The Chicago Bears are in their 44th year, all of them under the direction of George Halas. They have lacked, from time to time, quarterbacks, pass catchers, punters, receivers and money, but they have never (well, hardly ever) lacked at least one hotshot running back. Even in years when the Bears were a motley bunch of rinks, they could always point to a Red Grange, a Bronko Nagurski, a Ray Nolting or a George McAfee, not to mention a Beattie Feathers, a Paddy Driscoll, a Hugh Gallarneau or a Rick Casares. The tradition continues in the person of Ronnie Bull (see cover), last year's Rookie of the Year and this year's backfield workhorse for Halas' title-contending Bears. Bull, who compares favorably with the great backs shown on the preceding pages, is built like a fullback, with most of his weight (i.e., muscle development) from the waist down. But unlike most fullbacks, he can move in the open field. He has run the hundred in 9.7, ran the 220 in 21.4 to beat Bobby Morrow's high school record and is equipped with a sort of all-weather radar for spotting holes in the line. If this were not paradise enough for Halas and the Bears, Bull also can catch passes and has been known to throw a few. He is, in a word, the all-purpose back. As Offensive Coach Luke Johnsos of the Bears explains:
"The day is almost gone when all you had to be was a good runner. They can defense you too easily if they know you're going to run every time you get the ball. Even Jim Brown threw a pass for a touchdown two years ago. Alex Webster has started throwing the way Frank Gifford used to, and Paul Hornung will be driving everybody crazy again next year with that pass-run option of his. It won't be long before every back will have to be able to pass, run, catch passes and block, or the defense will murder him. You could say that Bull is the typical runner of the future."
"The typical runner of the future" is a half inch under 6 feet, two pounds over 200. His calves are elliptically muscled, like a sprinter's, and his thighs are heavy and long, like a fullback's. He is larger than life in that portion of his male anatomy sometimes known in the football trade as the butt. Like many ice skaters of both sexes, he juts out from over-developed pushing muscles. Withal, his muscles are loose, more soft than hard, more tennis-player type than weight-lifter type. When he walks, he leans forward a little, as though walking uphill. Forward is his natural attitude of movement. He is, in physique, a yardage machine. For the rest, he is a handsome young man, with brown crew cut, prominent cheekbones and a wide face, a ski-jump nose and eyes that change, willy-nilly, from green to brown and back to green. "I can't seem to control it," says Bull. "It just happens."
As a football player, Bull is nothing more nor less than history's answer to the conditions forced upon running backs by the schemingly clever defensive coaches of today. In football's paleolithic era, 15 or 20 years ago, the function of the safety man was to let nobody by him for a touchdown; the function of the defensive halfbacks was to grab anybody who came into their territory, and the function of the line was to "hold that line." "But now," says Johnsos, a former All-League end, "you never know what's going to happen. Even the safeties may come red-dogging in on you. It's like dodging bullets out there. Used to be the offside defensive linemen would take a few steps in, see that the play was going around the other side and either quit or make a halfhearted effort to chase the ballcarrier from behind. Nowadays, the offside linemen will take one step, then run right along the line of scrimmage after the ballcarrier. It's pursuit, pursuit, every second."
A runner like Bull combats such defensive sophistication with running sophistication peculiarly his own. With little time to sidestep, he feints instead. Bull must make the defensive back commit himself, but he does not slow down or change pace to fool the back because the pursuit men will come up from behind and give him the old Sonny Liston. So he feints: a flicker of movement toward the left with his head, a jerk of his shoulder toward the right. He uses eye fakes and hand fakes. But he does this at full speed, and the moves are mixed up, like a pitcher's repertoire—fake left, go left; fake right, go right; fake left, go right; fake right, go straight, etc.
Oddly enough, the running back cannot execute these fakes successfully unless, at some point or other, he runs straight at the defender he is trying to beat. Explains the erudite Chuck Mather, backfield coach of the Bears and author of texts on football: "If I'm running on an angle toward the right sideline, the defensive corner man knows I can't stay on that line; so he has two things to watch: either I'm going to cut to his left, or I'm going to run straight at him. If I'm running on an angle to his left, he knows I can't keep that up because there are tacklers out there; so he knows I'll either cut toward his right or run straight at him. Either way, he knows he has me limited to two choices. But what happens if first I run straight at him? Now I've got three choices: I can go right, left or straight. So we teach our backs to straighten up the defender by running right at him. Then they can make their feints and fakes. The trouble is, it's against nature to run straight at a man. You'd be surprised how many pros have trouble getting over the habit of dodging. But not Bull. He seems to do it by instinct."
"Ronnie is also expert at setting the defense up for his blockers," says Luke Johnsos. "You have your ballcarrier, and you have a couple of blockers out in front of him, and you have the defense. Now the worst thing a back can do is try to turn this into a footrace, because if he does he's gonna lose. The defense can see the line he's running on, go straight at him, and the blockers will have a tough time because they'll have to throw blocks on men who are moving at top speed. What Ronnie will do is he'll set up the defense. He'll dip this way or zig that way or give a little head fake—anything to make those defenders hesitate. And when they hesitate, our blockers can take them out of the play. I've never seen a kid that can use his blockers like Bull. And this is the absolute essence of pro running today."
It is the contention of Bear partisans that Bull, in his second season as a pro, already can match such past masters as Jim Taylor of the Packers and John David Crow of the Cardinals at still another important wile of the running back: reading the field. Says Johnsos: "He knows where to go, where their weakness is. He senses it. A lot of times we'll call an off-tackle play and he'll make 10 yards around the end, or vice versa. Sure, most running backs have that option, but they don't use it. If there's a nine-hole play, by God, they're gonna run through the nine hole in spite of everything. With Bull you never know where he's going."
"And when he does get hit," says Mather, "he has a fine sense of balance, and he doesn't go down unless it's a real good tackle. Some backs, the moment they see they're gonna get hit, they plop down. They forget to churn their legs forward. It sounds simple, but half of them don't do it. It's only the great backs who can get hit and still have their legs under them and get going again. Sure, it's another of those things that are against natural instinct. That's why they're so hard to learn. But Ronnie had them when he came here."
The young man who inspires such praise is in his 14th season of football and his 12th of T formation at the advanced age of 23, which sounds unlikely until you remember that Ronnie Bull was born and reared in Texas, where boys learn football shortly after the teething period. Bull was a T halfback in the fifth grade, and a lot of those techniques that Chuck Mather calls "unnatural" came to Bull simply by long experience, the sort of experience that a graduate of, say, Mother Willingham's School for Young Gentlemen is not going to get. There were only 38 students in Bull's class in Bishop, Texas, a tiny town near the King Ranch and not far from Corpus Christi, but the principal of the school decided that the fifth graders should play football. "Every day at P. E. time," Bull recalls, "he'd get us out there and put shoulder pads and jerseys on us and drill us in the fundamentals. He called us the 'Poochies.' We played on a regulation field, and the night we played the sixth grade, I wore this little old green helmet that was different from all the others. But I liked it, and it was a cold night, and there must have been 500 people there, and I was the only player in bare feet and a green helmet. I ran 65 yards for a touchdown, but the sixth grade beat us 13-7. The next day my art teacher said she was real proud of me because she could see that little green helmet popping around all over the place. Now I love to play football. I love the challenge of getting past somebody, faking or feinting or spinning, and it all goes right back to that first game. There's no greater fun than to have that ball under your arm and see what you can do with it."