The odds against a rookie winning a starting position on a veteran professional football team are about the same as the odds against the new Atlanta Falcons winning the National Football League championship this year. The odds against two rookies are incalculably high, and it clearly is impossible for two rookies to make the same team in the same season and also be chosen All-League.
After a quarterback has spent 10 years in the NFL without creating a noticeable ripple, it is virtually beyond hope for him ever to become a starter. And if he spent 10 years on the phones to the coaches in the press box while worthier teammates ran the club, you could hardly expect him to lead the NFL in passing.
If all these unlikely things happen to one team in one season, you have the equivalent of three successive winning plays on the 13 on a double-zero roulette wheel in Las Vegas—in other words, the Chicago Bears in 1965.
Gale Sayers scored 22 touchdowns in his rookie season, finished second to Jim Brown in rushing and was a unanimous All-Pro. Dick Butkus moved into one of the most difficult defensive jobs in football—middle linebacker—and uprooted Bill George and played the position so well that he was on the Pro Bowl team.
Most significant for Chicago championship hopes, 34-year-old Rudy Bukich, who passed USC to a 7-0 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin in the long, long ago, came off the bench in the middle of the third game of the year to take over the Bear offense and lead the NFL in passing. Everyone knew about Sayers and Butkus last year, but most people think John Brodie won the passing championship. Yet if the Bears should win the NFL title this year, it will be due primarily to the abilities of erstwhile benchwarmer Rudolph Andrew Bukich (see cover). Sayers and Butkus are back and probably even more effective than they were a year ago, but Bukich was—and still is—the key to the Bears. He is a handsome man, and an intelligent one, with black hair and blue eyes. He has a master's degree in education administration and is working toward a doctorate. Rumor has it that his fabulous arm can fling a football 100 yards through the air, but he denies this, and no one has ever seen him do it. But he can do everything else and he has everything else—accuracy, maturity, judgment—and he just may be worth John Brodie's million-dollar salary.
It is a curious fact that Bukich was the Los Angeles Rams' No. 1 draft choice in 1953, while the man he replaced at Chicago, Billy Wade, was the Rams' first pick in 1952. George Halas, Chicago's owner-coach, had been infatuated with Wade. Billy is an exemplary man and, in the technical sense, a fine quarterback. He can throw a ball accurately a long way—but not as far as Bukich can. Wade is a devout member of his church and does not drink, curse or use tobacco. Yet in his 12 years as a quarterback Wade has not been a winner.
True, the Bears won the NFL championship in 1963 with Wade at quarterback, but that season the defense gave up only 10 points a game, and your maiden Aunt Jessie, provided she could throw a football 20 yards, could have been the Bear quarterback. As it was, the Chicago offense averaged only 22 points a game that year.
The next season, as Bukich sat on the bench, the Bears dropped from first place to sixth in the West. It was early in 1965 that Bukich was given the opportunity to take over the Bear attack. Wade was hurt, and Halas' only other alternative was to play second-year man Larry Rakestraw.
Bukich's invitation to glory came in a disastrous September. The Bears had lost their first two games and were trailing Green Bay 20-0 in the third quarter when Bukich pulled on his navy-blue helmet and strode up behind the Chicago center, Mike Pyle. From that moment he was No. 1. Under his guidance the Bears won the second half of the game by a score of 14-3 in the 23-14 loss. With Bukich in command, Chicago became the sensation of the West, winning nine of the next 11 games and finishing a powerful third to Green Bay and Baltimore.
It had been a long, rough journey up. "When I was ready to turn pro I was in a quandary," Bukich says. "I wanted the Rams to draft me. I wanted to play in Southern California, and I was a Ram fan. At the same time I kind of wanted to be drafted somewhere else, because I knew that I would not get much of a chance to play in Los Angeles. The Ram quarterbacks were Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield, and I didn't really expect to take over from them."