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Papa Bear George Halas

Wikimedia Commons / the rakish fellow

Papa Bear George Halas

Born in Chicago to a family of Czech-Bohemian immigrants, George Halas attended Crane High School on Chicago’s near west side before attending the University of Illinois. There he played football for future College Football Hall of Fame coach Robert Zuppke, who led his teams to four national titles. George Halas would help the Illini take home the Big Ten football championship as a wide receiver and defensive end (playing both offense and defense was common those days), and he also played baseball and basketball for them before graduating with a degree in civil engineering.

Halas joined the Navy at the outbreak of World War I, but continued playing football at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago and was named the Rose Bowl MVP in 1919 (he would serve again at the outbreak of WWII). After being discharged, he played semi-pro baseball and even earned a roster spot with the New York Yankees. But his baseball career would prove to be shortlived – Halas played only 12 games with the storied club before being sidelined with a hip injury (and, some say, an inability to hit the curve ball).

He took a position at Decatur, Illinois-based starch manufacturer A.E. Staley Company, where his duties also included acting as player-coach for their company baseball and football teams (nice work, if you can get it). In 1920, acting as a representative of the company, he helped form the American Professional Football Association. A year later, with the now professional team struggling financially, founder August Staley gave Halas $5,000 start-up money and told him to take the team to Chicago, essentially handing over the fledgling enterprise with the stipulation that the team keep the Staley name for its first year.

It was a generous offer, and Halas would benefit from more generosity in Chicago. William Veeck, owner of the Cubs, allowed the Staleys to play at Wrigley Field for a share of the gate, program and concessions sales – an arrangement that would last until 1970. Out of gratitude to the Cubs organization, Halas renamed his team the Chicago Bears.

A jack-of-all-trades (one of his nicknames was “Mr. Everything”), Halas ran the front office, coached and played on the team – and, legend has it, even handled game day ticket sales. The controlling aspect of his personality would come to the fore in his later years, as he continually tried to walk away from the game only to come out of retirement for another season of coaching. When he finally quit coaching for good in 1967, he joked it was only because he was too slow to run up and down the sideline to chew out the refs (Halas was also well-known for having one of the NFL’s foulest mouths).

During his coaching career he was responsible for a number of key innovations. Along with Clark Shaughnessy, he developed the flying T offensive formation, a strategy which allowed the Monsters of the Midway to so dominate other teams in the early years that they won the 1940 championship game against the Washington Redskins by a score of 73-0.

Halas was also the first to analyze game-day film of opponents, and the first to put assistant coaches in the press box for a bird’s-eye perspective during games. Some of his early business decisions would also shape the league. Halas was the first to broadcast games by radio and, in the television age, argued that larger-market teams like the Chicago Bears should share their revenue with smaller-market teams like the Green Bay Packers, a plan that ultimately helped insure the financial security of the league as a whole.

A shrewd businessman, Halas was known for being at once tightfisted and generous. He helped send one of his players to dental college. And when running back Brian Piccolo was diagnosed with cancer, Halas paid all his medical expenses.

Perhaps no figure has defined a franchise as much as George “Papa Bear” Halas did the Chicago Bears. During 63 years as their owner, 40 as their coach, and 10 as a player, he helped bring the Chicago Bears eight NFL championships and 324 victories, and was a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Chicago and the entire NFL were shocked when Halas died Oct. 31, 1983 at the age of 88. He had elected to keep his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer private.

The last coach he’d hired was Mike Ditka. Just before he died, he asked his secretary to purchase a bottle of champagne, then inscribed a note with instructions to “Give this to Mike when he wins the Super Bowl.” In 1985, the Bears did just that. When presented with the champagne, Ditka was moved to tears in memory of the Papa Bear, George Halas.

Originally published Feb. 2, 2011