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We are the Bears!
The Oral History of the Chicago Bears
By Richard Whittingham
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Richard Whittingham
All rights reserved.
Joining the Bears
MIKE DITKA, Tight End, 1961–1966; Head Coach, 1982–1992
I was tremendously proud to put on the Bear uniform, and I say that in all honesty. I knew very little about the Bears until I was drafted by them in 1961 because I, of course, was from Pennsylvania and mostly followed the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles. But the more I found out about the Bears, the more I liked them; they played the kind of football that I believed in, and Coach Halas taught the kind of football I believed in. The Bears were the Monsters of the Midway, or the bullies, or whatever you want to call them, and that's the way I thought the game was supposed to be played.
It was intriguing too when you look back and realize that I was a 21-year-old kid coming into the National Football League, and the head coach was 65 years old. Nobody ever assumed anything about his age, however; it did not matter, because we all knew he was the boss. To see him in action you would have thought George Halas was maybe in his 50s, but certainly not 65.
I was with the College All-Stars in 1961, and we scrimmaged the Bears. I did not make any friends with them. I ran over a couple of guys, which did not sit well. We played the Philadelphia Eagles, who had won the NFL title the year before. We had some very good ballplayers.
I think the first friend I made later was Bill George. Bill was a Pennsylvania kid from the coal mine area of western Pennsylvania. He kind of took me under his wing and helped me a little bit. And I remember Larry Morris and some of the guys. Harlon Hill was a lot of help to me. Harlon was a great guy. It was toward the end of his career, and he took a good amount of time to work with me. He was also playing, and I think they were planning on converting him to tight end. I think they even tried him on defense because his days as a wide receiver were over, but in his day he was one of the great wide receivers.
I didn't have an agent when I came to Chicago. I don't believe in agents. I know what I'm worth and what I'm not worth, and I wouldn't fool anybody about that. My agent was my dad and myself. You know, it was kind of interesting, though, because you knew you were being taken, but you didn't really mind it. I guess that's the best way to put it. I was very flattered at the time to be drafted into the NFL when I was coming out of college. I didn't know if I would play in the National Football League. It was actually George Allen who signed me — he was the assistant defensive coach for them at the time. He said, "You know, I'm paying you more money than the Bears have paid any rookie since Red Grange," or something like that, and you knew he was lying, but still you had to laugh. It was terrible, but that's the way it went.
I came to our first training camp pretty well ready. At Pitt we worked as hard as anybody. We had John Michelosen as our coach, and John was a stickler for hard work and tough training. So we were used to working hard, and therefore training camp was not that difficult for me.
There was, of course, a difference from college football. At Pitt I'd played a lot of defense and blocked a lot. Catching passes was rarely on the agenda. With the Bears my job was to catch balls and block, and that was a big change for me. So, when I got with the Bears in 1961, I went to Chicago early and worked out. That was the year the Bears traded for Bill Wade. Sid Luckman was there as an assistant coach, and Sid really helped me tremendously in becoming a receiver. He took the time to work with me and teach me how to catch a ball. Not that I couldn't catch the ball — I led the team at Pitt in receiving my senior year with 14 catches or so, which tells you pretty much what our passing game was like. Sid guided me, and Bill Wade worked with me, throwing the ball to me; we just did it over and over. We worked with some of the defensive backs — I can remember Richie Petibon coming in at that time and some other guys, and we really had a good group. We worked out down at Soldier Field in those days even though we played at Wrigley Field. We'd work about three, four weeks in the summer, and it really helped me for training camp.
It was a different game then too. We were all part of football as a sport, and it's not that anymore; it's big business. We were part of pro football when it was played more for the love of the game, and we played hard together on the field and off the field, and we had fun.
We were much more together as a group in those days — even guys who didn't ordinarily associate with other guys that much. It was nothing for all of us to meet at a place and have a beer together or a sandwich. I think we did much more of that than the players do today.
There was also a strong camaraderie. Maybe there wasn't a great love, but there was always a great respect between our offense and defense. I always felt that. We knew that we were a team that won because of our defense, yet offensively we tried to do the things we had to do.
GEORGE CONNOR, Tackle, Linebacker, 1948–1955
Johnny Lujack and I came to the Bears together in 1948. We got a mixed reaction because we were out of Notre Dame and had gotten an awful lot of publicity in 1946 and 1947. I was one of the higher-paid linemen to come along in those years, and I cashed the $6,000 bonus check I got as a rookie for signing out at a certain bank on the South Side. Ray Bray and Chuck Drulis, two guards with the Bears who were in the automobile business, knew somebody at the bank, and that somebody did not have very good ethics. He told them the amount of the check from the Bears. The word spread among the players, and there was a lot of conjecture that maybe I was making more money than Bulldog Turner and Bray and a lot of other well-established Bear linemen.
