dream to play for the Bears. Weeks before the draft, however, he had agreed to a deal with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference and Taliaferro ultimately decided to follow his parent’s lifelong advice to always honor an agreement. And when the AAFC merged with the NFL, he ended up on the 1951 Yanks roster where, at 24, he completed 13 passes, scored 7 touchdowns, averaged 5.3 yards per carry and 37.9 yards per punt and led the team in returns, forced fumbles and interception return yardage. “George helped change the landscape of football much the way Jackie Robinson did for baseball,” Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy wrote in the foreword to Taliaferro by Dawn Knight. “Every African American in the NFL owes a debt of gratitude to George.”

Because Chicago Bears quarterback Willie Thrower took snaps under center in 1953, he is considered by many to be the NFL’s first black quarterback. Taliaferro may have been operating out of the direct-snap Single Wing offense, but he had already thrown more than 100 NFL passes before Thrower even stepped on an NFL field. Now, Taliaferro and Young were about to become the first African-Americans to compete with white athletes in Texas a full 18 years before the University of Texas would integrate its football program.

At the end of a blistering hot training camp, Phelan decided on the rest of his roster by walking in a circle around the locker room, pointing a finger at each player and saying, “You’re gone,” or “You’re good.” George Young, the future GM of the New York Giants, got “You’re gone.” Yanks backup quarterback Bob Celeri heard “You’re good.” Donovan summed up the Texans roster thusly: One of the worst dog-ass teams ever assembled. “We were better organized with the Little League teams in my hometown than I was with the Dallas Texans,” said Marchetti, 91, the last living Texan, in a 2016 podcast interview. “Practicing with the Texans we either played volleyball or just sat under a tree telling stories. So we got to be pretty good volleyball players and we were pretty good at drinking a beer or two.”

At a banquet before the season opener against the New York Giants, Miller awarded each player a 10-gallon cowboy hat. The hats were a compromise, since the original marketing plan was for the entire team to wear full cowboy gear whenever they were in public and to enter their home field on horseback carrying the Texas flag. Texas governor Allan Shivers emceed the opening ceremonies inside the Cotton Bowl, calling the team “a new era in sports in Texas.”

To boost the crowd, the Texans offered free seats to anyone who donated a pint of blood for the war in Korea. Miller, who predicted a crowd of more than 30,000 — and needed to average 25,000 fans just to break even — also paid for a helicopter carrying “Miss Dallas Texans” to land at the 50-yard line and release a golden football balloon that contained a “substantial gift certificate from a local merchant.”

It was the New York Giants, though, who were truly in the gift-giving spirit at start the game. The Texans’ very first punt was fumbled by New York defensive back Tom Landry. (Eight years later Landry would, of course, become the original head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, leading the franchise in his iconic fedora to 20 consecutive winning seasons and two Super Bowl wins.) Dallas recovered Landry’s house-warming gift and two plays later Taliaferro connected with Young on a 22-yard touchdown to make Texans history. After the score, to celebrate the franchise’s first touchdown, Young turned toward the Cotton Bowl stands — and was greeted by an oceanic expanse of empty bleachers as far as the eye could see.

JUST A FEW WEEKS EARLIER, during the NFL preseason, that section of the Cotton Bowl had been jam-packed with new Texans fans, most of them from Dallas’s African-American community. They had come out by the thousands to support Young and Taliaferro. In January, when Dallas was awarded an NFL franchise The Sporting News announced that the Texans’ integrated roster “posed perhaps the biggest color problem in the history of modern day sports.” The local coverage was just as anxious about the team’s makeup: One Dallas columnist openly encouraged the Texans to just trade their black players to Cleveland.

The racial makeup of the Texans seemed to matter to everyone in Dallas — except the owner. In the spring Miller stepped forward and announced, once and for all, the Texans’ position: “Places on our team are open strictly on the basis of ability without regard to race or creed,” he said in a statement that was impossibly brave and radical for the time.

“The racial climate in the 1950s in Dallas was toxic,” says Michael Phillips, a historian and author of White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas. “It was miserable and oppressive for black people. The Texans probably didn’t know the maelstrom they were stepping into.”

