ATHENS, Ga. — With the Arizona Cardinals preparing for the Super Bowl, 86-year-old Charley Trippi is as giddy as a 21-year-old rookie, practically bouncing down the steps to his basement.
The star of the 1947 Chicago Cardinals “Dream Backfield” has the room dressed in Cardinals red and white, Georgia red and black and decorated throughout with memorabilia of his Hall of Fame career.
But Trippi’s focus this week is squarely on Sunday’s game.
He has waited six decades for his beloved Cardinals to play for their first NFL championship since his 1947 rookie season.
Never miss a local story.
“Well, I never lost hope,” he says, “but I was a little apprehensive there for a long time.”
Through his nine-year career as a Cardinals player, five years as an assistant coach and lifetime as a long-suffering fan, Trippi said he remained loyal.
“I spent 14 years with them, he said. “I have to be loyal to them. To me, that was like being at home with the Cardinals, and I’ve always had a good relationship with them.”
He said he would have seized the chance to see the Super Bowl in person, but no ticket or invitation surfaced.
Trippi plans to watch the game at home with a few friends. He’s not complaining. Trippi, the Heisman runner-up to Glenn Davis during his career at Georgia, says he usually watches Bulldogs games on TV instead of making use of his box at Sanford Stadium only a few miles away.
He certainly is able to travel; he attended an autograph show in Dallas and is scheduled for a Feb. 20 appearance in Phoenix with Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner.
As for who will win Sunday, Trippi says when he closes his eyes he visualizes the underdog Arizona Cardinals beating the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He says the key to Arizona’s success will be the Cardinals’ ability to keep Pittsburgh’s pass rushers away from Warner.
“My thinking is if Kurt Warner gets adequate protection on his passing game, he will have an excellent chance of winning the game,” he said.
“He’s been there before. He has a pretty good feel for the game. If he sticks to his high-percentage passing game, it will be a great asset for them, rather than try to get wild with throwing 50-yard passes. I like him. He plays a nice controlled type game.”
In Trippi’s dream, Warner wouldn’t shoulder the load; Trippi wears his No. 62 and helps the Cardinals win.
“Oh, I score when I dream,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it. I score! It’s amazing the way you feel when you’re dreaming all the time. Man, you’re a great football player when you dream.”
The dreams are filled with more than just fiction. He says his dreams also include replays of his career highlights, including his starring role in the 1947 championship game.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Trippi scored on a 44-yard run and a 75-yard punt return in the Cardinals’ 28-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on a frozen Comiskey Park field in Chicago.
“He was a fresh rookie, but we all gathered around him because of his talents,” said Vince Banonis, who was a lineman on the team, in a telephone interview Wednesday from his home in Southfield, Mich.
“Charley came in and he was the backbone of our team.”
Trippi was a do-it-all running back, quarterback, safety, punter and return specialist, and he so excelled at every position that Jim Thorpe once proclaimed him to be the greatest player he had seen.
He signed a then-unprecedented four-year, $100,000 contract in 1947 to become the last addition to Chicago’s “Million Dollar Backfield,” also known as the “Dream Backfield.” The others were quarterback Paul Christman, halfback Elmer Angsman and fullback Pat Harder. Of that group, only Trippi lived to see the Cardinals’ return to glory.
Trippi’s hair is no longer dark, thick and wavy as in the photos, posters and full-size cutout of him in uniform on his basement walls. Now the hair is thin and gray and he wears hearing aids, but he moves well for a man who played in the era of leather helmets.
He swings golf clubs, not a cane, travels across the country for autograph shows and continues to keep his hand in his real estate ventures.
“I have the same foursome I’ve been playing with for years,” he said. “We have a lot of fun. I think you should never stop competing, I don’t care what it is, golf or real estate or whatever it might be.
“You want to be on top.”
Trippi says success in the NFL came quickly for him, perhaps too quickly.
Chicago returned to the 1948 championship game, this time losing to the Eagles 7-0. Two years and two championship game appearances left the young Trippi a little cocky about life in the NFL.
“I thought it was going to be easy from there on,” he said. “We got there the next year and I said ‘Boy, this is great. What’s in store for the future?’”
Trippi’s answer: A long, long wait. The Cardinals moved from Chicago to St. Louis to Arizona and have played 61 seasons without adding another title to their 1947 championship.
Now more than anything, he wants to see his Cardinals finish on top.
There’s space on the walls for a new Super Bowl championship tribute, and the possibility has him enthralled.
Trippi said he last saw the other surviving members of the 1947 championship team at a 50-year anniversary in 1997 in Chicago. A highlight of the reunion came when players finally were presented with their championship rings. He says that ring, along with the ring he was given at his 1968 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, are among his most cherished mementos.
He’s more than ready for a new favorite memory: an Arizona Cardinals Super Bowl championship.
“It would be the greatest thing that ever happened,” Trippi said.