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Bears in The Hall

Sid Luckman

Sid Luckman played 12 seasons for the Chicago Bears beginning in 1939. At the time he retired after the 1950 campaign, many observers proclaimed that he was the finest T-formation quarterback ever to play pro football.

Since the T-attack was a relatively new offensive approach, those accolades in reality meant that, of the relatively small number of "T" quarterbacks in the National Football League during the 1940s, Luckman was the best of the lot. However, 50 years have passed since his retirement and, since Luckman still ranks as one of history's leading passers who guided the fabled Bears through the finest decade in their long history, the lavish pronouncements now are much more meaningful.

To be sure, Luckman was the first T-quarterback to achieve significant success and he ranks with Sammy Baugh as one of the two players whose on-the-field brilliance helped to make the forward pass an integral part of every team's offense. Baugh came to the NFL in 1937, two years ahead of Luckman, but he did not become a T-formation quarterback until 1944. Thus Baugh did, remarkably, split his 16 seasons with the Washington Redskins almost exactly half and half as a single-wing tailback and a T-quarterback.

So it was Luckman and one unforgettable game-the 73-0 whitewashing of Baugh's Redskins in the 1940 NFL Championship ambush-that clearly demonstrated the explosive possibilities of the "T" attack in the NFL. Almost immediately, most other pro teams began to adopt the new formation.

Not everyone had the success the Bears enjoyed, however, and there were two good reasons. In the first place, George Halas has assembled a truly awesome collection of football stars. No one can even guess how great the Bears of the 1940s might have been had not World War II erupted. Secondly, even during the war years, the Bears had Luckman as the awesomely effective field leader year after year.

The Bears won NFL championships in 1940, 1941, 1943, and 1946 and just missed 1942. During Luckman's tenure, they were second in the division in 1939, 1944, 1947, 1948, 1949, and 1950. Only in 1945 did the Halas-men fail to win a divisional championship or challenge for the lead throughout the season. In contrast, the forty-plus years following Luckman's reign, the Bears have played in only four league championship games, achieving a World Championship in 1963 and a victory in Super Bowl XX in 1985.

The selection board of the Pro Football Hall of Fame recognized Sid's contributions early with his election to membership in 1965. Among the great passers, only Baugh preceded Luckman in winning pro football's highest honor.

Making Sid's pro career even more remarkable was the fact that, at Columbia University, he was a triple-threat tailback in Coach Lou Little's devastating single-wing attack. Running was his strongest suit but he was a fine passer and a better than average punter and place-kicker.

Halas had followed Luckman's college career closely but Pittsburgh, with the first choice in the college draft of December, 1938, picked the Columbia tailback. By pre-arrangement the Steelers than traded the dark-haired Brooklynite to the Bears in exchange for another player. Several months later, when Sid was in Chicago practicing for the College All-Star game, Halas presented him with a Bears playbook. It was Luckman's introduction to the T-formation.

To say that Luckman was not an instant success would be an understatement. Astonished and alarmed by the complexities of the new system, he fumbled frequently, had trouble with the quick handoffs, stumbled over his feet trying to pivot and, in general, flunked his first "T" tryout. Temporarily, Halas abandoned his plan and moved Luckman to halfback. Late in the 1939 season, however, Halas had resumed his effort to make Sid into a T-quarterback and this time the tutoring paid off. In a late-season start against the Green Bay Packers, Luckman displayed a magical slickness as he led the Bears to a 30-27 victory. Sid threw the winning touchdown pass.

The Brooklyn native not only provided the Bears with big seasons under his leadership but he became a big-play and a big-game man as well. While Sid will be best remembered for his leadership role in the 73-0 onslaught, he was individually more brilliant in many other games. Because the Bears struck so early in the 73-0 game, Sid had to pass only six more times. He completed four of them for 102 yards. One was a 30-yard touchdown to Ken Kavanaugh.

Sid had many exceptional games during his 12-year NFL tenure but possibly the two most outstanding contests both came in 1943. On November 14 in New York, it was "Sid Luckman Day" at the Polo Grounds as hundreds of Sid's Brooklyn fans turned out to honor him with gifts and speeches and presentations. Sid's mother was in the stands to watch him for the only third time in her life.

Sid himself applied the finest touches, however, with a seven-touchdown barrage that assured a 56-7 Bears victory and a place in the NFL record book. The rare feat has been matched four times in later years but never broken.

In the championship game with the Redskins that same year, Luckman put another outstanding aerial display to give the Bears their third NFL crown in four years. Sid threw five touchdown strikes as the Bears won by a 41-21 count. His touchdowns came on plays of 31, 36, 66, 29, and 16 yards. Altogether he had 15 completions in 27 attempts for 276 yards.

In 1946, Sid once again played a key role in Chicago's 24-14 win over the New York Giants in the league championship contest. The great field general put the Bears ahead with a 21-yard scoring pass to Ken Kavanugh in the first period and broke a 14-14 tie with a 19-yard scamper that completely fooled the Giants.

Halas seldom let his prized quarterback run with the football but the chance of a possible winning touchdown in a league championship game seemed an appropriate time to gamble. As he had done throughout his career, Sid executed the fake perfectly and the gamble paid off.

Honors came frequently for Sid. He was all-NFL in 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1947, and, in 1943, he was named the league's most valuable player. By all measurements, the 1943 campaign was indeed Luckman's finest ever. That year, he completed 110 of 202 passes for a 50.5 completion percentage. His 2,194 passing yards gave him a remarkable 10.86 average per attempt and his 28 touchdowns gave him an equally stunning 13.86 TD percentage for the year. Added to those amazing accomplishments are, of course, his seven- touchdown spree against the Giants in regular season and his five scoring passes in the championship game with Washington.

Another meaningful method of determining Luckman's true effectiveness may be gained by studying the latest career rankings of forward passers in the NFL. Even though Sid played well before pass patterns had become so sophisticated that pass defenses were severely tested every time a forward pass was thrown, he still ranks No. 14 among the all-time leaders. He is the only passer whose career took place before 1950 to make the Top Twenty. His TD pass percentage of 7.9 is the best ever and his 8.42-yard-per-attempt mark is the second best.

Because Halas had had the foresight to stick with Sid when he was still struggling to learn the T-Formation, Luckman built up tremendous loyalty to the Bears, an allegiance that existed for many years following his playing days. In 1946, the Chicago Rockets of the All-America Football Conference offered him a $25,000 contract to serve as player-coach. For those days, it was a "too-good-to-turn-down" offer. Except, Sid did turn it down, without a second's hesitation.

"How could I ever possibly have taken it?" he asked. "How could I quit a club that has done so much for me."

Sid's feelings of loyalty were not unilateral, however, for Halas retained him as a member of the Bears staff for many years after his retirement. He could not forget, just as anyone who followed the Bears in the grand and glorious 1940's could ever forget, what Sid Luckman had meant to the Chicago team.