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Then Ditka Said to Payton
The Best Chicago Bears Stories Ever Told
By Dan Jiggetts, Fred Mitchell
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Dan Jiggetts and Fred Mitchell
All rights reserved.
The Start of Something Big
It's been more than 85 years since the embryonic stages of Chicago Bears development, but the history lessons here deserve the devoted attention of every serious sports fan. So pull up a chair next to the fireplace and let us take you back to a time in the NFL when the forward pass, salary cap issues, and television timeouts were a mere twinkle in the eyes of the league's founding fathers.
The Birth of the Bears
The Bears, as we know them today, were conceived as the Decatur Staleys in 1920. A man named A.E. Staley, who owned the Staley Starch Works company in Decatur, Illinois — about 200 miles southwest of Chicago — hired George Halas as recreational director to coach a football team. Dutch Sternaman helped coach that team.
In 1919, the company had fielded a club football team. Halas, a would-be starch maker during the day, was hired to reorganize the Staleys football team as well as establish baseball and basketball teams. A man named George Chamberlain made the phone call to Halas on behalf of the Staley Starch Company. Chamberlain, who was aware of Halas's numerous accomplishments, wondered whether he would be interested in taking a job with his company.
To this point in his life, Halas had already played college football at Illinois, participated in the military in World War I, and played for the Great Lakes Naval team that won the 1919 Rose Bowl, where he was named the game's MVP. Not too shabby.
Indeed, Halas accepted the offer from Chamberlain and made his way down to central Illinois.
According to league records, the Staleys opened their 1920 season with a 7–0 victory over the Rock Island Independents, followed by another shutout, 10–0, over the Chicago Tigers. Their third game, also against the Rock Island Independents, wound up in a scoreless tie. The Staleys routed the Hammond Pros 28–7 and beat the Chicago Tigers again 6–0 before suffering their only loss of the season, 7–6, to the Chicago Cardinals. They rebounded by exacting revenge against the Cardinals with a 10–0 triumph the following week. Their season concluded with a scoreless tie against the Akron Pros. Among the key players on that Staleys roster were Sternaman, Hugh Blacklock, George Trafton, and Guy Chamberlain.
At the conclusion of that inaugural season, Halas then traveled to Canton, Ohio, for a historic meeting with other professional team owners. From that rather casual meeting was born the American Professional Football Association, which would later be renamed the National Football League. There were no ESPN cameras or NFL Network filmmakers in attendance at this meeting — just several earnest men who relied on the integrity of a handshake. And a small amount of cash, of course. Each organization had to come up with $100 to join the league.
As the fledgling team struggled financially in Decatur, Staley eventually gave Halas $5,000 and advised him to move the club to Chicago. The name Staleys had to be retained for at least one year; that was the only caveat. With the team uniforms and seed money in hand, Halas also agreed to provide free advertising in game programs for Staley Starch Works.
The next question: where would the Staleys play in Chicago?
Halas arranged to lease Wrigley Field from Bill Veeck Sr., then-owner of the Chicago Cubs. Since Halas was a former baseball player himself, and a huge Cubs fan, the name Bears seemed natural. (Cubs ... Bears, get it?) So the team changed its name to the Bears in 1922.
The start of one of the most intense rivalries in all of sports began in 1921. That's when the Green Bay Packers joined the AFPA, while the Chicago Staleys finished with a record of 9–1–1 and were named league champions. It is not clear whether the Packers were referred to as the Cheeseheads back then, but the football border war was off to quite a start.
In 1922, Halas acquired Hall of Fame tackle Ed Healy from the Rock Island Independents. The team would never be the same.
Red Grange, the NFL's First Star
As you might imagine, the NFL was struggling financially in those early days. With no television and little publicity, the league really needed a boost. That's when Halas figured he needed to snare the biggest name in college football — Harold "Red" Grange. A native of Wheaton, Illinois, "the Galloping Ghost" was breaking all of the college records at the University of Illinois. Halas signed Grange just as soon as his Illini eligibility was completed. The crowds started to follow the biggest name in college football, and pro football was beginning to take center stage.
The first attempt to draw more fans with Grange as the gate attraction was on Thanksgiving Day, 1925. Just 10 days after Grange's last college game, 36,600 fans packed Wrigley Field to see Grange's pro debut against the Chicago Cardinals. Just 10 days later, more than 70,000 crammed into New York's Polo Grounds to see Grange and the Bears take on the New York Giants.
The idea of bringing Grange into the pro football fold was paying dividends to everyone involved. Grange's agent, C.C. "Cash and Carry" Pyle, wasn't about to miss out on this chance to cash in big time. To that end, Pyle, Halas, and Sternaman lined up an exhausting 17-game barnstorming tour of the country, attracting thousands of new fans for pro football.
The barnstorming tour took them across the country, from New England to Florida, then to the Pacific Northwest. The Bears played 17 games in 45 days, and Grange and his agent pocketed more than $100,000 from the tour.
