For more than ten decades, the Chicago Bears have been an epitome of a highly professional football team. Much has been said about the Chicago Bears footballers, their dazzling career, and great games which have long become classics. But few actually know how it all started for the team that was destined to make history.
In today’s post, we’re going to take a look at the history of the Early Bears which took place from 1920-1939, a special period of the legendary team’s rise to success, fame, and recognition.
How it All Started…
In 1920, professional football was little more than a collection of ragtag teams eking out a hardscrabble existence. The game was really rough and tumbled. And so too were the men who played it. But a few men saw more than regional blood feuds in the game’s future. And in September of 1920, Ralph Hayes, owner of the Canton Bulldogs, assembled a group of visionaries to discuss the possibility of forming a professional league. And a scrappy young defensive end named George Halas attended. Halas was a great player himself. (His face and the athletic figure could still serve as a perfect centerpiece for any pro football event social media design!) He managed to set an NFL record that would stand for more than half a century when he outraced the legendary Jim Thorpe and returned a fumble of 98 yards for a touchdown. A. E. Staley, who owned corn products firm in Decatur, Illinois, came up with a hundred bucks and commissioned Halas to organize and coach his team. And Halas took him up on his offer.
In 1921, the freshly formed team called the Decatur Staleys won 10 games, tied two more, and lost only one in the inaugural NFL season. But as the crowds grew, it was clear that the team was outgrowing Decatur.
Path to Success
Young Halas seemed to have a knack for this football business. And in their first year in Chicago, the Staleys remained just unbeatable, going 9:1:1, while claiming their first league title. And only a year later, the coach decided to change the team name to the ‘Bears.’
The old-timers were really tough, none more so than Ed Healey, who became the first player ever sold from one team to another, when Halas purchased him from the Rock Island Independence for 100 dollars.
With little or no protective gear, injuries were common, and a gladiator mentality became part of the game’s ethos, which was all about surviving. And the Bears did survive, finishing near the top of the league in both 1923 and 1924. But George Halls wasn’t content with mere survival. The mid-20s were the golden age of American sport. Giants like Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, and Babe Ruth were icons. And while the NFL didn’t have a legend of its own, Halas knew exactly where to find it.
In the fall of 1924, the public’s interest in football was awakened by the sensational breakaway running of a university of Illinois halfback named Red Grange. Back then, the name ‘Red Grange’ became synonymous with football in the same way the name ‘Babe Ruth’ was synonymous with baseball. Not only did Halas become the first owner to sign a college player, but he also managed to sign the greatest collegiate ever. It was national news, an audacious and unprecedented move. Exactly what the NFL needed.
By the early 1930s, the Bears were firmly established as the NFL’s glamor franchise. Their roster was a who’s who of the NFL, including a bruising fullback aptly named Bronco Nagurski. Nagurski was as iconic as Grange had been five years earlier. Once again, the Bear became the class and envy of the league. Behind this behemoth of the gridiron, the Bears shut out the Packers to finish the 1932 regular season, beating the Portsmouth Spartans for the league’s best record.
In 1933, the NFL split into the Eastern and Western divisions. Not that many changes for the Bears. Behind future Hall of Famers George Musso, Bill Hewitt, Link Lyman, Grange, and Nagurski, Chicago cruised to the Western division title and their second straight world championship game. Facing a new powerful New York Giants team that featured Hall of Famers such as Mel Hein, Ray Flaherty, and Ken Strong, the 1933 title game became an instant classic. It had just about everything, including a trick play Giants’ quarterback Harry Newman and center Mel Hein concocted just for the occasion. But Red Grange, who was no longer a breakaway runner at that time, managed to make the game-saving play when the Bears nursed their two-point lead. The game captured the country’s imagination. Thus, the 1934 Bears became Chicago’s best team yet.
But George Halas didn’t intend to rest on his laurels. The coach was determined to prove his Chicago Bears the best. He became the first coach to hire assistant coaches, instituted daily practices, and by 1937, had coached his club to a 9-in-1 record, which was the league’s best. That meant another NFL title game, this time against the Washington Redskins. Unfortunately, the Bears suffered a bitter defeat. But the Papa Bear had a plan. He knew they needed the right player to make it work.
In 1939, Halas drafted a skinny kid from Columbia University named Sid Luckman to run an updated version of an offense called the T formation. Using a man in motion, the T formation dazzled defenses, but at the same time, it required almost encyclopedic knowledge of the game to work. Luckman proved nearly as smart as he was strong-armed. And in 1940, the newcomer set Bears season records for both completions and passing yards. With Luckman, the Bears became truly unstoppable. At that time, the Bears turned the page to a totally new chapter of their life.
There have been lots of achievements, new records, and disappointments since the official introduction of a new offensive formation. But the history of the Early Bears is a truly unique period that helped the Bears kick-start their pro football career and score a place in the sun.
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