The Empire Football League
The Empire Football League

by Steven M. Brainerd

Overtime didn't just come about to help end the 1958 NFL championship game Minor league football first used it long before the NFL even thought it was necessary.

The 1937 American Association championship game matched the Newark Tornadoes against the White Plains Bears.  The game ended in a 3-3 tie.  Newark suggested an extra period to end the game.

The commissioner thought it was a good idea, the Tornadoes wanted to finish the game, but the Bears felt that half a loaf was better than none.  Overtime would have to wait.

1940 was an important year for overtime.  It was finally used by Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.  The league used a Shaughnessy playoff.  That's where the first four teams engage in a playoff for the league championship.  The EPFC had a problem:  two teams were tied for fourth place and there had to be a winner.   One of fourth place teams:  the Philadelphia Seymour Athletic Association or the Chester Pros was going to get to play the Conshohocken Boilermakers.  The game was played in Philadelphia before 800 frozen fans in a blizzard.  At the end of the game, there was no score and someone had to win.

So for the very first time, a football game went to overtime to decide the contest.  At the end of the fifth period, there was still no score, so the teams played on.  The sixth quarter came to an end with the score still knotted at nil.  Due to the inclement weather, the contest was ended at this time.  As there still was no score, the game was decided by first downs, with Chester winning 15 to 8 and advancing to play the Boilermakers. It would be nice to tell you that the Pros won the league title, but Conshohocken beat them on Sunday 3-0.

The same season, the American Association had the same problem and decided to resolve it the same way; with an extra playoff game. The game was played in the same blizzard that hit Philadelphia with the same result.  No score after four quarters.  Again the AFA chose not to use an overtime period to finish matters.  The league used a best-of-five coin flip to advance Newark into the regular playoffs.  Did the commissioner use a quarter to decide who advanced?

The 1945 NFL championship game ended with Cleveland defeating Washington, 15-14.  However, but for a rule no longer used and a bad PAT by the usually reliable Bob Waterfield, the NFL would have a tied championship game and no way to untie it.  The game turned on an incomplete Sammy Baugh pass from the end zone that bounced off of the goal post.  In 1945 that was a safety (for that season only) and provided Cleveland with its winning edge.  In the winter meetings that followed, the league changed the rules to provide for overtime.

The 1948 Empire League adopted overtime rules to finish not just playoff games, but regular season games also.  A five minute extra period was to be added in case of a tie. On September 26th, the Waverly Valley All-Stars and the Syracuse Bison’s game ended in a 13-13 tie.  So the league’s new overtime rule came into play.   Neither team scored, but Syracuse won the game on first downs.  Two weeks later the league had its second OT game when the Rochester Red Raiders and the Geneva Gliders game ended in a zero-zero tie and they went to overtime. 

Rochester got a touchdown to win the game and for the first time in football history, a game was decided on the field, by a score and in over-time.  It would be sixteen years before another league would use regular season overtime.

The 1953 Western New York League used overtime in its Shaughnessy playoffs.  The Buffalo Bills and the Niagara Falls Merchants semifinal game ended in a tie.  Overtime continued from where Niagara Falls had the ball on the Buffalo 41.  They did not score, but neither team did in the first overtime period.  The second overtime saw Buffalo punch in a touchdown to win the game after 26 minutes of extra play.

This "win" was turned into a nongame after the Merchants protested that the officials did not follow the rules for OT.  Instead of continuing the game from end of regulation, there should have been a coin toss, kickoff, etc.  The league upheld the protest and the game was replayed November 22 in Niagara Falls.  The end of the fourth quarter saw the same result as the first game, a 13 all tie. The fifth period saw no scoring.  Fourteen minutes into period two, John Jank smashed over from the one to give Buffalo the win.

In 1956 the Bills went to double overtime to beat the Medina Bulldogs in a playoff game.  Oddly enough, after using games to decide playoff spots, the Western New York Conference went to coin flips in 1960 to decide playoff positions.

The United League adopted overtime for its 1963 season, using the same rules that the NFL would start using in 1974.  The UFL would have only two extra period games in its last two years of existence.

The newest wrinkle in overtime is the Kansas tiebreaker.  You get the ball on the other team’s 25 and four plays to get a first down or a score.  When your turn is done the other team gets the ball on your 25. Each team gets the same number of turns with the ball until someone fails to score.

The Eastern League changed from overtime to tiebreakers in 1977 This was after a quadruple overtime game (longest in minor league football) with the Providence Kings beating the Marlboro Shamrocks 12-6.  The first year of tiebreak, in the playoffs, the Plymouth Rocks and the Hyde Park Cowboys used five periods to decide the game with Plymouth rolling to a 20-19 win.  The Rocks won their quarter final playoff, in overtime, beating the Shamrocks, 13-7.  The Rocks then finished a playoff trifecta by beating Middleboro's Cobras 27-13, but not in overtime.

Starting in 1997, the Cobras and Hyde Park Cowboys started a series of overtime games unprecedented in football.  The final game of the season ended in a 15-all tie including the overtime.  The following year the two clubs meet in the playoffs with the Cowboys winning 32-26 in a tiebreaker.  In 1999 the two teams went to overtime three times. Middleboro won twice including a playoff victory over the Cowboys.

The Empire League has used overtime since 1977 with the Watertown Red and Black being involved in nine, winning three, losing five and one tie.  No other team has been involved in more.  Another Empire team, the Hudson Vikings, have the second most with eight.

Overtime is now very common in the minors.  The Frederick Falcons went to overtime in four 1986 games, going three and one.  Their three wins helped propel them to a Continental Interstate League Championship.  The 1994 Lockport Invaders also played four overtime games, but won only two, losing and tying one.

Of all the overtime games ever played, possibly the best was the 1969 Continental League title game between the San Antonio Toro’s and the Indianapolis Capitols, won by the Caps 44-38.  PRO FOOTBALL WEEKLY said "the teams traded miracles like two sorcerers flexing their muscles at each other." "The Toro’s, down 38-28 with 30 seconds left, pulled 10 points out of thin air."  They scored a touchdown and after recovering the on side kick, a 38-yard Jerry Moritz field goal sent the game into OT.

"The Toro’s then fought their way into field goal range and lined up for a 25 yarder nine minutes into the overtime.  The Caps were on the gallows with the noose around their necks.  But when the Toro’s pulled the lever, the trap door refused to drop.  The kick slid off to the right."

"Little more than five minutes later, at 14:51, John Nice blew through a hole bigger than Mammoth Cave and chugged 13 yards into the end zone to give the Caps the title."

Games like this don't come along very often and are hard to top.

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