But when Pyle and the Bears couldn't agree on contract terms (sound familiar?) for the 1926 season, Pyle formed the rival American Football League with a team in New York called the Yankees. His new team would feature Grange.
In the short term, the Yankees had moderate success, but the rest of the league failed. Pyle was allowed to move his Yankees team into the NFL in 1927, but Grange suffered a devastating knee injury during a game against the Bears, of all opponents.
"I didn't play at all in 1928," Grange was quoted as saying following his storied football career. "I was just an ordinary ball-carrier after that. I did develop into a pretty good defensive back, however."
Always in need of exceptional player talent, Halas invited Grange back to the Bears in 1929, and he remained with Chicago through the 1934 season. In fact, Grange showed off his defensive prowess in the 1933 NFL Championship Game. He made a clutch touchdown-saving tackle in the final seconds.
With no surprise to anyone who had followed the game back then, Grange became a charter inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. Grange died January 28, 1991, at the age of 87.
George Halas, Ageless Wonder
During his career, George Halas retired three times, first in 1929, then again in 1942 (because of World War II), and once again in 1955. But each time he kept coming back to coach.
An example of Halas's great sense of timing — or was it simply fate? — was the 1915 capsizing of the Eastland passenger ship. He had worked temporarily for Western Electric and was planning on being on that particular Eastland voyage. Halas was running late, however, and missed the capsizing that sadly took the lives of 841 passengers and four crew members.
The city of Chicago held a strong significance for Halas, who graduated from Crane Tech High School. He played football for head coach Bob Zuppke at Illinois, as well as baseball and basketball. He earned a degree in civil engineering while helping Illinois win the 1918 Big Ten football title.
During World War I, Halas served as an ensign in the navy, and he played for a team at that Great Lakes Naval Training Station that won the 1919 Rose Bowl. The team included future Pro Football Hall of Famers Paddy Driscoll, who once drop-kicked a 50-yard field goal, and Jimmy Conzelman. Halas scored two touchdowns and returned an intercepted pass 77 yards in that 17–0 Rose Bowl victory. Players on that 1919 team were also rewarded with their military discharges.
Not fulfilled by the success of his amateur football career, Halas played minor league and semipro baseball. He was even promoted to the major league New York Yankees, where he played 12 games as an outfielder in 1919. But a hip injury ended his baseball career.
Conzelman was also a key figure in the early development in what would become the National Football League. He had been a halfback at tiny Washington University in St. Louis before he became a teammate of Halas's on that Great Lakes navy team. Halas then recruited Conzelman to play for his Decatur Staleys.
After one season with the Staleys, Conzelman moved on to the Rock Island Independents and began his career as a player/coach. He stayed with the Independents through seven games of the 1922 season before jumping to the Milwaukee Badgers for the remainder of that season and all of the 1923 and the 1924 seasons.
In 1925, Conzelman was offered an opportunity to become an NFL owner for a franchise in Detroit. The cost? One hundred dollars. My, how times have changed. He took the deal. Conzelman's team performed well on the field (8–2–2 in 1925) but received little fan support from Detroit fans.
Because of the poor cash flow, Conzelman eventually returned the franchise to the league and in 1927 joined the Providence Steam Roller as player/coach. He suffered a knee injury in 1928 while playing quarterback, ending his playing days, but he managed to coach the team to an 8–1–2 record and the NFL title.
In 1940, Conzelman returned to the NFL with the Chicago Cardinals during the war years. Then he went to work in Major League Baseball briefly. In 1946, Conzelman returned to the Cardinals and they won the NFL title a year later. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1964.
The Bears finished with a losing record (4–9–2) in 1929 for the first time in their history. Following that season, Halas and Sternaman hired former Illinois assistant Ralph Jones to become their new head coach. At that time Jones made a promise to Halas that he intended to keep — he said he would return the Bears to the championship in three years.
It didn't take him that long. Jones delivered by guiding the Bears to another world title in 1932. Halas again became head coach of the team in 1933, and the Bears won yet another title.
The first NFL draft was held in 1936, but it was the 1939 NFL Draft that proved particularly fruitful for the Bears. Halas selected future stars in Sid Luckman, Bill Osmanski, and Ray Bray that year alone.
Innovation on Offense and a Change in Ownership
The Bears became the first team to become truly innovative on offense by lining up the quarterback directly behind the center. They also decided to have their offensive linemen space out a little more in order to open up holes for their backs. They even devised blocking schemes and fake runs that turned out to be jump passes.
The new-look Bears finished 9–4–1 in 1930. They whipped Green Bay in the season finale, but the Packers were awarded the league championship because of their better overall record.
In 1931, the Bears were 8–5, but during that off-season Sternaman wanted out as co-owner of the team. He was feeling the pressure of the Great Depression, and Halas was forced to scramble for the $38,000 needed to buy out Sternaman's share. According to the fine print, if Halas did not come up with the money, full ownership of the team would revert to Sternaman at noon on August 9, 1932.
