A History of Football at Boardwalk Hall
The Arena Football League will announce on January 22nd that they will place an expansion franchise at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City that will begin play this April. When one thinks of the historic building, the Miss America Pageant may come to mind. However, in its 90-year history, the building has hosted quite its share of football games.
The very first indoor college football game was played in 1930 at what was then known as the Atlantic City Convention Center. A capacity crowd of 13,000 fans witnessed Washington & Jefferson defeat Lafayette College 7-0. Lafayette would not play another indoor game until they visited North Dakota State at the Fargodome 81-years later
There would be 19 more games played throughout the decade that would be a mix of college and semi-pro teams of the area. Temple, Miami (FL), West Virginia State, Pennsylvania Military Academy, and even Seton Hall would make appearances under the 137-foot high barrel vault ceiling. The games were a popular draw, attracting anywhere between 5,000 to 15,000 people per game. The 1938 contest between PMC and Delaware University attracted a massive crowd of 15,000 people.
College football returned in 1961 with the advent of The Boardwalk Bowl, a postseason game from 1961 to 1973. For the first seven years, the games were dubbed the “Little Army-Navy Game” featuring PMC and the King’s Point Merchant Marine Academy. The Marines would win six of the games played during this time. PMC would record a 10-10 record between 1932 and 1970 and according to its website: “the importance of victory in this game installed pride and strengthen the loyalty of everyone involved with the school.”
The 1964 Liberty Bowl relocated from Philadelphia after five years due to dwindling attendance figures and frigid weather. A group of businessman offered $25,000 to move the game indoors to the convention center in what was hoped to be an annual event and a way to lure tourism dollars in between the summer months.
It was the first indoor postseason bowl game and the first to feature two major national football powers. The Liberty Bowl was one of nine bowl games that season and televised nationally on ABC. Utah trounced West Virginia 32-6, led by star receiver Roy Jefferson who went on to become a three-time pro bowler during his 12 years in the NFL.
The game was played in front of 6,059 fans in the 10,500-seat arena–compared to 8,309 that watched the game the season before at the 102,000 mammoth Philadelphia Municipal Stadium. The price for a ticket was $10, considered quite high in 1964 and $81 in today’s dollars. In the end, the game did turn in an impressive $10,000 profit and it went off smoothly. The Liberty Bowl would relocate to Memphis, Tennessee, the following season where it has been played since.
To many, the indoor bowl game was a fascinating curiosity–remember this was a year before the Houston Cougars played the first indoor game at the Astrodome in Houston. Much was made about the fans being able to watch the game in 60-degree comfort while the outside temperature was a chilly 39 degrees. A video highlight reel a few scenes from the event. The New York Times explained further of indoor games in late December.
“Considering that professional football championship games have been held in freezing weather in recent years, that the Liberty Bowl has been an ice‐bowl game and that some late‐season Northern football is an uncomfortable experience at best, this game was a comfort to all—the fans on hand and the living‐room TV fans.”
Minor league football was popular in many cities during the era and the various leagues of the day found their way to play in Atlantic City. The inaugural Atlantic Coast Football League championship game was a double overtime thriller. The Patterson Miners defeated the Providence Steam Roller 17-14 on a 33-yard field goal that ended 88-minutes of play in what was described as “one for the record books” by the New London Evening Day.
In 1968 the Boardwalk Bowl continued as the East regional championship for the College Division with Delaware University would facing off against Indiana University of Pennsylvania. It is a game that is still talked about 50 years later by many IUP supporters who regard the team as one of the best the school has ever produced.
Delaware was the far the superior program heading into the game and some from the local Wilmington (DE) media thought it was “more embarrassing that prestigious” playing the tiny school from Pennsylvania. However, IUP held a 24-23 lead with only 60 seconds left in the game that was quelled by a Blue Hens scoring drive in the final seconds of the game and 31-24 victory in front of 9,849 fans.
“It’s held in such high esteem,” safety, Barry Ruffner told the Indiana Gazette. “There were IUP teams that almost won Division II Championships, but people always say, “Yeah, but were they as good as the Boardwalk Bowl team?”
That 1968 team even has its own Facebook page dedicated to the miracle season where they placed 5th in the country and got their first taste of national fame. Delaware would play a total of five Boardwalk Bowl games resulting in a 4-1 record, averaging crowds of 9,337. The one year they did not play in 1972, attendance dipped to a little over 2,000.
“It’s the number one memory I have in athletics, being associated with that team and that game,” Jack Henry, a guard on that PIU team told the Indiana Gazette. Henry would go on to a 14-year career as a head coach in the NFL.
The Knute Rockne Bowl was played from 1970-1972 and would crown the Division III Eastern Championship. The Thanksgiving Bowl was played for one year in 1973. There were also annual high school games played at the convention hall including 1974 championship games. However, it would be another decade until football would return to the boardwalk with a 35-6 Temple win against Toledo in front of 5,586 people.
There was the task of getting the facility ready for football. A layer of burlap was put down to keep the sod and grass together and artificial lighting was installed to help keep the grass growing. The field was close to a regular football field, but there were some oddities, including both end zones being shortened by two-yards, one because of the permanent Miss America stage, and temporary bleachers set on the stage that towered over the endzone. There were also a few dead spots in the field where the grass would kick up after a play.
It would take another 20-years before a football game would return to the building. The Atlantic City CardSharks of the National Indoor Football League would post a 9-5 record and an undefeated home record. The Arena Football League would make its debut in 2015 with a Philadelphia Soul home game against the Las Vegas Outlaws. Another game against the Los Angeles KISS was scheduled to be played the next season but was relocated to Trenton.
Boardwalk Hall celebrates its 90th year and has seen its share of other sports and entertainment besides football. It has hosted minor league hockey, NBA basketball, the first indoor soccer game, the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and concert performances from The Beatles to Lady Gaga. The AFL hopes that its future expansion team will set the stage for future sports and entertainment on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
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