Today marks 63 days until the Chicago Bears open up the 2023 season at home versus the Green Bay Packers, and to celebrate the season inching closer and closer, today's installment of Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff will feature the life and career of the best player in franchise history to don the number 63, legendary center Jay Hilgenberg.
Jay Hilgenberg's Path to the Chicago Bears
A native of Iowa City, Iowa, Hilgenberg's football journey started as a high schooler when he began to pen his chapter in his family's book of football. Jay's uncle, Wally Hilgenberg, was a Super Bowl-winning linebacker with the Minnesota Vikings. His father, Jerry Hilgenberg, was an All-American center at Iowa after being recruited as a quarterback. Following in his dad's footsteps, Jay turned an impressive high school career into a scholarship offer from Iowa, where he would become the team's starting center.
At Iowa, Hilgenberg turned into a starting-caliber offensive lineman and was the anchor at the center position for the Hawkeyes during the late 1970s. During his time in the Big 12, Iowa struggled to remain relevant in the conference despite having solid future NFL talent. Nonetheless, Hilgenberg entered his name into the 1981 NFL Draft the spring following his final collegiate season, and despite having a historically relevant name within the NFL, the center went undrafted.
Fortunately, the Chicago Bears were able to sign Hilgenberg as a free agent, and after sitting behind veteran Dan Neal for the better part of three seasons, the former Hawkeye was named a starter heading into the 1984 season.
Jay Hilgenberg Becomes Super Bowl Champion, 7x Pro Bowler with Chicago Bears
In his first season as a starter, Hilgenberg manned the middle of an impressive offensive line that featured the likes of Jimbo Covert and Keith Van Horne. As a unit, the line helped running back Walter Payton post over 2,000 all-purpose yards on the year en route to a 10-6 finish. In the ensuing postseason, Hilgenberg and the Bears got all the way to the NFC Championship, where they were, unfortunately, unable to score a single point against a formidable 49ers defense. unfortunately
The following season, the Bears as a unit were on a path bent for revenge, with Hilgenberg and the offensive line being no exception. After helping Sweetness to yet another 2,000-yard season, Hilgenberg was nominated to the Pro Bowl. But after finishing the season with a 15-1 record, the team had a bigger bowl game in mind, and HIlgenberg helped pave the way for a star-studded offense that complimented one of the best defenses in the history of football.
In the championship game itself, Hilgenberg commanded an offense that totaled over 400 yards, but perhaps more important than the overall domination was the center's pivotal role in one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history, defensive tackle William "The Fridge" Perry's 1-yard touchdown rush in the third quarter.
Hilgenberg followed up the Super Bowl with another consistently great season in 1986 and was named to his second Pro Bowl at the end of the season. The center was also named to Second-Team All-Pro. In 1987, Hilgenberg only made the Pro Bowl after starting and playing in just 12 of the team's games, and with Payton leaving during the ensuing offseason, the offensive line would be tested with less talent to work with heading into 1988.
Fortunately for replacement, Neal Anderson, Hilgenberg, and the offensive line helped him reach nearly 1,500 all-purpose yards. The center was not only named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl following the season but was named to the First-Team All-Pro for the first time in his career. Hilgenberg matched these accolades in '89 and '90 before being held to a sole Pro Bowl nod following the 1991 campaign.
During the ensuing summer, Hilgenberg became a free agent, and he signed a one-year deal with the Cleveland Browns. Following his lone season in the AFC, Hilgenberg signed with the New Orleans Saints in 1993. Jay started in six of the team's games with his younger brother Joel manning the center position for nine of the team's games. Alas, the former Bears legend retired from the NFL after his family reunion of sorts in 1994.
Jay Hilgenberg's Retirement and Life After Football
Hilgenberg retired from the NFL after a 13-year career, 11 of which came with the Bears. In Chicago, the center made 130 starts, made seven consecutive Pro Bowls starting in his first season as a starter, and was nominated to four All-Pro teams. In the postseason, the Bears won six of Hilgenberg's twelve appearances, including the storied playoff and Super Bowl run following the 1996 season.
Hilgenberg's legacy not only puts him at the top of the Chicago Bears' history but also adds to his family's storied legacy. Amongst Jay, his brother, father, and uncle, the Hilgenbergs have totaled 39 NFL seasons, 375 starts, eight Pro Bowl nods, five Super Bowl appearances, and a staggering 19 varsity letters at Iowa.
After retiring in 1994, Hilgenberg has been eligible for the Hall of Fame since 1999. Unfortunately, the legendary center that helped one of the best running backs of all time has yet to be inducted, to the dismay of several fans, not only of the Bears but of football in general.