Just two years earlier, in 1950, 12 black families in Dallas had been targeted by bombers for daring to move into a marginal “white” neighborhood. Suspects in the bombings ranged from members of the Dallas Police Department to a local Baptist minister, and although a grand jury was convened in 1951 no one was ever convicted. It was typical of the Jim Crow era in Dallas when white residents used violence and terror (often with impunity) while clinging to the segregation of neighborhoods, schools, restaurants, bathrooms, businesses, marriages, and, of course, their beloved football.

Then, at the height of the divide in Dallas, the Texans showed up. “I have no doubt that 1952 was a harsh existence for Buddy and George in Dallas,” says Phillips. “They would have had an extremely constricted life as visiting players. Part of the propaganda here is that race wasn’t a major issue in Dallas, that we’re not Birmingham or Mississippi, that somehow we’re more sophisticated. But that’s a lie. That’s a fundamental lie in Dallas history.”

The Texans would become an important reminder of an ugly past Dallas has worked hard to gloss over. Unable to live near their teammates, Young and his wife, Geraldine, found a house in South Dallas, while George and Viola Taliaferro took a room nearby with a family that became their life-long friends. “George (and Buddy) went with the program, they didn’t have a choice,” says Marchetti. “We didn’t like it — none of us liked it — but what were we going to do?”

There was not a day in Dallas, Viola recalled in Taliaferro, that she felt she and George were treated with respect. “It was hard,” said Viola, who would go on to become a district court judge, “to experience that kind of thing on a daily basis and not get to a point where you are just filled with hatred.”

Prior to the season, Miller met with community leaders and pledged to provide reserved seating for black fans at Texans games. Recalling the meeting in his self-published memoir, Miller wrote: “Once again came plaudits from the blacks and unhappy criticisms from a segment of the whites.”

When those African-American fans showed up for an exhibition game against the Detroit Lions, however, they were only sold $1.80 seats in the a small, segregated section of the Cotton Bowl, a roped-off area behind the end zone that was directly in the sun and had limited visibility of the field. Among the fans packed into that section were Geraldine and Viola. Miller immediately offered to move them to where the other players’ wives were seated. They refused.

The abusive seating inside the Cotton Bowl never changed, and with each subsequent Texans home blowout loss — to the 49ers, Packers and Rams — more and more African-American fans boycotted the team until attendance had fallen to 10,000 and the Texans were on the verge of bankruptcy. Before national television contracts changed the economics of the game, NFL teams relied solely on ticket sales for revenue. But in Dallas, the market was already saturated by college football. And the remaining group of potential Texans supporters were divided, like most everything else in Dallas, along racial lines: white fans wouldn’t support the Texans integrated roster and black fans wouldn’t tolerate the team’s segregated seating.

Preparing to practice a few days before their final home game against Los Angeles, Phelan gathered the team up at midfield. He had their paychecks in his hand. Practice is canceled today, he told them. “Men, I’m not telling you your paychecks aren’t any good,” Phelan said. “But if I were you guys, I’d run to the bank.” The mad dash that ensued may have been the Texans’ most grueling conditioning workout of the season.

Miller requested an operating loan from the NFL and was denied by Bell, who instead suggested the Texans “get out their spurs and go to work.” Bell’s public criticism of the team’s management — which, of course, was based largely on his input — undercut Miller’s chances at securing additional local financing. “Just dig another oil well if (you) need more money,” Redskins owner George Preston Marshall scoffed.

The Texans made one final appeal to the all-powerful Dallas Citizens Council, a kind of only-in-Texas de facto board made up of white Dallas oligarchs who handpicked the town’s mayor and privately controlled the entire region. Miller requested $250,000 to finish the season, a pittance to the wealthy, powerful men in that room. The DCC declined to help and their announced “hands-off” policy regarding the Texans was a clear message. “No question, if the DCC lined up behind the franchise it would have succeeded,” says Phillips. “They let it fail, maybe because they were afraid it might set a precedent. If the businesses in Dallas aren’t integrated, if the neighborhoods aren’t integrated, if the schools aren’t integrated, if SMU isn’t integrated and all of a sudden you have this integrated NFL team, that could achieve a lot of visibility, that would put a crack in the edifice of Jim Crow. And they didn’t want to open that bottle and let that genie escape.”

