Today marks just five days until the Chicago Bears' home opener versus the Green Bay Packers on September 10th. To celebrate the season's rapid approach, today's installment of Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff brings us to the life and career of the best player in franchise history to don the number five, George McAfee.
Chicago Bears Add George McAfee in 1940 NFL Draft Trade
George McAfee was born in Corbin, Kentucky in 1918 before spending the majority of his childhood in Ironton, Ohio. There, McAfee attended Ironton High School, where he participated as a three-sport in football, baseball, and track and field. While McAfee starred in every sport, the 6'0", 175 lb player was clearly at his best on the gridiron, and following his graduation, he accepted a football scholarship from Duke University.
At Duke, McAfee quickly became an integral aspect on both sides of the ball. Offensively, McAfee served as a halfback, where his speed and quickness made him a scoring threat whenever he touched the ball. Defensively, he played defensive back, where he was a stingy player in the team's secondary.
While McAfee was generally considered to be a better offensive player, he was a key aspect in one of the nation's premier defensive units. Notably, during the 1938 season, McAfee and the Duke defense went the entire season without allowing a touchdown, finishing the campaign with a 9-0-0 record. Unfortunately, they would end up allowing one touchdown in the team's Rose Bowl showdown versus USC, where the Trojans won 7-3, knocking Duke from the top of the national rankings.
Despite being a member of a generationally talented defense, McAfee was regarded nationally as one of the top offensive weapons, especially during his final collegiate seasons in 1939. There, McAfee earned an All-American nod after leading his team in rushing yards, receiving yards, scoring, total interceptions, and both punt and kick return yards. Despite finishing the season undefeated within the Southern Conference for the second consecutive year, the team did not qualify for postseason play.
After his third season with the varsity team (freshmen were not permitted to play during this era), McAfee officially ended his collegiate career, where he helped the team post a 24-4-1 cumulative record. Off the gridiron, McAfee was a member of the team's baseball and track and field teams, serving as a solid outfielder and a conference-winning 100-meter sprinter in each sport, respectively. But McAfee had dreams of playing professional football, specifically in the NFL, a league that Chicago Bears coach and owner George Halas had helped create just 20 years prior.
Halas himself fell in love with McAfee as a prospect and saw him as potentially the team's premier running back, even as a rookie. Subsequently, the Chicago Bears worked out a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, who held the second-overall pick in the 1940 NFL Draft. The Eagles selected McAfee, who was then traded immediately to Halas's squad. The Duke standout joined a talented Bears rookie class that was headlined by future Hall of Famer Bulldog Turner.
George McAfee Wins Three Championships with Chicago Bears Amid WWII Service
In his rookie season, McAfee played on both sides of the ball, as a running back and a defensive back. He finished the year with 370 total scrimmage yards, two offensive touchdowns, and four interceptions while helping the team post a division-winning 8-3 record. Partly thanks to the efforts of McAfee, as well as quarterback Sid Luckman's play, the team finished with the second most productive scoring offense, and qualified to play the Washington Redskins in the NFL Championship game.
There, McAfee and the Chicago Bears had a dominant showing and won the game by a staggering 73 points. The Duke product did not score on offense, but he did have a 34-yard interception return that added to the team's insane point total.
The following year, it was evident that the Bears were the team to beat in the league, but McAfee's emergence as a dominant offensive weapon gave the team even more star power to work with. In his second season, the former All-American led the league in yards per touch (8.6) and had the longest rush of the season (70 yards) en route to finishing the year with 618 total yards, eight touchdowns, and an impressive six interceptions on defense. After the regular season, McAfee was awarded both Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro recognition. He also earned the nickname "One-Play McAfee" from teammates and fans for his ability to take any touch for a touchdown.
However, McAfee did not have time for nicknames and accolades as the Chicago Bears were preparing to play in the postseason for the second consecutive season. The league had added another round of playoffs, where the second and third-best teams faced off with the winner playing the one seed for the NFL Championship. The Bears took care of the Green Bay Packers in the first round and faced off against the New York Giants.
The Bears beat the Giants by four touchdowns, one of which was a five-yard punch in by McAfee. With a 37-9 final, McAfee and the Bears had won their second championship in as many years, but their streak would be forced to snap outside of forces within their control.
With the United States entering the Second World War in 1942, McAfee voluntarily joined the Navy, putting his professional football career on pause. However, the back was thankfully able to rejoin the team in 1945 after serving his country, but now at the age of 27, the veteran was used in more of a reserved fashion upon his return.
In 1945 and 46, McAfee played in only six combined regular season games, where he again split time on offense and defense. Over this span, the back finished with 414 all-purpose yards, seven offensive touchdowns, and four total interceptions. He was able to help the team win another NFL Championship following the 1946 season, marking McAfee's third ring with the team. He played sparingly on offense throughout the title game, but his two defensive interceptions were a key factor in beating the New York Giants by 10 points.
Following the team's postseason run, McAfee returned to being more of a featured role in the Bears' offense. Over the next three seasons, the Duke product made appearances in all 36 of the team's games, on both sides of the ball, but the team was not able to return to the top of the NFL rankings. Despite a lack of team success, McAfee enjoyed a career resurgence, In this span, McAfee posted over 600 total yards twice, including a career-high 701 yards in 1947. In three seasons, he recorded 15 total touchdowns and 19 total turnovers.
By the 1950 season, McAfee, who was entering the age-32 season, was relegated to almost exclusively playing on the defensive side of the ball. He finished the year with two interceptions and two fumble recoveries but logged only two total touches on the offensive side of the ball. The team made it to the postseason for the first time in five seasons, but they lost in the divisional round, and McAfee announced his retirement during the ensuing offseason.
George McAfee Retires From Chicago Bears, Life After Football
McAfee stepped away from the NFL after an eight-season career, all of which came with the Chicago Bears. He finished his career with over 3,000 offensive yards, 32 offensive touchdowns, 25 interceptions, and 13 officially recorded fumble recoveries. For his efforts during the decade, McAfee was named to the All-1940 team as selected by the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
Speaking of the organization, McAfee was inducted in Canton in 1966. He is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and was honored by the Chicago Bears shortly after his retirement with the retirement of his numbered five jersey in 1955.
Regarded generally as one of the franchise's best players of all time, McAfee was one of Halas's favorite players to coach. When Gale Sayers joined the Chicago Bears, over a decade after McAfee's retirement, many asked Halas how Sayers compared to the Duke standout. Halas replied “the highest compliment you can pay any ball carrier is just to compare him with McAfee", and later went on to state that McAfee was the best runner that he had ever seen.
Following his retirement from the NFL, McAfee remained close to the game, serving as a referee for the league for several seasons. Outside of working on the field, McAfee also joined his brothers in an oil business venture and notably returned to Duke for a number of the team's games.
Unfortunately, McAfee passed away in 2009. Spending his latter years in Georgia and North Carolina, the former Chicago Bear suffered from dementia, although he ultimately succumbed to chemical burns from accidentally drinking a toxic liquid while in assisted living. The McAfee family in turn sued the company, and the case was a prominent feature in a documentary that aimed to expose the unfit conditions of end-of-life care.