The Bears have not only lost a legend; they've lost "The Legend."
That was the well-deserved nickname of Clyde Emrich, a pioneering strength coach with the organization beginning in the early 1970s who passed away Wednesday at the age of 90.
The longest tenured full-time employee, Emrich worked for the Bears for 50 years. He became one of the NFL's first strength coaches when George Halas hired him in 1971 and remained with the team until his passing.
While Emrich last served as the Bears' strength coach in 1991, the team named its weight room at Halas Hall after him in 2008 and he continued to provide strength-training tips to players. He worked in an administrative capacity with the Bears the past three decades, handling a myriad of responsibilities. Emrich also served as a training camp coordinator since 1984, a role he shared with Bears vice president and longtime friend Brian McCaskey.
"I had the privilege of working with Clyde for nearly 40 years," McCaskey said. "He was a wonderful mentor to me and many others and was well-respected by everyone in the Bears family as well as around the league. Clyde revolutionized the way teams trained for an NFL season. He shared his knowledge and expertise with athletes from all walks of life and at all levels. Clyde would always say, 'give me an athlete, and I'll make them an even better athlete by making them stronger.'
"One of the things that makes Clyde's story so unique is that he was self-taught. As accomplished as Clyde was, he was driven to be the best at his craft. A 'Legend' in every sense, he was a wonderful friend to many. He is irreplaceable and will be missed by everyone who knew him."
Before being hired by the Bears, Emrich had worked with several of the team's players—most notably Hall of Famers Stan Jones and Doug Atkins—at the Irving Park YMCA in Chicago. Emrich's first official contact with the Bears came prior to the 1963 season when he met with Halas to discuss isometric resistance training, a revolutionary concept at the time.
Emrich joined the Bears with impressive credentials. During a competitive weightlifting career that spanned 21 years, he participated in the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, won a bronze medal at the 1954 world championships in Vienna, Austria, captured a silver medal at the 1955 world championships in Munich, Germany, and won a title at the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago.
Emrich won four national titles and in 1957 became the world's first man under 200 pounds to clean and jerk 400 pounds. Unlike many of his competitors, Emrich never worked with a coach or trainer. He started lifting weights in 1946 as a 15-year-old who stood 5-foot-6 and weighed 110 pounds, training at home with homemade cans of sand and cement and cable-chest expanders.
Emrich is a member of the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame, the Illinois State Weightlifting Hall of Fame, the USA Strength Coach Hall of Fame and the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame.
Tom Thayer, who played guard for the Bears from 1985-92, was close friends with Emrich for more than three decades. The two actually first met when Thayer was a 14-year-old Bears fan growing up in Joliet. He and a friend got lost on their way to Lake Forest to watch the Bears practice and pulled into a gas station not too far from Halas Hall to ask for directions.
"Clyde was there filling up a company station wagon the Bears used to have," Thayer said. "The guy I was with goes, 'Do you know who that is? That's Clyde Emrich. That guy's a legend!'"
Thayer and his friend—who happened to be the younger brother of Notre Dame's Rudy Ruettiger—asked Emrich to help them get to Halas Hall, and Emrich told them to follow him.
Years later when Thayer joined the Bears, he said that Emrich helped him transition "from a weightlifter to an athlete lifting weights," adding that "he was always there to promote you to be a better you."
And it wasn't just Hall of Famers. Thayer appreciated how Emrich treated all players equally.
"He was always so fair," Thayer said. "It didn't matter if you were a first-rounder or you were some free agent that didn't have a chance. He always had the same interest in you in making sure that he was going to help you improve. That was just the awesome thing about him. You can go back and talk to anybody; whether it's Dan Hampton or Jim Morrissey, in his eyes they were both the same."
Former safety Doug Plank credits Emrich with enhancing a playing career with the Bears that lasted from 1975-82.
"He did so much for me, just weightlifting, improving my strength," said Plank, a Day 1 starter as a rookie after being selected by the Bears in the 12th round of the 1975 draft from Ohio State. "When you're stronger, you're less likely to get hurt. Your recovery is quicker."
Plank spent his offseasons in the Bears weight room working with Emrich.
"I saw Clyde every day in the offseason," Plank said. "He taught me how to lift weights. It really helped me become a much better player. I had aggressive tendencies and Clyde steered those in the right direction and really helped me gain strength.
"I didn't think lifting weights was very much fun until I met Clyde. He certainly made an impact on my life and how I played. The moment I stepped on that field, I knew I had done everything I could in terms of lifting weights and training to prepare for a game."
Visitation will be from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 15 at Burnett-Dane Funeral Home, located at 120 W. Park Ave. (Rte. 176 one block west of Milwaukee Ave.) in Libertyville. Funeral service will be at 11:00 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 16 at St. Joseph Church, located at 121 E. Maple Drive in Libertyville. Memorial donations may be made to Team USA Weightlifting at www.teamusa.org. For more information or to share a memory or leave a condolence please visit www.burnettdane.com/obituaries/Clyde-Emrich/.