Chicago Bears Traditions

Bears in The Hall

George Musso

It would be easy to overlook even the brightest star in the galaxy of brilliant performers who made the Chicago Bears the dominant team in pro football in the years from 1933 to 1944 when George Musso was anchoring the team's powerful forward lines. During that 12-year span, the Monsters of the Midway won seven western division titles and National Football League championships in 1933, 1940, 1941, 1943. Their regular season mark for those years was an incredible 104-26-6.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame, which opened in 1963, soon found its membership rolls clogged with Bears from that era-Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, Bill Hewitt, Joe Stydahar, Dan Fortmann, Bulldog Turner, Sid Luckman, George McAfee and of course, owner-coach George Halas himself.

But for literally the biggest star of all-at 6-2 and 270 pounds, George Musso was physically the most intimidating Bears-pro football's finest honor never came. As the years and even the decades rolled by, Musso reluctantly admitted that he most likely had been "lost in the shuffle"

Thus, when Hall officials phoned to tell him of his election in January, 1982, he first suspected the call was a hoax. It took verification from the Hall's headquarters in Canton before George could finally savor the honor voted him 37 years after his final pro football game in 1944.

Formal induction rites for Musso and his 1982 "classmates"-Doug Atkins, Sam Huff and Merlin Olsen-came on the front steps of the Hall on August 7, 1982. Because of his ability as well as his size, Musso was not easy to overlook on the pro gridirons. He became the epitome of the powerful line play that made the Bears famous and fearsome. Opponents and teammates alike looked at him as a quality 60-minute performer, an absolute terror on defense and far better than average on offense, particularly as a pass blocker and as a pulling guard on running plays.

"George was one of the outstanding lineman of his time," Washington Redskins coach Ray Flaherty once said. "His size and speed made him a difficult target, particularly on defense."

"He anchored the Bears' five-man line with authority," fullback Clarke Hinkle of the archrival Green Bay Packers recalls. "He always gave us plenty of trouble every time we played."

"Big Bear," as he was affectionately known by his contemporaries, was the Bears' middle guard on defense and he specialized in the big play-the blocked kick, the critical tackle, whatever was needed to blunt the enemy attack. It was almost impossible for a ball carrier to run through him and a detour around him meant running into a pack of outstanding linebackers such as Danny Fortmann and Bulldog Turner.

On offense, Musso started out as a tackle but, after four seasons, made the switch to guard when the teams personnel needs so dictated. He won all-NFL honors as a tackle in 1935 and then again as guard in 1937. No one was better at getting out of the line to lead interference. When asked how a big man could move so fast, Musso had a ready explanation.

"I am blocking for Nagurski and he waits for no one," he said. "If you don't open the hole, he'll hit you in the back and the next time you will either open it or get out of the way quick."

His sterling play did not go unnoticed. All-NFL teams of the 1930's carried an "official" designation because the league's coaches selected them. For eight straight years from 1933 through 1940, Musso was among the leading vote-getters, missing first-team acclaim by narrow margins three times as well as becoming the first player ever to win all-NFL designation at two positions.

George also proved to be a team leader of unusual magnitude. He was elected team captain in his fourth season, a responsibility and honor he retained until the end of his career.

Red Grange, who was nearing the end of his pro tenure just as Musso was starting out, remembers well the effect George had on the team. "George was captain of the Bears his last eight or ten years," Red said recently. "The players wouldn't have anyone else. Halas let him give the pep talk to the players before the big games. He had great spirit and his talks would really get the guys fired up."

Success with the Bears was not an automatic thing for Musso, however. He was almost cut after the opening game of his rookie season.

George, who had been a four-sport star-football, basketball, baseball, and track-all four years at Millikin College, played well enough in the East-West All-Star game in Chicago as a part of the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition to gain the attention of Halas.

The Bears leader obtained a photo of Musso in a basketball uniform. Musso also had a mustache. When Grange took a look at the photo, he quickly predicted: "This guy will never make it. He looks like a walrus."

Still, Halas decided to offer Musso a tryout and $90 a game if he made the squad. To seal the deal, Halas also sent along $5 for expenses--$3 for the train ride to training camp and $2 for incidentals.

While Musso impressed everyone with his size and quickness, he did not play well in early games. Halas considered sending him to the farm team in Cincinnati but George balked. Musso said he would prefer an outright release but he also reminded Halas that Curly Lambeau, the Green Bay coach, had promised him a spot on the Packers roster if the Bears cut him.

Halas countered with a proposal that he would keep Musso on the squad at half-salary --$45 a game-while he tried to prove himself. Musso, who had already taken an apartment in Chicago with Nagurski and another Millikin graduate, George Corbett, agreed. One of the reasons that he had spurned a $75 per game offer from the New York Giants was that he really wanted to play in Chicago over any other NFL city.

When the chips were down, it was Grange, who had first questioned Musso's potential as a pro, that gave George the advice and emotional boost he needed to make good.

"Red came to me one day and told me I could make the club if I just played up to my capabilities," Musso remembers well. "It was a shot in the arm. The next Sunday at Brooklyn I played about a half and was gaining confidence as I went along."

Then came the big breakthrough against the cross-town Chicago Cardinals. With the Bears behind, 9-7, Musso blocked a punt for a safety that tied the game. The Bears went on to a 12-9 victory. Halas forgot all about the half-salary arrangement. Musso not only made the squad but two weeks later he was a starter against the Giants. A New York Times story of that game reported "Musso was a fifth man in the Giants backfield" as Chicago remained undefeated.

Born April 8, 1910, in Collinsville, Illinois, Musso was expected to join his father in the coalmines when he finished grade school. Instead neighbors managed to persuade George's father to let him go to high school. After high school, where he also excelled in four sports, those same friends intervened again so that George could accept an offer to play football at Millikin.

For the next four years in four sports, Musso was one of the top athletes of the Little 19 Conference that included such schools as Augustana, Illinois Wesleyan, Lombard, Macomb Teachers, and Eureka.

In a 1929 game that saw Millikin defeat Eureka, 45-6, the mammoth Musso lined up against a scrappy 175-pound guard named Ronald Reagan. A few years later the 1935 College All-Star game, Musso traded blocks and tackles with a center from Michigan named Gerald Ford. Thus, today he has the distinction of being probably the only person-certainly the only Hall of Famer-ever to play football against two future United States Presidents.

Those two incidents earned Musso a spot in the all-time trivia book but had no bearing on George's rise to pro football immortality. That happy circumstance came about because he had the ability and determination to become a leader of one of the great football dynasties of history. It also took another George -Halas - who was willing to sign an unknown from a small college and then stick with him just a while longer when it looked as though he would fail.

As have most of the Bears stars of yesteryear, Musso has remained a good friend of his former leader through the years and asked the then 87-year-old-Bears chief to serve as his official presenter on induction day.

When queried about Halas' expenses for the summer trip to canton, Musso retaining the charisma and sense of humor that made him an all-time Bears favorite, quickly quipped: "I'll just send back the $5 expense money he gave me when I first joined the Bears."