As a result, on Nov. 14, 1952, just 47 days after the governor had declared “a new era in Texas sports,” the NFL found the Texans “guilty of acts detrimental to the National Football League… the franchise of the Dallas Texans Football Club, Inc., is hereby canceled and forfeited.” That same day, the Dallas Morning News reported, “Dallas’ professional football team disappeared into thin air Thursday afternoon aboard a Detroit-bound airliner.”

A member of the team’s ownership group summed up the Texans’ situation in local vernacular: “It’s time to call in the dogs, piss on the fire and go home.” At the airport, before leaving Texas for good, a prescient Phelan told reporters, “We’re still a football team whether we have a home or not. We hope to knock somebody off before the season is over, but it sure looks like a tough assignment.”

ON THANKSGIVING IN AKRON, Bears coach George Halas took one look at the Texans wandering around the Rubber Bowl stands before the game and decided to give most of his starters the day off. The plan immediately backfired.

Chicago quarterback George Blanda and the rest of the Bears backups opened the game badly out of sync. After three turnovers and two missed field goals, the Bears had provided the Texans with the only thing an underdog really needs: Hope. The Texans players also felt insulted by Halas’ decision to put his JV team on the field. Hadn’t they put up with enough indignities for one season? Especially Taliaferro, the former Bears draft pick, who had idolized Halas his entire life.

There was also new Texans quarterback Frank Tripucka, whom Dallas had acquired two weeks earlier from the Chicago Cardinals. The dashing Notre Dame star had only thrown 41 passes in his first two NFL seasons and was chomping at the bit to show what he could do in the pocket, especially against his former crosstown rivals. “The opportunity to beat the Bears would have still been a big thing to my dad,” said Frank’s son, Kelly, the former NBA All-Star. “He had a presence about him and he could command a huddle. And my father would never have stepped on that field and not given his very best effort. He used to joke that he’d beat the Little Sisters of the Poor if he could.”

With the game off to a slow, sloppy start, in the second quarter the Bears’ 6-foot-1, 210-pound defensive leader Don Kindt went overboard while tackling the Texans’ diminutive back Buddy Young for a safety. After a season of watching their teammates endure the vile indignities of Jim Crow in Dallas, on Thanksgiving the Texans’ dysfunctional football family responded, in force, to the perceived slight aimed at Young and Taliaferro.

Something had changed — what started as a meaningless holiday contest in an empty stadium between an unwanted franchise and a bored Bears team had turned into a street fight. The Bears fumbled the free kick, and four plays later Tripucka had the Texans at the 2, where 210-pound fullback Zollie Toth leapt over a stack of bodies to put Dallas ahead.

In an often slapdash game, with the teams combining for 12 turnovers, Tripucka was crisp and in command, completing 16 of 26 passes for 205 yards. By the end of the third quarter, his performance had singlehandedly won over the small, shivering crowd. With the ball at the Chicago 30 and the Rubber Bowl echoing with chants of “Go! Go!” Tripucka rifled a pass to the goal line and, two plays later, he stretched the ball into the end zone to make it 20-2. Even the few fans still in the stadium began to realize they were witnessing an implausible Texans win.

Halas was realizing it, too. Trailing by 18 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Bears coach sent his starters back onto the field with a clear message: It wasn’t too late to stop payment on those bonus checks he’d handed out four days earlier after they’d beaten Detroit. A suddenly invested Bears team roared back to life. Chicago converted a Dallas fumble and an interception into scores and tacked on a 41-yard TD pass by Blanda, to take a 23-20 lead with just over 2 minutes to play. “But the Texans,” wrote the Chicago Sun Times after the game, “could not be stopped.”

Starting at his own 25, Tripucka calmly picked apart the Bears, completing five passes while marching Dallas down to the Chicago 20. With time running out, Phelan tried to sneak his speedy 6-foot-1 defensive back Tom Keane into his offensive huddle as an extra target for Tripucka because the Bears defense had been double-teaming Young the entire game. Kindt, Chicago’s hard-hitting defensive captain, noticed the substitution and sprinted to the Bears sideline to implore Halas to rotate coverage to Keane. The stubborn old Papa Bear waved off the advice.