When I went to my first training camp, I found out just how poorly that sat with the other players. They really gave me a bad time. We scrimmaged a lot, we had intrasquad games, and they were really after me. Most of the scars I have on my face are from my teammates that year . But I was able to ward them off and got through the camp scrimmages with a variety of bruises, scabs, and pains.
At the end of the training camp, when the squad was set, Bulldog Turner, our All-Pro center, came up to me and said, "Kid, you're all right. You took everything we gave you. Welcome to the team."
It was a kind of strange set of circumstances that brought me to the Bears that year. I had been the No. 1 draft choice of the New York Giants my junior year at Notre Dame in 1946. Wellington Mara [son of Tim Mara, founder and owner of the Giants] contacted me. I had played out east for two years [1942–1943] at Holy Cross in Massachusetts before coming to Notre Dame after the service, and that's where they had first seen me play.
I did not want to play in New York. I wanted to play in my hometown, which was Chicago — I'd grown up on the South Side, played football for De LaSalle out there. So I went to the Chicago Cardinals first, the South Side team that played in Comiskey Park then, and told them I didn't want to play for the Giants. But the Cardinals, who had just won the NFL championship the year before — they beat the Eagles that year — didn't show any interest in me.
So I went over on Wabash Avenue to the Bears' office and saw George Halas. He said, "Kid, stick to your guns, and you'll wind up a Bear."
I went back and played my senior year at Notre Dame, and Wellington Mara came out and visited with my family and me in Chicago after the season. I convinced him, however, that I did not want to play pro ball in New York, so he traded the rights to me to Ted Collins, the owner of the Boston Yanks, who was also the manager of the singer Kate Smith. Ted Collins kept calling me, and eventually he threatened that if I didn't sign with him he'd tell the president of Notre Dame, Fr. John Cavanaugh, who was a good friend of his.
I said, "Well you just go ahead and do that, because I don't want to play in Boston any more than I wanted to play in New York." Finally he got frustrated, and he traded me to the Bears for Mike Jarmoluk, a tackle from Temple.
RED GRANGE, Halfback, 1925, 1929–1934
It was Charlie Pyle who got me to join the pros. His initials were C.C., which some writer later said stood for "Cash and Carry." But Charlie was the most impressive man I ever met in my life, and I've met millions of people, presidents and everything else.
Charlie Pyle stood about 6'1" and weighed maybe 190 pounds. He had been an excellent boxer, had taken it up as a kid, and he could take care of himself, believe me. At the same time, he was a very dapper guy, sort of a peacock strutting in spats and carrying a cane, the most immaculate dresser I've ever seen. I don't think he ever wore anything twice, and he would go the barbershop at least a couple of times a week. He was a real, true dandy.
Charlie was in the theater business. He owned three movie houses, two of them in Champaign and another over in Kokomo, Indiana. I met him at the Virginia Theater in Champaign one night in 1925 when I was a senior. An usher came to my seat and said, "Mr. Pyle would like to see you in his office." Well, I'd heard of him, and I knew he was the one who gave out free tickets to his theater to those of us on the football team, so I went up to his office with the usher. When I opened the door, the first thing he said to me, before I could even sit down, was "Red, how'd you like to make $100,000?" I thought he was crazy. But I said naturally I would — who wouldn't?
Then he said, "Well, I've got an idea. Sit down." And he explained it to me. He wanted me to join up with a pro team, and we would make a tour of the country after the regular pro season. He said we would go to cities where they had pro teams and play them, as well as to others where they never got to see pro football. He thought the Chicago Bears would be the ideal team to go with and said if I were truly interested in the scheme he would work it out with them. He would be my personal manager, handle all the financial and promotional things for me. He was like the agents of today, but he was also the promoter of the tour. Charlie ran the whole thing.
As it turned out, there were two tours. The first went out east to places like New York, Boston, and Washington; the second went from Florida to California.
It wasn't all that easy, though. Pro football was pretty questionable in those days. Most of the college coaches and a lot of the sportswriters were very down on it. "Football isn't meant to be played for money," Zup [Bob Zuppke, Grange's coach at Illinois] said to me.
On the other hand, nobody seemed to mind that baseball players made money by playing the game. So I told Zup, "You get paid for coaching it. Why should it be wrong for me to get paid for playing it?" No matter what, he was still opposed to it, and we didn't really talk to each other for a number of years after I agreed to play with the pros. That's just the way it was in those days. College football would draw 70,000 or 80,000 to a game, but the pros might not get more than 4,000 or 5,000. It was a different time altogether.