Halas later told biographers that he thought the fine print in the contract was merely "legal hocus-pocus," but when August 9 came around, he discovered he was $5,000 short of the payment to Sternaman and out of resources.
Halas was disconsolate and coming to the realization he might very well lose his Bears. But at 11:00 am, C.K. Anderson, president of a bank in Antioch, Illinois, saved the day for Halas. He called and agreed to loan Halas the remaining $5,000. Halas had just enough time to get the money and run to the office of Sternaman's lawyer.
The Bears began the 1932 season inauspiciously with three ties and a 2–0 loss to Green Bay. But the Bears rallied and after beating the Staten Island Stapletons 27–7 on October 23, they finished the regular season 6–1–6.
The Bears were set to host the Portsmouth Spartans (later to become the Detroit Lions) for the NFL championship in 1932. Because of brutal Chicago weather, the two teams agreed to play the game inside Chicago Stadium. The Bears had also played an exhibition game in Chicago Stadium in 1930. It might have been a better place to play than outdoors, but fans and players had to hold their nose. Playing on an 80-yard indoor field filled with mud and animal manure because the circus had been held there, the Bears prevailed 9–0 over Portsmouth, which was without its star quarterback, Dutch Clark, because he was scheduled to start his off-season job.
After keeping his promise to Halas that he would bring him a championship within three years, Jones left the Bears in 1933 to become the athletics director at Lake Forest College. The Bears repeated as champions in 1933, defeating the New York Giants 23–21 at Wrigley Field in the championship game.
The Bears were perfect in 1934, going 13–0. That Bears team held the NFL record for most consecutive victories (18) until it was broken during the 2004 season by the New England Patriots. In the 1934 championship game rematch with the Giants, this time at New York, the Bears succumbed 30–13. The game was played on an ice-coated field, and at halftime the Giants changed to running shoes, which they felt gave them better traction than cleats. After the loss, Halas vowed never to get caught short without a change of shoes available for his players.
From 1935 to 1938, the Bears were 30–13–3 but didn't win any championships. Grange had retired following the 1934 season. The legendary Bronko Nagurski left after 1937, and the team also lost Bill Hewitt and Beattie Feathers, the first running back in history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
For the 1938 and 1939 seasons, Halas hired University of Chicago head coach Clark Shaughnessy, regarded as an offensive mastermind. Under Shaughnessy the Bears changed their attack and adopted the classic T formation. The Bears refined the formation that had been previously used to some extent in colleges and the pros. That's when the Bears really took off. They won championships in 1940, '41, '43, and '46. The Bears' record during this era was 223–76–33 as they began to earn their storied nickname as Monsters of the Midway.
Sid Luckman, who would star for the Bears from 1939 to 1950, still holds many of the franchise's passing records. He led the Bears to four NFL championships during that period. Born in Brooklyn to Jewish German immigrants, he played both baseball and football for Erasmus Hall High School and Columbia University. At Columbia, he completed 180 of 376 passes for 2,413 yards and 20 touchdowns. He finished third in the 1938 Heisman Trophy voting, losing to Davey O'Brien and Marshall Goldberg. He was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1960.
In 1942, the Bears posted a perfect 11–0 record and outscored their opponents 376–84. Luckman was the mastermind, completing 54 percent of his passes and executing the offense to perfection.
The most resounding victory in an NFL Championship Game occurred in 1940, when the Bears blasted the Washington Redskins 73–0.
The Bears had opened the 1940 season with a 6–2 record. After they lost 7–3 on November 17 in Washington, Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was quoted in the paper as calling Halas and his Bears "front-runners," "quitters," and "crybabies."
That was all Halas needed to hear to get his troops psyched up for the rematch. Even in those days, inflammatory words such as those became bulletin board material. It was payback time!
The Bears would score 78 points in their final two regular-season games. That set up the championship game showdown in Washington on December 8. Prior to the game, Halas distributed clippings of Marshall's comments to his players and said, "Gentlemen, this is what George Preston Marshall thinks of you. I think you're a great football team, the greatest ever assembled. Go out on the field and prove it."
Bill Osmanski swept the left side and scored on a 68-yard touchdown just 55 seconds into the game, and the rout was on. The Bears would score so many touchdowns that, late in the game, the officials implored Halas to have his team run for the extra points. That was because they were running out of footballs that had soared through the uprights and into the crowd.
In the end, the score was 73–0, the largest margin of defeat in NFL history. Luckman passed only six times, with four completions and 102 yards in the rout. But that win was the beginning of more than six years of Bears dominance of the NFL. From 1940 to 1946 the Bears played in five NFL Championship Games, winning four, and they posted a 54–17–3 regular-season record.
Excerpted from Then Ditka Said to Payton by Dan Jiggetts, Fred Mitchell. Copyright © 2008 Dan Jiggetts and Fred Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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