Gary Knafelc’s Opening Day Touchdown in 1955 Makes Fans Get Carried Away
There wasn’t a lot for Green Bay Packers fans to cheer about in the sparse and sorry 1950s. Until a new head coach by the name of Vince Lombardi came onboard for the 1959 season, the club had an appalling 32-73-2 record in the decade to that point (1950-58).
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the division rival Detroit Lions were enjoying a glorious early part of the decade. The team won the NFL Championship two years in a row (1952-53) and lost to the Cleveland Browns in the title game of 1954.
Those stellar Lions teams were led by quarterback Bobby Layne and running back Doak Walker. They met an underachieving Packers team on opening day of the 1955 season.
Green Bay tight end, Gary Knafelc, not only had the telegenic good looks of a movie star, but he showed a flair for the Hollywood dramatic finish on that celebratory opening day that would create an indelible moment in Packers history.
Unlike college football, pro teams rarely, if ever, allow fans access to the field. Where famous college games would climax with fans pouring onto the field to congratulate players and even dismantle the field-goal uprights in celebration, professionals had little of that pomp and circumstance.
In Green Bay history, the act has been seen about as often as a Bigfoot sighting. During a team’s lean times, its the little moments that matter. Gary Knafelc provided a big moment in 1955 that meant a lot.
The Packers were playing their first home game of the season against the Lions in ‘old’ City Stadium. According to the book, Green Bay Packers: The Complete Illustrated History, when old City Stadium opened in 1925, it was the envy of the league. By 1955, it was a laughingstock. Its wooden bleachers and inadequate toilet and locker room facilities were only part of the problem. It was also small, which emphasized the fact the Packers were a small-town team.
The opening of Milwaukee County Stadium only exacerbated Green Bay’s problems with City Stadium. Now, the Packers were playing two or three of their six home games in a legitimate major-league facility. Opposing teams preferred playing in Milwaukee; the stadium was better, the trip was easier and the city was a fun place to visit. The league started taking notice of the disparity between the two Packers’ venues. The question became clear to NFL leadership – why was this team still located in Green Bay?
According to the book, the NFL and its owners approached the team in 1955 with an ultimatum: Build a new stadium or the league would force the franchise to relocate to Milwaukee. For the executive committee dominated by Green Bay businessmen, moving the franchise was not an option. They also realized the team did not have the funds to build a new stadium. That meant the Packers would once again have to ask the people of Green Bay to empty their pockets to help the team. And considering the Packers’ performance in recent years, this was not the best time to ask the city to bail out what had become a truly mediocre team.
To make matters worse, the Packers were coming off a four-win season in 1954. Times were lean and the team was looking for something – or someone – to pick them up and re-build the formidable Green Bay Packers’ reputation as winners.
In that first game of 1955, Gary Knafelc came to the rescue.
A flanker for five years before becoming a tight end, Knafelc was ready for something special on that afternoon.
The Lions led 17-13 late in the fourth quarter, but the Packers were driving deep into Detroit territory.
Because the Lions were covering Packers’ wide receiver Bill Howton tightly, Knafelc approached quarterback Tobin Rote during the game’s waning moments. He said he could deceive the defense. “As far as I’m concerned everyone in the stadium thinks it’s going to Bill Howton,” Knafelc said. “I know I can beat them on a short post.”
The subsequent pass was thrown high and hard. To this day, Knafelc thinks Rote threw it that way so they would have one more play if he failed to convert. Yet Knafelc caught the ball and scampered into the end zone. The 18-yard touchdown pass won the game for Green Bay, 20-17.
Joyous fans at the old City Stadium poured out of the stands. The throng picked up Knafelc and carried him off the field. Officials had to sweep the fans off the field to let the Packers attempt the extra point.
Of the two principle stadiums in Green Bay that the Packers have called home in their storied history – old City Stadium and new City Stadium (now Lambeau Field) — Knafelc is one of maybe only two players to ever be carried off the turf by rabid Packers fans in exalted celebration. In 1977, Dave Roller was carried off the field after Green Bay edged Detroit 10-9, which, itself, is a story for another edition.
But, in 1955, for at least one week, the Packers were back on track with a 1-0 record to start the season and the promise of better things to come. The team would sputter and finish 6-6 under coach Lisle Blackbourn that year.
Still, loyal Packers faithfully remember that scene to this day.
Two years later, on September 29, 1957, Green Bay opened the ‘new’ City Stadium, which would be re-named Lambeau Filed in 1965. Yet precious few Green Bay players would ever experience the thrill and exultation of being ceremoniously carried off the field as Knafelc did that day.
Knafelc stayed with the Packers through the 1962 season and retired after one more year with the San Francisco 49ers in 1963. He finished with 2,162 yards receiving.
Knafelc returned to Green Bay to become the Packers’ public address announcer at Lambeau from 1964 until 2004.
Scott Schalin was the executive editor of the Packers Hall of Fame website and is currently writing a book with NFL on FOX insider Jay Glazer.