On cue, a desperate Tripucka dropped back, planted his cleat in the Rubber Bowl muck and launched a high-arching throw toward the goal line, just short of the end zone. Keane and Kindt sprang into the air. As the players collided, the ball dropped out of the sky and through a tangle of limbs. No one was sure where it ended up. “I swore I took it away from him,” Kindt recalled in 1982.

But before the players plummeted back to earth, Keane managed to wrestle the ball into his possession. Two plays later, as the clock flipped to 34 seconds remaining, Tripucka dove over his center and stretched the tip of the ball into the end zone to make it 27-23 and secure what the Chicago Daily Tribune would call “one of the greatest upsets in National Football League history.”

Halas seemed to sense the historic nature of the debacle long before anyone else. As the Bears were making their way off the field, the incensed coach ran up from behind and began to kick his players in the backside. Hours later, Halas was still not in the holiday spirit. As the Bears headed back home to Chicago on their charter flight, a still-enraged Halas went up and down the aisle of the plane slapping the special Thanksgiving dinner plates out of his players’ laps. Dallas celebrated their Thanksgiving Miracle in true Texans’ style.

“We didn’t go to bed all night after that win,” Tripucka recalled years later.

Or the next night, either.

WELCOMED LIKE ROYALTY in their adopted home base of Hershey, Pennsylvania, headquarters of the world famous chocolate confectionery, the Texans spent the last month of the 1952 season on perhaps the most epic bender the NFL has ever seen. “My God,” Donovan once recalled, breathlessly, “Hershey will never forget the Dallas Texans.”

The team spent most of its time inside The Tavern, a legendary bar on Chocolate Avenue in downtown Hershey featuring a massive green awning and a giant cursive ‘C’ above the front door in honor of owner Vince Cummings. The ringleader in Hershey was none other than the Texans’ bear of a human, Chubby Grigg.

Chubby’s legendary drinking contests in Hershey either resulted in a donnybrook with patrons and teammates — Donovan wrote that a “plastered” Chubby once threw Buddy Young through the jukebox just for trying to play peacemaker — or an even more daunting predicament: how to ship Chubby’s gargantuan, passed-out body back to the team hotel. One night at The Tavern, Chubby lined up 17 grasshopper shots on the bar and then raced teammate Barney Poole to the ninth shot glass in the middle. “I’m not quite sure who beat who but about 10 minutes after the (shots) contest Chubby says, ‘I don’t feel so good,'” Keane, the Texans defender, told the Washington Times in 1990. “Then he just pukes all over the place and goes to sleep.”

Well past closing time and with 3 feet of fresh snow on the ground, Keane opened the front door of the bar and spotted two Flexible Flyer sleds on the porch of a house across the street. It took eight Texans, but somehow they managed to lay Chubby across the sleds and transport him down the street all while singing Jingle Bells. “Four of us on each side carrying the sled with this behemoth stone cold on top of it,” Donovan wrote. “It was like a funeral procession.”

The Texans’ franchise wake would take place the following week in Detroit. In a fitting and final flourish, the Texans were down 34-0 to the Lions with less than 2 minutes to play when Tripucka heaved a 7-yard TD pass to Ray Pelfrey. After the score, Phelan bounced up and down the sideline in Detroit laughing, and yelling to his players, “We got ’em now, boys! We got ’em now! Go for the jugular!”

THE FINAL EVENT in Texans history was the team banquet held at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, “commemorating” a woeful 1-11 season capped by a 41-6 blowout loss to the Lions. It marked the first time African-Americans had ever been served by the Dallas landmark and stands as recognition of the Texans’ singular achievement as an NFL franchise. “Professional football was a force that created some cracks in the Jim Crow system,” says Phillips, the Dallas historian. “You could not deny the achievements of the Texans’ black players and the fact that they were able to work with white players and succeed on the field against a team like the Chicago Bears. You never know how examples like that morph and grow, but that was one little crack in Jim Crow — and the Texans did that.”

