Chicago Bears Traditions

Bears in The Hall

George McAfee

When Gale Sayers burst into the National Football League like the Kansas Comet that he was back in 1965, veteran writers immediately began asking Chicago Bears coach George Halas if his prized rookie was as good or better than George McAfee. "The highest compliment you can pay any ball carrier," Halas would snort, "is just compare him with McAfee."

For the enlightenment of fans who have been following pro football for four decades or less, McAfee was a Bears halfback in the 1940's who, in a comparatively brief playing span, made opponents and teammates alike look on in wonderment and admiration. At 6-0, 177 pounds, the Corbin, Kentucky, native did not have the physique you would expect for a future Pro Football Hall of Famer. Even Halas himself, who made the Duke University all-American his No. 1 draft choice in 1940, wondered if he had made a good choice after seeing him line up with the Monsters of the Midway for the first time. But just one play, which he saw McAfee whirl away from a linebacker and into a open field, convinced the Bears mentor that the rookie would indeed be a superstar.

McAfee's pro career was not particularly a long one. The Bears of 1940 and 1941 were loaded with outstanding talent and so the fleet halfback averaged only about 25 minutes a game playing time his first two years. Then he joined the United States Navy and did not return until late in the 1945 campaign. He played just three games in 1945 and injuries cut his playing time to three games in 1946. He followed up with full campaigns in 1947 through 1950 but, altogether, his NFL career consisted of six full seasons and two partial seasons with what would have been perhaps his finest years spent in the service.

As a result, his career statistical totals are not particularly impressive unless you scrutinize them more closely and realize that McAfee did just about everything a player can do with a football. He was a whirling dervish runner and dangerous pass receiver. He was one of history's finest punt return and kickoff return specialists. He also passed on occasion and he was a punter. But he also played defense and wound up with 21 career interceptions. His 12.8 average on 112 punt returns stood as a NFL career record for many years.

Right from the start, George established himself as a gamebreaker, the kind of back who was a definite threat to go all the way every time he had the ball. In his very first exhibition game as a rookie, he returned a punt 75 yards with 37 seconds to play to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In the opening game of the regular season that same year, McAfee returned a kickoff 93 yards for a go-ahead touchdown against the arch-rival Green Bay Packers. Later, he threw a touchdown pass as the Bears won 41-10.

In the season finale that year when the Bears demolished the Washington Redskins, 73-0, McAfee's contribution to Touchdown No. 7 on a 34-yard interception return. Finding the end zone was standard operating procedure for George throughout his career. When he returned from the service late in 1945, he scored three touchdowns covering 105 yards in just five attempts in his first game.

McAfee, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966, was named to the official all-NFL team just once. That was in 1941, which, everyone agrees, was his finest season. His 7.3-yard per rush average and his 12 touchdowns scored were NFL highs but he also passed for one touchdown, returned five punts for a 31.6-yard average and one touchdown and intercepted a career-high six passes which he ran back 78 yards.

McAfee, whether running wide or going through the middle, either as a pass-receiver or as a decoy, was a constant headache to the defense. He was known by some as "One-Play" McAfee and, on punt returns, he often whizzed through the defense on sheer speed alone. As a demonstration of his versatility, his 39 career touchdowns were broken down to 25 by rushing, 10 by receptions, one by interception and two by punt returns.

Not surprisingly, many of football's top names were constantly lauding the Bears halfback.

Red Grange, who 15 years earlier had been football's most glittering runner, called George "the most dangerous man with the football in the game."

Curly Lambeau, the long-time Green Bay coach who had seen all the great stars the first two decades of the NFL, insisted that McAfee was "the most talented back the Packers ever faced."

Greasy Neale, who coached the Philadelphia Eagles to great heights during the 1940's, said flatly: "George Mcafee is the greatest plunging and quick-opening back I have ever seen."

Perhaps making the McAfee saga even more remarkable is the fact that he really did not play a lot of football before he joined the NFL. At Duke, he played only briefly as a sophomore and a foot injury cut into his playing time as a junior. Because of his presence of a talent-laden roster in Chicago, coupled with his service stint, reduced his pro playing time, George's busiest season ever undoubtedly was his senior season in college.

A dancing, rhythmic runner with the Bears, McAfee pioneered the use of low-cut shoes to boost his speed and increase his elusiveness. In practice sessions, George would wear regulation football shoes. But on game day, he would switch to the lightweight Oxford-type footwear.

"It was as almost as though I didn't have any shoes at all," he once said.

Regardless of the shoes he wore, McAfee was blessed with great speed. He could run the 100-yard dash in 9.7, a super fast time in that era.

Jimmy Conzelman, the Chicago Cardinals coach in the 1940s, reasoned that McAfee was so slippery because of a hip shaft he used, as well as his speed. "That's something few really fast players ever developed," Conzelman said. "He puts the defense off balance and fakes with his head as well as his arms and body."

Possibly there was one more reason for his pro success-the realization he gained in his first Bears training camp that it would be well to avoid contact as much as possible. McAfee's way of accomplishing that goal was to "run to daylight," the same kind of thinking Vince Lombardi made famous a couple of years later.

"I never saw so many big men in my life," George says of the 1940 Bears camp. "I remember clearly, on one of the first scrimmage plays, that a rookie halfback was knocked cold trying to bring down Bill Osmanski."

"That play served as valuable lesson for me," McAfee continues. "Whenever I ran with the ball, I had that picture in my mind of that back there on the ground, cold as a stone. I would run as fast as I could if there was any daylight."

For George McAfee, there usually was a lot of "daylight."