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The 50-Year Plan: how the Bears can unretire numbers and honor more legends

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In 2013, the Bears declared that they would retire no more numbers after Ditka’s 89, thus leaving some all-time greats without the honor. WCG historian Jack M Silverstein offers a plan to unretire numbers in a way that will, hopefully, be a win-win for everyone.

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring number 34? What if they put Walter’s initials permanently on the sleeve... and didn’t do it until 50 years after the number was retired? (Photo by Robert Fila, Chicago Tribune — via newspapers.com — taken at Soldier Field, Oct. 8, 1984, after Payton broke Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record)

EDITOR: With trade rumors about Russell Wilson prompting Photoshoppers of all skill levels to put Wilson in a #3 Chicago Bears jersey, we’re often reminded that the number three is one of fourteen the Bears have retired over the years. If the Bears were to trade for Wilson, he wouldn’t be able to don his “old” number as that is retired for Chicago legend Bronko Nagurski.

The Naguriski family could give their blessing to allow #3 back into active duty if the Bears do acquire Wilson, which is what the Goldberg family recently did when they gave permission for new Cardinals’ defensive lineman J.J. Watt to wear Marshall Goldberg’s retired #99.

So with the jersey number debate raging on the last few days we wanted to refresh this fantastic article from Jack M Silverstein that was originally published on April 17, 2018.


Quenton Nelson has worn number 56 since high school, but if the Bears draft him this month that will change. That’s because number 56 is retired here for a player whose Bears career ended 82 years ago.

His name was Bill Hewitt. He played end (the early version of receiver) and defensive end for the Bears for his first five NFL seasons, from 1932 to 1936. He made four All Pro teams during that time, helped the Bears win two championships, finished his career in 1943, died in a car accident in 1947 and had his Bears number retired in 1949. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

Hewitt was one of the first three Bears to receive the honor of a retired number. In the same ceremony, George Halas retired #77 for Red Grange and #3 for Bronko Nagurski. In other words, Bill Hewitt is undoubtedly one of the greatest Bears of all-time.

The trouble is, no Bears fan under the age of 75 was even alive during his career. A Bears fan who was 10 years old for Hewitt’s final season in Chicago would be 92 today. I bet most Bears fans have never heard his name. If the team drafts Nelson, the fans disappointed that he can’t wear his college jersey would far outnumber those who want to retain the honor bestowed upon the great Bill Hewitt.

Hewitt is one of 14 Bears with a retired number. That’s the most in the NFL, and fourth most in sports behind the Celtics (22), Yankees (21) and Canadiens (15). When in 2013 the Bears announced that the franchise’s 14th retired number would be Mike Ditka’s #89, chairman George McCaskey said the honor would be the team’s final one.

That means no retired number for Mike Singletary, long overdue. It means no retired numbers for new Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher or future Hall of Famer Devin Hester. It means no retired numbers for guys many fans believe should have already received the honor, such as Dan Hampton and Richard Dent. And it means new stars like Nelson cannot continue their collegiate numerical legacy in the professional ranks.

It is time for the Bears to unretire numbers.

I’m not the first person to suggest this. Matter fact, the first draft of this story opened with a lead lamenting Singletary’s #50 returning to circulation after 20 years of unofficial retirement. I hadn’t even thought of the Quenton Nelson angle until I read this tweet from WCG reader @BestHumanTalent:

Amazingly, almost immediately after reading that tweet, I saw this one:

“We discussed a whole range of options,” McCaskey said in 2013 about the too-many-retired-numbers problem. “Unretiring numbers was thrown out there and thrown out because I said if we’re going to unretire numbers, we’re going to have to start with number 7.”

That is a reference to George Halas, McCaskey’s grandfather, whose playing career ended in 1929 but whose number actually wasn’t retired until at least 1985. I don’t totally know what McCaskey means here, either why the team would have to start with number 7 or why that occurrence ruins the unretiring idea. I like the unretiring idea, but I wouldn’t start with Halas.

This is what I would do:

  1. Unretire numbers 50 years after they were retired.
  2. Hold an unretirement ceremony at Soldier Field for the player (if alive) and his family (more likely).
  3. Put the number back in circulation but permanently place the player’s initials on the sleeve beneath the GSH.
  4. Add a ring of honor to Soldier Field.