Late in 1952, the London Free Press in Ontario, Canada, began reporting that the Texans were moving to Toronto to play in the Canadian Football League. Bell, however, had already approached his next mark, Jersey shore neighbor and businessman Carroll Rosenbloom, about bringing the Texans to Baltimore. Rosenbloom’s initial response? “I ain’t buying that damn bunch of hillbillies,” he said.

He had a point. Half the Texans roster, along with their coach, would never again step foot in the NFL. (It would be eight years until pro football returned to Texas with the founding of the Dallas Cowboys.) But in Baltimore, fans gobbled up 15,000 season tickets in a matter of days and Rosenbloom acquiesced, purchasing the franchise for a pittance ($250,000) and retaining 12 of the Texans players, including Taliaferro, Young, Donovan and Marchetti. Donovan and Marchetti went on to enjoy iconic, Hall of Fame careers in Baltimore. The Texans alumni became the heart and soul of a Colts defensive front that helped Baltimore and Johnny Unitas win back-to-back NFL championships, starting in 1958 with a 23-17 sudden-death win against the Giants, a seminal moment in NFL history that’s known as The Greatest Game Ever Played. All of it, borne out of the total disaster that was the 1952 Dallas Texans.

Early on in Baltimore, when the Colts played in cold-weather games, equipment managers brought out several boxes filled with long, hooded parkas for players to wear on the sidelines. On the back, the classic, heavy jackets featured a large Colts logo, an enduring symbol of one of the early NFL’s most important and influential franchises.

But if you stare hard enough at the parkas in old team photos, underneath the new Colts logo sewn onto the back it’s possible to just make out the faint, faded outline of a single word that serves as the last bit of proof of an essential, but nearly erased, piece of NFL history and Thanksgiving Day lore: “Texans.”


FRANK TRIPUCKA, the hero of the Thanksgiving Miracle, jumped to Canada sight-unseen in 1953 when the Saskatchewan Roughriders doubled his salary. After bouncing around in Canada for the next few years, Tripucka landed back in the U.S. in 1960 as a member of the Denver Broncos coaching staff. But during halftime of an exhibition game that year, Tripucka went in to the locker room, cobbled together a uniform and played the entire second half. He remained Denver’s starting QB for three seasons and in 1986 was inducted into the Broncos Ring of Honor.

GEORGE TALIAFERRO, the Texans’ lone Pro Bowl selection in 1952, played another season-and-a-half in Baltimore and then retired in 1955 after being traded to the Eagles. His wife, Viola, became a district court judge in Indiana and a special adviser to attorney general Janet Reno.

BUDDY YOUNG played three more season in Baltimore and in 1956 was the first Colt to have his number retired. In 1964 he became the first African-American executive to be hired by a sports league. Two decades later, while working as the NFL’s director of player relations, Young died in a car accident.

CHUBBY GRIGG walked into his 20-year-old son’s room on Oct. 31, 1977 in Ore City, a tiny town in northeast Texas, gently folded his child’s arms across his chest and shot him in the temple. After being expelled from high school because of his long hair, Mike Grigg had been using valium and marijuana for three years when Chubby — the very same Texans player who in his early 20s had nearly drunk the town of Hershey dry — decided he had no choice but to kill his son after repeated failed attempts to help Mike get sober and stay out of trouble. After a one-day murder trial and a jury deadlocked 9-3 in favor of acquittal, Chubby pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and received his sentence: five years probation. “I’ll tell you,” Chubby said outside the courtroom, “this old world sure is different than it was.” He died in 1983.

GILES MILLER was a broken man after his brief association with the NFL. Swindled by the NFL and its commissioner, and abandoned by the city of Dallas, Miller had squandered both his social standing and his family fortune. Although the number commonly reported is $300,000, the Miller family believes Giles may have lost closer to $1 million on the Texans, all in less than 10 months. Giles spent the rest of his life trying to get it back. He bought an insurance company, tried movie producing, media, and even politics. It all failed. A life-long smoker, in 1989 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. “He was out of options,” says his son, Ed Miller, “and didn’t have anything left to do, but die.” After his death, family members were going through his belongings at his home in Corpus Christi when they discovered piles upon piles of old sports tickets. Most of them were unsold Dallas Texans tickets.

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