Needless to say, I went with Charlie Pyle and the Bears. I played my last game in Columbus, Ohio, against Ohio State. It was kind of a madhouse, because there were all these rumors that I was going to go pro right after it. I had to sneak out of the hotel there, down the fire escape, and I got a cab and went to the railroad station. Then I went to Chicago and checked into the Belmont Hotel under an assumed name. Charlie was over at another hotel setting up the deal with George Halas and Dutch Sternaman, the two owners of the Bears. The next day I signed the contract. I signed first with Charlie, making him my manager, and then we both signed the deal with the Bears.
GARY FENCIK, Safety, 1976–1987
Howard Cosell invited me to come down to New York for the draft of 1976. I had taken a seminar he conducted at Yale called "Contemporary Sports in America." It was limited to 12 people, and each week Howard would come to New Haven and bring a guest speaker — people like Bob Wussler, who was president of CBS Sports at the time, Bill Bradley, Pete Rozelle, some very interesting men.
So I went down and got my first taste of the glitter of pro sports. Besides draft day, it was also the day the New York Giants signed Larry Csonka after his great career with the Miami Dolphins, which was in all the newspapers. Cosell and I went out to lunch with Csonka and his agent, and it was really something. Walking down the street in New York, people would stop and say hello to Howard and Csonka — people got out of cabs, cars stopped.
That was the day the Dolphins drafted me. My freshman coach at Yale, Harry Jacunski, had contacted a friend at Miami and told them I had played defensive back as a freshman, and a scout for the Dolphins then talked to me about switching to safety, which was something they needed down there. I was really excited about the prospect because I always wanted to play defensive back. So I knew up front what I was going to be if they drafted me, and I was happy about it. And they took me in the 10th round.
Then I ruptured my lung in a freak accident. We were playing a scrimmage game against the New Orleans Saints in Fort Lauderdale. Bobby Douglass, his Bear career over then, was their quarterback, and he tossed a short pass, and when I tackled the receiver I ruptured my lung. I didn't know it at the time, and the Dolphins misdiagnosed it for a couple of days. I just figured I had some bruised ribs. But then when they discovered what it was, the Dolphins released me on Labor Day.
I took a job in a management training program at Citibank in New York. Then the Bears called, and so did the Steelers. I came to Chicago and met with Jim Finks and Jack Pardee, the head coach that year. They took a look at me, and Finks offered me a contract. The Bears were in the process of rebuilding, and the organization itself was being renovated under Jim Finks, and I thought it would be a good place to be for me. I had also grown up in the Chicago area, in Barrington, and still had family here. So I did not bother to go out to Pittsburgh.
Actually the Bears picked up my contract from the Dolphins, which had been drafted by Bobby Beathard, who was their player-personnel director at the time. It was a fair contract, and I was pleased with it. When the Bears decided they wanted me, Jim Finks asked me what I was making with Miami and some other details, and I told him. I didn't have an agent at the time. He said they would give me the same deal.
When I actually went in to sign the contract, I discovered that all the incentives were missing. I said to Jim, "This isn't the contract I signed with Miami." So we ended up negotiating, and I ended up getting one of the incentives, one I was pretty adamant about, which provided for an additional bonus if you made the active roster. Although I respected Jim Finks a lot, I'd swear when we were negotiating his chair was a lot higher than mine and I was always looking up. But I don't know whether it was my imagination or not.
I joined the team after the first game of the 1976 season. It was a real young team, and many of the players were only in their first or second year, and as a result I got along fine right from the start.
JOEY STERNAMAN, Quarterback, 1922–1930
The Bears team was the natural place for me to go. When the fellows came back from World War I, there was a lot of activity in pro and semipro football around the Midwest. My brother Dutch came back from the army and went into the Staleys, this team that was sponsored by a corn products company in Decatur. He and George Halas went there and ran the football team and worked for Staley in his plant there. The team didn't do all that well, I guess, or something went wrong down there, and [A. E.] Staley, the owner, washed his hands of it. So then they incorporated it, and Dutch and George brought it up to Chicago, and it became the Chicago Bears. My brother and Halas shared everything then. They were co-owners, co-coaches, they both played, and they were always trying to recruit players from places like Illinois and Notre Dame.
A little while after, they brought in Chick Harley, an All-American from Ohio State, a big shot, one of the biggest names in the game then. Along with him was his brother Bill, a real egotistical fellow. Hell, he wanted to take over the whole thing, but Dutch and George were not about to let him to do that. "We're not going to take him in," Dutch told me. "That Bill is just too bossy."
Excerpted from We are the Bears! by Richard Whittingham. Copyright © 2014 Richard Whittingham. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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