The reason to retire a number is to honor the player. Part of that honor is not forcing people to see someone else wearing the number that a given player immortalized. I don’t want to see Bob Avellini wearing Halas’s 7, or Jim Morrisey wearing Butkus’s 51, or James Anderson wearing Singletary’s 50, or even Kyle Fuller wearing Hester’s 23.

To be real, I didn’t love seeing Hester wearing Jerry Azumah’s 23, though Hester obviously quickly made it his own. I didn’t like seeing Adam Archuleta in Thomas Jones’ 20, and I thought it was super weird in 2015 when the Bears offense featured Peanut’s 33 (Jeremy Langford) and Briggs’ 55 (Hroniss Grasu).

But the flipside is that after a certain point, that number association is lost. Few if any current Bears fans would be hurt to see Nelson or another Bear wearing Hewitt’s #56. How many Bears fans could have even told you who number 56 was for? How about 28 or 41 or 61 or 66?

That right there is perhaps an even greater argument for unretiring numbers. With no public display at Soldier Field, the players whose numbers have been retired the longest become lost to history, no more special than their less heralded teammates. This was part of the argument in 2014 that led to Deshaun Watson wearing his high school #4 at Clemson, and including a patch with the name FULLER on the jersey to honor former Clemson QB (and Super Bowl Shuffler) Steve Fuller, for whom the number had been retired.

I reached out to the Bears’ media relations department to get each year that the team retired a jersey, which they sent, and which I have also cross-checked with my own research. Want to know something cool? If we enact my plan, in the first season we get to unretire numbers 3, 5, 28, 42, 56, 66, and 77.

That’s seven numbers, including one obvious linebacker (which lets us retire Singletary’s 50), one obvious back/returner (which lets us retire Hester’s 23) and one obvious defensive lineman (for either Hampton or Dent).

Here is the complete list of Bears retired numbers, in order of how soon we can unretire them, and which recent Bears can be honored as a result.

  • Red Grange, 77—retired Nov. 30, 1949
  • Bill Hewitt, 56—retired Nov. 30, 1949
  • Bronko Nagurski, 3—retired Nov. 30, 1949
  • Sid Luckman, 42—retired Jan. 7, 1954
  • Bulldog Turner, 66—retired likely in 1954
  • George McAfee, 5—retired in 1955
  • Willie Galimore, 28—retired in 1964, after his death July 27
  • Brian Piccolo, 41—retired in 1970, after his death June 16
  • Bill George, 61—retired March 28, 1974
  • Walter Payton, 34—retired Dec. 20, 1987
  • George Halas, 7—retired likely in 1988
  • Gale Sayers, 40—retired Oct. 31, 1994
  • Dick Butkus, 51—retired Oct. 31, 1994
  • Mike Ditka, 89—retired Dec. 9, 2013

77: Red Grange

  • Bears career: 1925, 1929-1934
  • Year Bears retired his number: 1949
  • Players who’ve worn it since: none
  • Year unretired: now (1999)
  • Hall of Fame: 1963

The first documented case of a professional player having his number retired was Toronto Maple Leafs wing Ace Bailey, who earned the honor in 1934 after an on-ice fight fractured his skull and ended his career.

But nine years prior, the football team at University of Illinois retired number 77 for alumnus and new Bears halfback Red Grange. Back then, number 77 was as synonymous with Grange as number 23 is with Michael Jordan. When Grange was still in college, passengers on a train labeled “Engine 77” called it the “Grange Special.” In 1937, three years after Grange’s pro career ended, no less than Grantland Rice called Grange’s number 77 “the most famous number in sport history.”

Red Grange admires his #77 Illini jersey, which the University of Illinois retired upon his signing with the Chicago Bears. Grange’s 77 with the Bears was one of the franchise’s first three numbers retired. (Photo from the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Nov. 23, 1925. All newspaper clippings via Newspapers.com.)

So yeah, 77 was a big deal. Grange signed with the Bears for their Thanksgiving game of 1925, left the team following a contract dispute, formed his own league, watched it fold, injured his knee, returned to the Bears in 1929 and played with the team until 1934. According to the Bears, the team retired Grange’s number in 1935, though I found an article dated Dec. 1, 1949, in which Halas held a ceremony at Bears headquarters to retire the numbers of Grange, Hewitt, and Nagurski.

