The Late Ken Strong, an NFL Pioneer With N.Y., Is Gone but Not Forgotten

Times Staff Writer

Ken Strong was 12 years old. The prospect of riding with his mother on a train from New York to Washington, D.C., to watch the Giants play the Redskins was exhilarating.

After all, Strong's father, Ken, was a running back and place-kicker for the Giants and was bound for the National Football League Hall of Fame.

But young Ken was suffering from a cold and, no matter how hard he tried to convince her that he was OK, his mother, Mable, wasn't about to budge. The trip was off. To pacify him, his mother bought him a chemistry set.

Meanwhile, his father, who had left for Washington two days earlier, was trying to convince Giant Coach Steve Owen to let him run the football. In 1943, Strong was used mostly as a kicker, his running days behind him. But before he had left New York, his son had asked, "Gee, dad, why don't you run the ball anymore?"

He pressed the matter and Owen agreed on one condition: If the Giants gained a substantial lead, he would put Strong in to run the ball. The Giants went ahead, 31-0, in the fourth quarter and Strong, No. 50, went in to play halfback thinking his son was in the stands watching.

Strong gained a couple of yards on a couple of plays. On the third play, a defensive back leveled him. As he sat shaken on the ground, Strong yelled to Owen, "Hey, let's kick a field goal."

"Hell, no," Owen replied. "You wanted to run the ball. . . . run the damned ball!"

The Giants didn't score but eventually won, 31-7.

"My dad cried when he found out I wasn't there," said Strong, 54, on Friday from his Canoga Park home.

Strong moved to California from New York in 1959. But he won't be at home today watching the Super Bowl on television. He'll be in Pasadena watching the game live, courtesy of tickets given to him by the Mara family, longtime owners of the New York Giants.

"I have stayed in reasonably close contact with the Giants," Strong said. "I talked to the Maras and they said the Giants need all the help they can get rooting when they're on the West Coast. They made some tickets available."

That's an understatement. Tickets have sold for as much as $1,500. It might be better to say that Mara blessed Strong with tickets to today's Super Bowl XXI between the Giants and the Denver Broncos.

Because his father performed so well for the Giants, the New York club has seen to taking care of Strong's family, though the NFL hasn't.

Not only have the Giants given him the most sought-after tickets in the free world, but Strong's son, Ken III, received the first Timothy Mara award. The award is a scholarship for sons and daughters of Giant players. Ken III was a grandson and the first to receive the award.

But Ken Strong was one of the "pre-59ers," as they are called, players who retired before 1959 and are excluded from NFL benefits.

His wife, Mable, 74, who still lives in the same Bayside, L.I., home that young Ken grew up in, didn't receive a dime from the NFL after her husband's death in 1979. Many former players, members of the NFL Alumni Assn., continue to lobby the NFL for pensions for men whom Strong called the "pioneers."

"The guys who made the most bucks got the most benefits," Strong said. "My father and those guys were the pioneers of the game, the ones that made it what it is. They built the league. . . . and they didn't get a thing.

"My father wasn't in as bad a shape as most of the guys. He tried to help some of them out. It's kind of weird. But my dad never asked them for anything. He said, 'I was glad just to have a chance to play in the NFL.' "

Time has passed since Ken Strong was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1967--"I was there with my son and it was quite a memorable experience," his son said.

Young Ken, now a sales manager at an El Segundo computer company, remembers the football days well. He's reminded of them every time he gets in his car--a 1948 Buick Roadmaster convertible, a replica of a car his father was given by Giant fans on Ken Strong Day at the Polo Grounds.

"I thought enough of my father to have a car just like it," Strong said. "I learned to drive in the same car, so it is very special."

Strong, it seems, has lived a sports fan's dream life.

His father was party to one of the most famous games in football history--the Sneaker Game. Date: Dec. 9, 1934. Place: the Polo Grounds, New York. Temperature: nine degrees. Game: world championship.

"The Giants were losing, 13-3, at halftime," Strong recalled. "My dad had kicked a 38-yard field goal in the first quarter to give the Giants their only points of the half. The Bears had filed their cleats down so they wouldn't get stuck in the ice."

The field was covered with a blanket of ice. A Giants assistant coach drove to Manhattan College and broke into the gym and took 12 pairs of the biggest sneakers worn by the college's basketball players.

"The starters all got a pair," Strong said. The sneakers worked as the Giants went on to score 27 unanswered points and win easily, 30-13.

Strong's father scored two touchdowns, on runs of 42 and 18 yards. He kicked three extra points and two field goals.

In 12 seasons, Strong scored 35 touchdowns, kicked 139 extra points and 39 field goals. In 1944, he led professional football with six field goals. He began his career in 1929 with the Staten Island Stapletons after leading the country in rushing at New York University in 1929. In 1933, he went to the Giants. He retired after three seasons, but returned in 1939, retired again, and came back to kick from 1944 to 1947.

"Leading the league with six field goals is unheard of today," his son said. "But then, there was no such thing as a kicking specialist. My dad, I guess, was the first."

When Pat Summerall retired after the 1958 season, the Giants hired Strong to coach kickers. Strong coached Don Chandler before Giant assistant Vince Lombardi became head coach at Green Bay and traded for Chandler.

"Then the Giants brought in a guy named Pete Gogolak, a soccer- style kicker from the AFL," young Ken said. "My father looked at him and said, 'What am I going to do with this guy?' "

Nothing. Strong retired.

But, in Canoga Park, the legend lives on. The 1952 National Football League Encyclopedia described Strong as a player "who did everything: ran, plunged, passed, punted, kicked field goals, scored extra points and starred on defense. He did them all about as well as they can be done. . . ."

Strong left behind a son and a grandson who will be alive and well in the Rose Bowl wearing Giants jerseys today with the numeral 50 and "STRONG" emblazoned across the back and rooting for the New York team. "It's very special to us," young Ken said. "We wouldn't want to miss it."

"If they win, it'll be their first title since 1956," said Strong, who watched that 47-7 win over the Bears at Yankee Stadium. "That's a long time for even their most loyal fans."

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