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1976 College All-Star Classic

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It can be argued that Chicago’s most notable contribution to the anarchy of Sports in the 1970’s was Disco Demolition Night, the alcohol-fueled riot that consumed Comiskey Park and resulted in forfeiture of a major league baseball game.  But it cannot be denied that a more spectacular and fateful incident happened in the 1976 College All Star football game.  It not only forced the game to finish early, but brought a permanent end to a 43-year sports tradition.

The annual match up paired the country’s best college football players from the previous season against the NFL’s defending champions.  What appeared to be a monstrous mismatch yielded competitive games that brought gigantic crowds to Chicago’s Soldier Field.  The champs arrived fresh from training camps, decked out in their familiar uniforms.  The challengers wore outfits that seemed to be sketched from a comic book.  But whatever the collegians lacked in sartorial splendor, they made up for in youthful enthusiasm.  The professionals failed to win four of the first five games, and the College All-Stars actually led the series win total in 1939.  Famous figures taking part included Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, and a Michigan lineman later destined to be President of the United States, Gerald Ford.

But by the time the NFL entered the Super Bowl era, excitement for the game among coaches and players had waned.  No player wanted his season delayed – or career ended – by an injury in a full-contact pro football exhibition.  However, fans wanted more.  Attendance frequently exceeded that of the Super Bowl itself, with proceeds going to Chicago-area charities.  The 1976 game, featuring the back-to-back league champion Pittsburgh Steelers, rolled through the 3rd quarter with the NFL squad leading 24-0, when torrential rainfall slowed the action to a crawl.  The weather worsened dramatically until ABC’s television cameras were unable to identify players on the field.  What the cameras did see were spectators who suddenly appeared alongside the participants.  And then it got worse.

Thousands of fans invaded the artificial turf during a melee Chicago law enforcers were helpless to control.  Fights broke out between spectators, and within minutes they had ripped down both goal posts as players retreated to their locker rooms.  Officials consulted with league boss Pete Rozelle to cancel the match. Rozelle blamed police for failing to protect the players and coaches, and Chicago’s All-Star Classic was never scheduled again.

Three years later, the Windy City returned to the national sports spotlight, courtesy of an ill-conceived baseball promotion, an angry South Side audience, and a stack of unloved vinyl recordings.

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