According to Pro Football Reference and my additional research, Grange is the only Bear to wear number 77. In other words, the team unofficially retired his number after his retirement, and did it officially in 1949. For our purposes, Grange’s number is up for unretirement immediately either way.

In a ceremony Nov. 30, 1949, George Halas (left) announced the first number retirements in Bears history: #56 for the late Bill Hewitt, #3 for Bronko Nagurski, and #77 for Red Grange, pictured here. (From the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 1, 1949)

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: The number 77 can be used for an offensive or defensive lineman, or a long snapper. (Here is the complete list from the NFL.) This one is between Hampton, Dent and Doug Atkins. Since Hampton and Dent are alive and Atkins is not, I want to do theirs as soon as possible. Also, I’ve got a good one coming for Atkins. Between Hampton and Dent, I’m giving it to Hampton based on seniority.

We have eight home games and seven unretirement ceremonies, along with a yet-to-be determined number of retirement ceremonies. Honoring Red Grange, who died in 1991, and Dan Hampton on the same day would be a huge affair.

New Bears linebacker/defensive end Aaron Lynch was assigned number 99, so he will need a new number. We’ll come back to him.

Current Bear I want to see in number 77: Honestly, I would love to see Kyle Long make the switch, but he’s pretty well ensconced in 75. No one else stands out to me, so we’re just going to hang on to 77 until the right guy comes along.

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating Red Grange’s #77?

This poll is closed

  • 76%
    Yes
    (375 votes)
  • 23%
    No
    (113 votes)
488 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should the Bears retire #99 for Dan Hampton?

This poll is closed

  • 63%
    Yes
    (305 votes)
  • 26%
    No
    (128 votes)
  • 9%
    No opinion
    (44 votes)
477 votes total Vote Now

56: Bill Hewitt

  • Bears career: 1932-1936
  • Year Bears retired his number: 1937/1949
  • Players who’ve worn it since: none
  • Year unretired: now (1987/1999)
  • Hall of Fame: 1971

A four-time All Pro, Hewitt played his first five seasons with the Bears and played the remainder of his career with the Eagles and then the 1943 Steagles (the one-season Eagles-Steelers merger team during World War II). Hewitt was a certified tough guy: I’ve read he was one of the final NFL players to play without a helmet, though I actually cannot find a single photo of him wearing one.

As a Bear in 1933, Hewitt made one of the most badass plays I’ve ever seen or read about. He blocked Green Bay’s would-be go-ahead field goal with his chest in the game’s final minute, scooped up the ball and returned it for a touchdown, leading to a 14-7 Bears win.

Hewitt’s final season in Chicago was 1936. No Bear wore his number 56 after that. He retired in 1943 and died in a car accident in 1947.

Bears captain Bill Hewitt in his famous number 56, from the Moline Dispatch, Sept. 9, 1936.

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: Numbers in the 50s can be worn by linemen or linebackers, and since we have another chance coming up for Dent, this is the perfect opportunity to retire number 50 for Singletary. Should have been done already. Let’s right this ship.

Current Bear I want to see in this jersey: Excluding the possibility of Nelson, my choice would be either Sam Acho or Nick Kwiatkowski, two scrappy tough guys. Although that’s not really fair to Hewitt, who only seems “scrappy” in the modern context. The dude was widely regarded as the best end of his time; if the term “freak” existed in 1932, Hewitt would have been a candidate for that athletic honorific.

Since Acho has seniority over Kwiatkowski and just signed a two-year deal, let’s give Acho the number, with Hewitt’s initials going on the sleeve. (And I’m making an executive decision here: we’re going with BH, rather than WEH for William Ernest Hewitt.)

Speaking of executive decisions, the aforementioned Lynch will wear Acho’s old number 93. Done and done.

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating Bill Hewitt’s #56?

This poll is closed

  • 92%
    Yes
    (412 votes)
  • 7%
    No
    (32 votes)
444 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should the Bears retire #50 for Mike Singletary?

