EDITOR: With this being the 75th anniversary of the invasion on Normandy, we wanted to share an article about one of the men that stormed the beach that day, Bears’ Hall of Famer, Sid Luckman.
This article originally published in November of 2018.
The trucks weren’t going to drive themselves. Sid Luckman knew that.
This was 1943, and Luckman had already set aside his family’s trucking business for four successful NFL seasons. The former Columbia University standout was a three-time Pro Bowler, a two-time All Pro, a two-time champion and the quarter back for the greatest victory professional football had ever seen, a 73-0 deconstruction of Washington in the 1940 NFL championship game.
Luckman was also concerned about the sport’s potential deterioration due to players entering the war. The American armed forces were siphoning top talent away from the NFL, with more than 100 players entering the ranks by 1942. The Bears’ losses in 1943 would include tackle Joe Stydahar (Navy), half back George McAfee (Navy), half back Hugh Gallarneau (Marines) and head coach George Halas (Navy).
Besides, Luckman entered the professional ranks concerned about his size and unsure about his financial prospects. He’d proven his size was no factor, and he’d made a fair amount of money, starting with Halas giving him the richest contract in team history as a rookie while telling him, “You and Jesus Christ are the only two that I would pay $5,000.”
So in July of 1943, the 26-year-old Luckman joined former legendary Bears consultant Clark Shaughnessy at the University of Pittsburgh to help teach the T-formation to Shaughnessy’s Pitt Panthers. His own career was far from his mind.
“There’s a good chance I won’t,” Luckman said when asked about playing for the Bears that season. “I haven’t thought much about football (and) I hardly think I will want to coach. I’ve got my trucking business in New York.”
Who knows how close Luckman came to retiring that summer. After all, just a month later he was back in the fold with the Bears. If he had retired, even for one year, he would not have produced arguably the greatest passing season the NFL has ever seen. He would not have led the Bears to their third championship of the 1940s.
And on November 14, 1943, he would not have set an NFL record for passing yards in a game, nor become the first NFL player to throw seven touchdown passes in one game, a figure that to this day remains the standard by which all are judged.
Slingin’ Sammy, meet Slingin’ Sid
Think about the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and add to it the career-long tête-à-tête between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and you will understand the showdown in 1943 between Chicago’s Sid Luckman and Washington’s Sammy Baugh.
Baugh’s NFL career as Washington’s quarter back began in 1937, two years before Luckman joined the Bears, and in six seasons Baugh’s prowess had already yielded a pair of championships, three All Pro selections and 57 touchdown passes. He was the gold standard at his position: by 1943, he had twice led the NFL in passing yards, twice in completion percentage and once in touchdowns.
He entered the ‘43 season 2nd all-time in passing yards, a mere 125 yards from Cecil Isbell’s record, and 4th all-time in passing touchdowns, just 10 away from Arnie Herber’s record. Baugh hadn’t thrown fewer than 10 touchdowns in a season since 1939.
Between the two of them, Luckman was not considered statistically dominant. In his four NFL seasons to that point, he’d only topped Baugh statistically in passer rating, a statistic that would not even be invented for another 30 years. Between 1939 and 1942, Baugh led Luckman in passing yards (4,645 to 3,782), yards per game (110.6 to 86.0), touchdowns (44 to 28) and completion percentage (58.2% to 51.6%).
Yet Luckman was still considered the greater player. At the conclusion of the 1942 regular season, Luckman was the leader of a team that had won two straight championships and 24 straight games, scoring an average of more than 33 points per contest. He and Baugh were both named first-team All Pro, but Luckman received more votes, making him the defacto first-team quarter back.
He was the man everyone trusted to get the win. He led a team favored five-to-one to bag a three-peat.
Then Baugh stared into the face of Luckman’s Bears and knocked them out 14-6 to win the 1942 title.
While neither man lit the world on fire that day as passers, Luckman produced what is undoubtedly one of the worst passing games for any star — nay, any player — in postseason history: five completions on 12 attempts for two yards, with zero touchdowns and two interceptions.
“I thought Sid Luckman was below par,” wrote Chicago Cardinals head coach and future Hall of Famer Jim Conzelman in a column in the Tribune the day after the game. “He seemed to hold the ball longer before passing than is his usual wont.”
That was the setting for 1943: Luckman wondering whether he would play, knowing that if he did he had to avenge the ‘42 title game, and Baugh taking aim at the NFL’s career passing records, and presumably the single-season and single-game records too.
The single-game record for touchdown passes was five, shared by two passers: Ray Buivid of the Bears did it first, in 1937, and Cecil Isbell of the Packers did it next, in 1942.
Buivid’s performance was a fluke — he had only one more touchdown the rest of that season and only six more total the rest of his two-year career. Isbell’s was the real deal. By the end of 1942, Isbell held the NFL record for aerials in a game — the aforementioned five — and in a season, with 24 in 1942. Arnie Herber, the man Isbell replaced in Green Bay, held the career mark with 66.
Baugh got there in Week 7. In a 48-10 Washington over the Brooklyn Dodgers, Slingin’ Sammy broke the single-game record by tossing six touchdowns. His 2nd of the game gave him 67 on his career, passing Herber. By the end of the game he had 14 on the year, just 10 shy of Isbell. And Isbell wasn’t around to stave him off, either — he entered the collegiate coaching ranks in 1943, ending his pro career.
