The night before a game last season in Oakland, 84-year-old Eddie Macon walked into the Bears hotel with the assistance of a cane and was introduced to coach Lovie Smith.
What appeared to be a casual conversation to those milling around the lobby was in fact a historic meeting between the first African American player and coach in Bears history.
Eddie Macon poses with Bears players Devin Hester and Brandon Meriweather and coach Lovie Smith.
Macon broke the color barrier with the Monsters of the Midway in 1952, playing two seasons as a halfback and kick returner for George Halas before leaving for the Canadian Football League.
“It was a thrill to meet someone who paved the way for me and a lot of other guys,” said Smith, who introduced Macon to several Bears players, including Devin Hester, Charles Tillman and Johnny Knox.
“It wasn’t just a thrill for me. It was a thrill for Devin, Charles and all of the guys who got a chance to meet the first African American player for the Chicago Bears. I always want our players to know about our history, and for us to get an opportunity to just not know about it but to see a guy that actually did it is something we won’t forget.”
Macon was selected by the Bears in the second round of the 1952 draft from the College of Pacific. He joined the team after failing in his bid to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team as a sprinter.
“[Halas] stayed in contact with me after he drafted me,” Macon said during his visit to the Bears hotel last November. “He told me what he expected of me, and that was to come in and just be a football player and be a gentleman.”
Macon’s arrival in 1952 didn't cause much of a stir. Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier five years earlier, and several African Americans had played in the NFL from 1920-33. In 1949, the Bears had become the first NFL team to draft an African American player when they chose halfback George Taliaferro out of Indiana. But he opted to sign with the Los Angeles Dons in the rival All-American Football Conference.
Macon felt that most fans, teammates and opponents accepted him, with one exception.
“I had no problems with the fans,” said Macon, a longtime Oakland resident. “The team that I really had problems with was the Detroit Lions. They beat me in the face, twisted my legs. When I got in a pile, I tried to come out of that pile because I knew what they were going to try to do.”
Macon also faced discrimination off the field. When the Bears played preseason games in the south, black players were not welcome in the same hotels as their white teammates. As a result, he stayed with African American families who lived in the area.
While Macon deplored the racism and didn’t appreciate being separated from his teammates, he enjoyed meeting the families he stayed with, saying: “They did everything to make me feel comfortable.”
In two seasons with the Bears, Macon averaged 30.5 yards on 22 kickoff returns and 5.9 yards on 24 punt returns while also rushing for 324 yards and two touchdowns on 70 carries and catching 14 passes for 49 yards and 2 TDs.
Macon smiles when asked about the role he played in Bears history. “There always has to be a pioneer,” he said. “Someone has to be the first and I was the first and I feel very proud that I was the first.”