This poll is closed

  • 77%
    Yes
    (357 votes)
  • 19%
    No
    (89 votes)
  • 2%
    No opinion
    (12 votes)
458 votes total Vote Now

3: Bronko Nagurski

  • Bears career: 1930-1937, 1943
  • Year Bears retired his number: 1949
  • Players who’ve worn it since: none
  • Year Bears retired his number: now (1999)
  • Hall of Fame: 1963

Wait… did I say Bill Hewitt was a “freak”? Because Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski was the freak of freaks. Hewitt was 5’9, 190. Nagurski was 6’2, 226. He was a big running back who led the Bears in rushing three times, and was also a defensive tackle and sometimes an o-lineman. A four-time All Pro not content to just kick people’s asses on the grid, Nagurski branched out during his NFL career and became a professional wrestler, winning multiple state and national heavyweight championships.

At 6’2, 226 pounds, Bronko Nagurski was an absolute beast: a big running back, defensive tackle... and world champion wrestler. (Chicago Tribune, Dec. 7, 1934)

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: The number 3 can be worn by a quarterback, kicker or punter, as can the numbers 10-19. But just as Nagurski played before those number designations existed, so too did a pair of Hall of Fame linemen who wore number 13: center George Trafton, who played 13 years with the franchise, and tackle Joe Stydahar, who played nine years with the franchise, missing two seasons while enlisted during World War II.

Both Trafton and Stydahar are history-makers. Trafton’s professional tenure began in 1920, making him one of the franchise’s original members and a guy who played two seasons on the Staleys, first in Decatur, then in Chicago. He is also credited as the first center in NFL history to snap the ball with one hand.

Stydahar, meanwhile, was the first Bear selected in the first ever NFL Draft — he was the #6 overall pick in 1936.

Current Bear I want to see in this jersey: Honestly, it would be cool to see Mitch in this jersey. You need someone confident enough to wear the jersey of a legend, and Mitch has the confidence. We’re also only one year into his time here, and as much as he showed flashes of brilliance his rookie year, I don’t think he seared number 10 into our collective consciousness.

What say you, Windy City Gridironers — want to give Mitch number 3?

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating Bronko Nagurski’s #3?

This poll is closed

  • 71%
    Yes
    (307 votes)
  • 28%
    No
    (120 votes)
427 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should the Bears retire #13 for either George Trafton or Joe Stydahar?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Trafton only
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    Stydahar only
    (4 votes)
  • 15%
    Both
    (63 votes)
  • 59%
    Neither
    (246 votes)
  • 23%
    No opinion
    (98 votes)
415 votes total Vote Now

42: Sid Luckman

  • Bears career: 1939-1950
  • Year Bears retired his number: 1954
  • Players who’ve worn it since: none
  • Year unretired: now (2004)
  • Hall of Fame: 1965

Like Grange’s 77, Luckman’s tie to the number 42 began in college, when in his final season at Columbia University he changed his number from 44. Luckman was a Pro Bowler and NFL champ in his 2nd season and an All Pro in his 3rd. When his career ended in 1950, he was considered probably the 2nd best modern QB ever after Sammy Baugh.

That said, in 1955 George Halas selected his all-time NFL team, and the entire backfield was composed of former Bears: Luckman at quarterback, Nagurski at full back, Grange and George McAfee (we’ll get to him shortly) at halfback.

“Sid is the model after whom all modern quarterbacks are molded,” Halas said. “He was perfection.”

Halas announced the retirement of Luckman’s number 42 in 1954, during the debut episode of Jack Brickhouse’s “Sports Scrapbook” on WGN-TV. It was a surprise to Luckman, who thought he was simply receiving a “This Is Your Life”-type treatment.

Sid Luckman (seated, center) holds his number 42 jersey after George Halas (seated, left) surprised him with the announcement that the Bears would retire the number. Surrounding Luckman are former teammates George Musso (seated), and (top left to right) Jack Manders, Ray Bray and Bill Osmanski. The photo comes from Jack Brickhouse’s new show on WGN-TV. (From the Chicago Tribune, Jan. 8, 1954)

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: Guess what? Linebackers can wear numbers in the 40s! That’s perfect for us, because it means that we get to retire Urlacher’s 54. You won’t want to miss Luckman/Urlacher Day at Soldier Field.

