Chicago sports media icon Chet Coppock shares his memories of the 1963 Chicago Bears World Championship season with you to mark the 50th anniversary. This is the ninth of 11 installments that will post on Fridays throughout the year.
December 15, 1963: Bears 24, Lions 14
This was gut check time. This was the day to seal the deal. This was a day for the Bears to put the clamps on their first title in the old Western Conference since 1956.
George Halas and the Bears awoke on Sunday, December 15, 1963 to bitterly cold temperatures and no small degree of tension but, perhaps, a greater sense of anticipation.
Let me set the table. One day earlier before a small crowd at Kezar Stadium, Vince Lombardi and Green Bay held serve, beating the 49ers 21-14. The victory closed the Packers' 44th regular season with a superb mark of 11-2-1. The only two losses, of course, were against the Bears.
Meanwhile, Halas knew the stakes against the Detroit Lions. Grab a win over Detroit and host a National Football League Title game on the 29th. A loss, almost too difficult to contemplate, would leave the Bears at 10-2-2 and allow Green Bay, with 11 wins, to back door their way into another Western Conference title and a ticket to face the Eastern Conference Champs for all the marbles.
I have no real answer for this, but the Bears and Lions frequently met on the season's final regular season weekend back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Inevitably, the games wound up as rugged reminders of just how tough, physical and back-breaking this sport could be. As a young boy, I recall Bears' assistant coach Luke Johnsos telling me that a Bears-Lions game wasn't really a Bears-Lions game if there wasn't a fight before the coin toss.
Detroit was enduring a lousy season that would wrap at 5-8-1. It was a football team that, weather be damned, arrived at Wrigley Field intent on leaving the Bears in the gutter.
Roger LeClerc opened the scoring with a first-period field goal to give the Bears a 3-0 lead. That score held up until almost halftime when quarterback Bill Wade made a critical mistake.
The veteran QB threw into coverage and was picked off by Detroit linebacker Larry Vargo. Larry tucked the football away and galloped 42 yards to give the Lions a 7-3 halftime lead.
|WR Johnny Morris caught a TD pass to give the Bears an early 10-7 lead over the Lions. Click image to view photos from the 1963 season.|
Now, this is just classic. After the Vargo pick, Bears fans listening to Jack Brickhouse on WGN-720 heard a "crunching" sound in the background that just didn't seem related to football or, for that matter, kick-boxing.
Let me tell you what transpired. George "Mugs" Halas, Papa Bear's son and team president, enraged by the error by Wade and the loss of the lead, actually kicked a hole in the Bears' coaches booth next to "Brick's" broadcast booth.
Jack first reported that Johnsos had done the damage. He later had to inform his listeners that Mugsy had gotten just a bit carried away.
Side note: The Bears' upper level, mid-field coaching and broadcasting booths were just about as "basic" and temporary as they could be. They were actually made of wood. They were constructed and reconstructed annually.
Meanwhile, you just won't believe this. Coaches from rival clubs actually worked the phones in a different plywood booth that also sat about 16 of Papa Bear's friends and business associates.
Imagine trying to tell your defensive coach on the field that the A-gap might be vulnerable while Halas' friends were conversing in the background about dinner at the Drake Hotel. Really, you can't make this stuff up. You had to be there to see it.
So, the Bears entered the warmth of their locker room at the break on the short side of the score and with the knowledge that a season of dreams could blow up over the next 30 minutes.
It didn't. The Bears jumped to a 10-7 lead in the third quarter when Wade found a streaking Johnny Morris up the middle for a score. Halas always maintained that play by Johnny was the game's turning point.
I wouldn't dream of matching football wits with the football Godfather, but I actually disagree. I've always felt the turning point occurred several minutes later when Mike Ditka - arguably the league's most complete player - made a diving catch in the end zone to give the Bears a "two score" lead, 17-7.
But Detroit wasn't prepared to throw in the towel and gallop to the team bus. In the fourth quarter the Lions cut the gap to 17-14 when Earl Morrall threw to Terry Barr for a touchdown.
Now settle back, better yet, grab the edge of your seat. You're about to relive one of the most dramatic single sequences in Chicago Bears' history.
With under a minute to play, the Lions owned the football with solid field position and a chance to win the ballgame. The energy in Cubs Park on the field and in the stands was frenetic, completely on overdrive.
While I was in the ballpark, I was listening to Brickhouse, who would later serve as Godfather to my daughter, describe the action on WGN. It went something like this: "38 seconds to go....36 seconds to go...back goes Morrall...he throws to the sidelines....it's INTERCEPTED by Whitsell. He's gonna go....he's gonna go.....touchdown... Hey-Hey. Davey Whitsell went all the way from the 30-yard line....the 40-yard line...."
Now, think about Russ Hodges' legendary description of Bobby Thompson's 1951 playoff home run....think about Russ screaming "the Giants win the pennant...the Giants win the pennant...the Giants win the pennant." Trust me, Jack's call on the Whitsell pick made Russ sound like he was giving a lecture on bird seed.
It was time for a long sigh, a deep cleansing breath. The Bears had won the ballgame 24-14 while fulfilling the Halas mission to win the division and knock off Lombardi.
In the east, Sam Huff, Frank Gifford and the Giants were wrapping up the Eastern Conference.
New York would arrive in Chicago in two weeks to play for winner's checks and championship rings.