From their legendary founder to their current roster, the Bears have maintained close ties to the U.S. military for a century. And there’s no better time to highlight that relationship than this week, which has been dubbed “Salute to Service Week.”
After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1918 at the age of 22, George Halas joined the Navy for the first of two tours of duty. “Papa Bear” was named Player of the Game in the 1919 Rose Bowl, playing end on the Great Lakes team that blanked the Marines 17-0. A year later, Halas formed the Decatur Staleys and helped create what would become the National Football League.
Halas rejoined the Navy during World War II as Welfare and Recreation officer for the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific Ocean. A commander when he left active duty in 1946, Halas retired as a captain in the Naval Reserve and later was awarded the Distinguished Citizens Award—the highest honor the Navy can bestow on a civilian.
Ed McCaskey, the husband of Halas’ daughter, Virginia, served in the Army during the war, winning a bronze star and combat infantry badge.
More than 40 Bears players served in the Armed Forces during World War II, including Hall of Famers Danny Fortmann, Sid Luckman, George McAfee and Joe Stydahar. Luckman was stationed stateside and was permitted to travel on weekends to play in games for a while. But he was later assigned to a tanker carrying gasoline to Europe. During the Normandy invasion, Luckman was on a transport ferrying troops from Britain to France.
The only Bears player to lose his life in the war was quarterback Young Bussey, who was killed at the battle of Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines on Jan. 7, 1945.
Determined to raise money for servicemen after the war, Halas created an annual preseason benefit game. His proposal was approved during a meeting with none other than General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington. The first Armed Forces Game was played at Wrigley Field on Sept. 1, 1946 between the Bears and New York Giants. The contest drew 32,367 fans and raised nearly $70,000. The Armed Forces Game existed for 25 years and generated more than $1.2 million.
The Bears continue to support American soldiers today with their “Hello to Our Heroes” program, which was developed to help boost the morale of those who are serving overseas. Every year the team sends more than 400 care packages to troops stationed all over the world.
Soldier Field also has strong military connections. Plans for the stadium began in 1919 as a memorial to World War I soldiers. The stadium was later dedicated on Nov. 27, 1926 with Army battling Navy to a 21-21 tie.
Just inside Gate 0 of Soldier Field stands the restored Doughboy Statue, which was originally installed in Chicago’s Garfield Park in the 1930s. After the statue was damaged in the 1970s, Chicago sculpture conservator Andrzej Dajnowski recast the missing parts and refurbished the entire statute and its base to its original condition.
Several current Bears players have military ties in their families. That includes linebacker Danny Trevathan, whose stepfather, Vincent Hicks, served in the Army.
“He always had that mentality,” Trevathan said. “Even when I was getting in trouble, it wasn’t regular trouble. It was like military-type trouble, so I had to do pushups and all that.”
Trevathan has always been a strong supporter of American troops.
“I have the utmost respect for them,” Trevathan said. “They put their lives on the line every day. It’s the reason why we can play the game that we love and not have to worry. They sacrifice a lot for us.”
Backup quarterback Chase Daniel’s father and grandfather both served in the Navy. In April, Daniel was among four NFL players who spent a week in South Korea visiting U.S. troops and their families at military bases. The trip, which was coordinated by the NFL and USO, included one-on-one meetings with installation leadership and visits with the Security Forces K-9 Unit and Fire Department Unit.
“I’ve always been a big troop supporter here and overseas,” Daniel said. “When the NFL approached us about doing it, it was sort of a no-brainer with the history I had. I’ve always looked up to [the troops] and everything they give. They go to war every day and risk their lives for our country and that’s something that’s really special.
“We try sometimes as football players to liken what we do to war. It’s not even close, and I actually hate that analogy quite a bit. It’s not. They’re the ones protecting us from foreign and domestic enemies.”
Other Bears players with military ties include Abdullah Anderson, James Daniels, Taylor Gabriel, Akiem Hicks, Isaiah Irving, Cornelius Lucas, Anthony Miller, Pat O’Donnell, Patrick Scales, Roquan Smith and Nick Williams.
A few former Bears also had close military ties while growing up.
With his father in the Army, defensive tackle Tommie Harris spent parts of his childhood living in Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Texas and Germany. During his NFL career, Harris visited U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf on a USO trip. He chatted with the soldiers, visited the Pat Tillman USO center at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and met a lieutenant colonel who had served with his dad in the 1990s.
Fullback Jason McKie's father spent more than 20 years in the Air Force and later worked in the Pentagon. Nevil McKie was at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 when terrorists crashed an airplane into the building.
As the son of an Army sergeant, cornerback Charles Tillman attended 11 different schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.
In 2013, Tillman won the NFL's Salute to Service Award, which recognizes those who honor and support members of the military community.
Tillman’s father, Donald Tillman Jr., served 20 years in the Army. Tillman participated in an eight-day USO tour in Iraq and Kuwait after personally contacting the U.S. Army in 2010. He visited Camp Victory, Camp Buehring and Joint Base Balad, signing photos and sports memorabilia and sharing dinner with troops.
During a bye week in 2012, Tillman returned home to Fort Hood in Texas to visit the Darnall Army Medical Center, donating a "Charles' Locker" on behalf of his Cornerstone Foundation that was filled with iPads, notebook computers, DVD players, portable PlayStation game systems and other electronic handheld games to help patients pass the time during recovery and treatment.
Tillman also regularly conducted youth football camps on military bases, including the Army's Fort Hood and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms in California. At the 2013 Pro Bowl, Tillman and fellow NFL players visited Schofield Army Barracks to greet wounded warriors who recently returned from an extended deployment in Afghanistan.