Today marks exactly one week until the NFL's first full Sunday slate of games, where the Chicago Bears will begin the year at home versus the Green Bay Packers. To celebrate the season's approach, today's installment of Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff brings us to the life and career of the most important player in franchise history to don the number seven, former player, coach, and owner, George Halas.
George Halas Establishes Chicago Bears After NCAA, MLB Career
George Halas was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1895 and quickly developed a deep love for all sports. By the time he joined Crane High School, Halas had become a star athlete in football, basketball, and baseball. After graduating, Halas attended the nearby University of Illinois, where he participated in all three sports while earning a degree in civil engineering.
With the Illini, Halas played extremely well, especially on the gridiron, and even helped the team win the National Championship following the 1918 season. Unfortunately, efforts during the latter stages of the First World War forced Halas and several college athletes to enlist in various military branches. Halas, who served as an ensign with the Navy, was invited to the 1919 Rose Bowl, an event that was aimed to bring together the top collegiate athletes who were previously militarized. Halas had a standout showing in Pasadena, finishing with a receiving touchdown and a defensive touchdown in the team's 17-0 victory.
The game marked Halas's final collegiate outing on the gridiron, as he pursued a professional career in baseball upon graduating from Illinois. Signing with the New York Yankees, Halas was a respected outfielder after finishing his collegiate career with a .350 batting average, but his time as a pro would prove to be more difficult. In 12 games, the Chicago native struck two hits on 22 total at-bats, but his stint in the majors wouldn't be cut short due to a lack of production, but rather a freak hip injury that Halas suffered on the baselines.
His injury rendered his career as a professional baseball player over, and Halas returned to the state of Illinois to work at the A.E. Staley Company in Decatur. Employed by the starch manufacturer as a salesman, Halas quickly became a key feature of the company's softball and football teams, even serving as a player-coach for the latter squad, where he would pass on the teaching of his collegiate coach Bob Zuppke.
After playing initially as a recreational work league team, Halas was sent to a meeting in Canton, Ohio, where members from other teams would discuss joining a professional league. Halas came to the meeting as a representative of the Decatur Staleys football team, which resembled similar colors to Halas's in-state alma mater.
The meeting eventually led to the creation of the American Professional Football Association ahead of the fall of 1920 (the group would be renamed to the National Football League ahead of the 1922 season). The Staleys became one of 14 teams in the newfound league, which notably included other franchises in the Chicago Cardinals (one of two remaining teams from the league, alongside the Staleys/Bears), the Chicago Tigers (who played at then-named Cubs Park and folded after the first season), and the Jim Thorpe led Canton Bulldogs.
George Halas Leads Chicago Bears to Multiple NFL Championships as Player, Coach, Owner
In the team's first season in 1920, Halas, who donned the number seven, served as both thehead coach and as an end on both offense and defense. The Staleys finished second in the league with a 10-1-2 record, and Halas himself was named to the second-team All-APFA team. However, after just a taste of success, the team lost money in the year, and Halas and the company decided it was time to invest further in the team.
In 1921, the team moved to the big city and became the Chicago Staleys, which allowed them to increase their attendance and following greatly. They also spent money to provide players from other teams with better salaries, and quickly built a juggernaut of a team heading into their second season.
There, the Staleys finished the regular season with a 9-1-1 record, the best in a league that had expanded to 21 teams during the offseason. The team's lone loss came at home against the Buffalo All-Americans, who finished the year with an undefeated record. At this time, the champion was decided upon by a league-wide vote at the end of the season, for example, the winners the year prior, the Akron Pros, were named the consensus champions after finishing the season undefeated.
However, before the league voted to decide the 1921 champions, Halas and the Staleys demanded a rematch in Buffalo following their final scheduled contest. Chicago won, and the ensuing vote was swayed to go the Staleys' way, with Halas's team being named the league champions for the season.
Following the team's championship run, Halas remained a player-coach for the team for nearly the remainder of the 1920s. On the field, Halas played wherever necessary, starring at receiver, end, and even kicker when asked. However, his final season came in 1928, when he only played in four games throughout the year. At the end of the season, Halas stepped away from his on-field duties but remained the team's head coach.
Halas did take a brief sabbatical from 1930 to 1932, but following their championship in the final season, he rejoined the team for the 1933 campaign. Halas led the team to their third championship, and his second as the team's head coach. By this point, the league had grown enough both in size and national relevance to hold two separate divisions, with the winners facing off against one another in a post-season contest. The Bears won this game in both '32 and '33, perhaps a more validated championship than the one they won via a league-wide vote.
Nonetheless, Halas's success upon his return to the team would fuel the Illinois native to serve as the team's head coach through numerous championship seasons where he coached several all-time greats. Halas would end up purchasing the team ahead of the 1936 season, beginning his tenure where he served as coach, owner, and general manager.
Halas remained the team's head coach through the 1967 season, although he took a leave of absence during the Second World War. As the leader of the Chicago Bears, Halas witnessed six league championships, including the franchise's first in which Halas also played a crucial role on the field. After retiring from coaching, Halas remained the principal owner of the team up until he died in 1983 at the age of 88. The team has remained within his family with his daughter, Virginia McCaskey, serving as the team's principal owner to this day.
George Halas's Legacy with Chicago Bears, Impact on the Game of Football
It is hard to put into writing how crucial Halas was in not only the foundation of the Chicago Bears but that of the NFL as a whole. From the inception of the league, Halas has spent time with several celebrated, Hall of Fame-caliber players, coaches, and executives. After playing under Halas, several former Bears got into coaching themselves, including Mike Ditka, Bulldog Turner, and Richie Petitbon.
Outside of these players turned coaches, Halas was responsible for bringing in and developing several all-time greats including Bronko Nagurski, Bill Hewitt, Sid Luckman, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Walter Payton, and many, many more. Halas's impact on the team is even apparent to this day, with his initials posted on every player's jersey, the naming of the team's training facility "Halas Hall", and even just his nickname, which he is still referred to in memory today, in "Papa Bear".
Throughout his career and after his death, Halas received a number of great and unique recognitions for his impact on the game of football. Outside of being named to the Professional Football Hall of Fame in the organization's first year, the building in Canton, Ohio sits on George Halas Drive. His number seven was retired by the Chicago Bears following his death and a statue of Halas remains outside of Soldier Field to this day. A number of awards in both the college and NFL ranks are named after the all-time great, and was named one of the most influential sports figures in the 20th century.
Within the climate of Chicago sports, it is hard to argue that any other player, coach, or owner was crucial to a team's success more than Halas. Outside of Michael Jordan, few Chicago sports legends carried their teams to six championships, and Halas's 64 seasons spent with the Bears in some capacity or another takes him to a different level of legendary.