SI Vault
Richard W. Johnston
December 09, 1974
Memories swirl through the city and the old stadium where the Bears are fighting a holding action for their loyal fans, glorying in the heroic George Halas past and putting hope in a future that was no longer his
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December 09, 1974

Chicago: The Once And Future Bears

Memories swirl through the city and the old stadium where the Bears are fighting a holding action for their loyal fans, glorying in the heroic George Halas past and putting hope in a future that was no longer his

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The day was soft and gray, with a brisk southwest wind stiffening the flags that flank the slightly ridiculous close-order drill of columns surmounting the east and west sides of Chicago's Soldier Field. The game was of critical importance to Chicago Bear fans, as all Bear games are, and it mattered, of course, to Bear coaches and players and to members of the opposing team. But generally throughout the National Football League no one really cared much whether the Bears won or lost. To anyone with a sense of football history, that is very sad.

The Bears have fallen mightily since the days when they were The Monsters of the Midway, a sobriquet swiped from an even older local legend: Amos Alonzo Stagg's all-but-forgotten teams at the University of Chicago. In 1921 the Bears, directed by a youthful 26-year-old player-coach named George Halas, won the NFL's first championship. In 1925 Halas, then a mature 30, signed Red Grange out of the University of Illinois as soon as the college season was over, played exhibitions with him all over the country, drew 70,000 people to the Polo Grounds in New York and made much of America conscious of pro football for the first time. Red Grange subsided, Bronko Nagurski arose; the Bears won NFL championships in 1932 and 1933 and were even better in 1934, when they swept 13 straight games before being upset on a frozen field by a so-so New York Giant team that had the shrewdness to don sneakers to cope with the slippery footing. Six years later a panoply of Bears—Sid Luckman, Bill Osmanski, George McAfee, el al.—destroyed the Washington Redskins 73-0 in the most one-sided championship game in NFL history, and through the next three seasons lost a total of only three games. They were The Monsters. The Chicago Bears. The Best.

They won again in 1946, after World War II, but Halas was 51 then, and the best was past. From time to time the old man relinquished his coaching duties to his juniors—the incumbent is the gravel-voiced, 300-pound, phlebitis-afflicted Abe Gibron—but he still ran the team. And in all the years since, the Bears have won only one more title, and made it to the championship game only twice. Yet memories die hard, and the feeling in Chicago remained: the Bears were the Bears. The failures were temporary. It would all come back.

True, memories occasionally gave way to despair, even to rage, as the slump continued. In the past decade the Bears have had only two winning seasons. In the last five seasons they averaged only four victories and lost more than 70% of the games they played at home before their suffering followers. Yet week after week, year after year, the fans came back, crowding into the stands, their loyalty undiminished, anger always giving way to hope. When, this past September, Halas, now 79, stunned Chicago with the announcement that he was finally stepping aside and giving complete charge of the club to an outsider, Jim Finks, who previously had built the Minnesota Vikings into a power, hope triumphed and optimism was back in force. The future belonged to the Bears and Chicago.

Ah, Chicago. Perhaps uniquely in the U.S., it is a city built on stamina, endurance and stoicism. For more than a century waves of immigrants fleeing the poverty of European ghettos found their way to Michigan's shore, there to endure the suffocating summers and savage winters, suffering hunger, pain and privation but never yielding to despair. The rock 'em, sock 'em, bruise 'em, break 'em Bears, even when they are the recipients rather than the dispensers of violence, are a metaphor for the city itself. So for that matter is Soldier Field, its brightly painted seats and Astro Turfed surface a shining facade that distracts from but does not conceal the cracks in its ancient concrete and the 12-by-12-foot wooden beams that prop up its crumbling structure, just as the lakeshore Gold Coast stretches a thin, glamorous skin over a carcass as excruciatingly ugly as the bare-ribbed remnants of a rhinoceros.

Nowhere is glittering affluence and grinding poverty more closely juxtaposed. One has only to walk a few blocks west from the treelined avenues of the near North Side to enter an area of vacant lots grown waist deep with grass, of once-paved parking areas cracked apart by ferocious weeds, of scattered tenements unmellowed by time, their harsh brick edges gashed by white stone "decorations" that look like blunted sharks' teeth. The sounds of the near West Side, of back-of-the-yards, of Humboldt Park and Logan Square are the scrape of a nightstick on a blue-cold shinbone or the thwack-crunch of a tackle by Dick Butkus, the Bears' all-everything linebacker, now invalided into retirement. The sounds of the Gold Coast, by contrast, are the same as those of Manhattan, Nob Hill or Beverly Hills: shrill laughter in the night, ice tinkling in thin glasses. In 1922, when young Halas christened his team the Bears, he chose well; tigers slash, wildcats claw, but bears maul.

It is of course foolish to say that the working-class districts are the real Chicago as opposed to the rich fringe along the lake. Both are Chicago, and both have been locked in a love-hate embrace with the Bears for more than 50 years. Of the two, however, the neighborhoods' hold is stronger. It was not the Poles of Archer Heights nor the Bohemians of Pilsen and South Lawndale who began flirting with the Chicago Fire when that once-promising World Football League franchise came into being last summer. It was the Gold Coast arrivistes, people who did not have generational ties to the Bears (along with those who can't get tickets to soldout Bear games and a few who still resent the departure years ago of the Chicago Cardinals).

"I was a Jet fan when I came out here seven years ago," says John Fischetti, the Daily News' Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist, "but then I got interested in the Bears. You go to every game, hoping this one will be the turn. Then they screw up, and your hope turns bitter. By the end of the game you hate every man on the team and Halas, too. It's love going in, hate coming out. But by Wednesday your hopes go up again. I'll admit that when The Fire started, I felt my loyalties wavering. I think all Chicagoans are hungry for a winner. But now, with Jim Finks here and The Fire sputtering...."

If Fischetti typifies the new and not totally constant breed of Bear fan, Mike Royko, the syndicated columnist who dissected Mayor Richard J. Daley in his brilliant biography Boss a few years ago, speaks eloquently for the old loyalists. "You've got to remember that this is a very ethnic town," says Royko, who is of Polish-Hungarian descent. "Bill Osmanski and his brother Joe meant a lot to it. And what greater symbol could you have than Bronko Nagurski? He was the Ukrainian Paul Bunyan. Bear fans go for players like Ed O'Bradovich and Mike Ditka and Ed Sprinkle and Bulldog Turner—not all ethnics, but really tough, mean guys. People like that turned the factory workers into fans.

" George Halas was very popular for years. He provided all that crunch. Now a great dislike has grown up for him. You know, 'El Cheapo.' I don't think Halas is cheap. He's an ethnic, too, and ethnics here have learned not to give money away. He's a Bohemian, from that big colony out along Ashland Avenue. Bohemians are frugal, hardworking people. Remember this—Halas didn't build the Bears with H.L. Hunt's money, he did it by working hard and fighting hard. He's a jock down to his toes."

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