If Baugh was the Mark McGwire in this analogy — the favorite to shatter all records — then Luckman was the Sammy Sosa, a statistical outsider who muscled his way into the fight. After Week 7, despite Baugh’s six TDs against the Dodgers, he and Luckman were tied with 14 apiece. The next week, Luckman took the lead with two TDs to Baugh’s one.
That brought him to a trip to the New York Giants, his hometown team. He was an MVP candidate. And he was chasing history.
7 scores: a “touchdown parade”
Understanding the power of a statistic years in the past isn’t easy. We see something like “Wilt’s 100 points” or “Hugh Duffy’s .440 average” and don’t know for sure how fans of the day interpreted those totals.
We might be inclined to think the same of Sid’s seven scores. After all, seven players have tied his mark, and while Drew Brees did it most recently in 2015, the list includes a pre-Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, along with low-level Pro Bowlers Adrian Burk and Joe Kapp.
Quarterbacks have tossed six touchdowns in a game a bunch of times, including of course our own Mitch Trubisky, who did it in September.
But the record was five entering the 1943 season, and when Baugh made it six on Halloween of that year, the number popped.
On Nov. 14, 1943, Sid Luckman enlisted in the war effort himself, as a merchant marine.
Then he stepped on the field and out-slung Sam.
On a day Baugh threw a robust four TDs and led Washington to a 42-20 win over the Lions, Sid Luckman threw a record seven touchdowns, breaking Baugh’s two-week-old record and leading the Bears to a 56-7 win over the Giants. He also passed for 433 yards, shattering Isbell’s single-game record of 333 set in 1942.
His teammate Bob Synder set an NFL record by converting eight-straight extra points. The 56 points was the third highest total in NFL history, after Chicago’s famed 73-0 game in 1940 and Philadelphia’s 64-0 romp over the Cincinnati Reds in 1934.
Luckman’s touchdown parade, as it was called, started with two in the 1st quarter: a four-yarder to Jim Benton and one for 31 yards to Connie Mack Berry.
The Giants scored their only points of the game with a one-yard rush in the 2nd quarter to cut the Bears lead to 14-7, and Luckman tossed another TD that quarter, followed by a Harry Clarke rushing touchdown that put the Bears up 28-7 at the half.
Luckman then threw two touchdowns in both the 3rd and 4th quarters, to Clarke and Benton and then to George Wilson and Hampton Pool.
Of Luckman’s performance, the Tribune wrote that he “pitched a pigskin as it was never pitched before.”
Luckman now led Baugh 23-19 in touchdowns. He was having the time of his life.
“All this chatter about my planning to quit at the end of the season is just newspaper talk that somebody dreamed up,” Luckman said after the game. “I’m only 26 years old and I feel younger than I ever have. And I love the game more than ever, too!”
“That old time Bear terror”
A week after Luckman tossed seven, Baugh had his revenge.
The two dueling aerialists met at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., with each man tossing one touchdown. But the Bears gained no other points and lost 21-7. They were 7-1-1, Washington was 6-0-1, and the teams seemed destined to meet again in the playoff.
The Bears beat the Cardinals 35-24 to finish the season, and Luckman threw four more touchdowns to reach 28 and the new NFL record. Baugh couldn’t keep up — he threw three more total in the final three weeks after the Bears game, all losses, and finished the year with 23.
Those three losses tied Washington with the Giants atop the Eastern division, and Washington blanked the Giants 28-0 in the divisional playoff. The Bears won the Western division outright, and on Dec. 26, 1943, hosted Washington at Wrigley Field for the NFL championship.
Baugh threw two touchdowns.
Luckman threw five.
The Bears won 41-21.
They were champions once more.
“The Bears played the perfect strategy today,” Halas said after the game. “They ran over the Redskins early in the game — gave them a terrific physical licking. Thus they restored that old time Bear terror, which hasn’t always existed in the last couple of seasons.”
Luckman was the chief terrorist, with 286 passing yards and zero interceptions, along with 64 yards on the ground. On defense, he had a game-high two interceptions, which he returned for 39 yards. And he ran back two kickoffs for a game-high 32 yards.
Two months later, Luckman received the Joe F. Carr Trophy for league MVP, a fitting capstone to perhaps the finest passing season in NFL history. He led the league in passing yards, touchdowns and, had it existed, passer rating at a career-high 107.5. He also set an NFL record that still stands, throwing touchdowns on 13.9% of his attempts.
To put that in perspective, in 2013 Peyton Manning set the NFL record with 55 touchdown passes, doing so on 659 attempts for an 8.3 percentage. Luckman attempted 202 passes. At his rate and with Manning’s number of attempts, Luckman would have thrown for 92 scores.
Think about that: 92 touchdowns.
With the marines waiting, Luckman assumed he’d played his final game. (He was wrong — he played until 1950.) His teammate Bronko Nagurski didn’t assume — having already retired once, after the ‘37 season and until this one, he, Bronko, announced his retirement again.
He asked Luckman for the game ball.
“This was my last game, too,” Luckman told Nagurski, “and I want this one to put among my souvenirs. I’ll buy you a dozen footballs to have around the house, but this one I keep.”
And so he did.
Jack M Silverstein is Windy City Gridiron’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” He is the proprietor of Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.
AUTHOR’S CORRECTION, AUG. 27, 2022: An earlier version of this story said that Luckman threw for 453 yards in his 7-TD game, when in fact he threw for 433. The original reporting in 1943 credited him with 453 yards. I have since checked it against Pro Football Reference / Stathead plus additional newspaper reporting, most significantly from reporting after Sammy Baugh broke Luckman’s record, with 446 yards on Oct. 31, 1948.
I regret the error.