Current Bear I want to see in this jersey: Along with playing quarterback, Sid was a dynamic DB. His 17 defensive interceptions are 23rd in Bears history, the same number as Mike Brown. Anyone else think Eddie Jackson would look good in 42? He wore number 4 in college… and number 2 in high school.

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating Sid Luckman’s #42?

This poll is closed

  • 67%
    Yes
    (284 votes)
  • 32%
    No
    (134 votes)
418 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should the Bears retire #54 for Brian Urlacher?

This poll is closed

  • 79%
    Yes
    (338 votes)
  • 17%
    No
    (76 votes)
  • 2%
    No opinion
    (12 votes)
426 votes total Vote Now

66: Bulldog Turner

  • Bears career: 1940-1952
  • Year Bears retired his number: 1954
  • Players who’ve worn it since: none
  • Year unretired: now (2004)
  • Hall of Fame: 1966

The headline was as simple as it was true: “Bulldog Turner was just better”.

That was the name of an essay George Halas wrote in 1975 for the Associated Press describing Clyde “Bulldog” Turner. An All Pro center and elite linebacker, Turner came to the Bears with the 7th overall pick in the 1940 Draft (held in December 1939) and starred on the team’s four championship teams of the 1940s. Here’s how Halas described him:

“In the 40 years I coached, Turner was perhaps the smartest player we had. He knew every assignment for every player on every play. That’s why he was in the right spot at the right time to make the key tackle or interception.”

Adding to those smarts were his physical abilities (at 237 pounds, he was the 3rd heaviest Bear as a rookie, packed into his 6’1 frame) and his football qualities. Halas described him as a “destructive linebacker,” “savage tackler,” “prowling pass defender,” and “fearsome blocker.”

Turner’s seven 1st team All Pro selections are tied with Singletary for 2nd in franchise history, behind only Bill George, and he is one of only seven Bears with eight or more interception in a season, a mark he hit in 1942, leading the league.

The Bears told me that Turner’s number was retired in 1953, following his retirement after his last year in 1952, and reporting of the day described his number as being retired “following his playing days.” But the Luckman jersey retirement article said Luckman was the fourth retired number in team history, while Halas’s 1975 essay about Turner said that his number retirement joined “a pretty elite group that includes... Sid Luckman.”

So my best guess is that his number was retired in 1954.

Clyde “Bulldog” Turner in his trademark 66. George Halas called him “perhaps the smartest player we had.” (From the Austin American-Statesman, Dec. 17, 1948)

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: Turner was a big-game performer: he intercepted passes in each of the team’s four victorious championship games, and returned one for a touchdown in the greatest romp in NFL history, the 73-0 win over Washington. You know who else came up big in a championship game romp? Richard Dent! Number 95 finally gets his due.

Current Bear I want to see in this jersey: Offensive and defensive linemen can wear numbers in the 60s, and there is one guy on this Bears team whom I think is appropriate for this honor: Akiem “The Dream” Hicks. Hicks is talented, but he’s also a throwback. He’s a gamer. And most importantly, he likes and respects Bears history. When he signed here in 2016, he quickly changed his Twitter cover photo to a picture of Dick Butkus. Fans loved it.

Hicks is already number 96. Flip that first digit upside down and boom, you’re good to go.

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating Bulldog Turner’s #66?

This poll is closed

  • 89%
    Yes
    (336 votes)
  • 10%
    No
    (40 votes)
376 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should the Bears retire #95 for Richard Dent?

This poll is closed

  • 68%
    Yes
    (265 votes)
  • 24%
    No
    (96 votes)
  • 6%
    No opinion
    (26 votes)
387 votes total Vote Now

5: George McAfee

  • Bears career: 1940-1941, 1945-1950 (missed three seasons while enlisted in the U.S. Navy)
  • Year Bears retired his number: 1955
  • Players who’ve worn it since: halfback Billy Stone, 1951
  • Year unretired: now (2005)
  • Hall of Fame: 1966

Remember the 1940 Draft, when we took Bulldog Turner 7th overall? Well, before the season started, we traded with the Eagles for McAfee, who was picked five spots before Turner. Here’s a look at the deal:

Bears receive:

  • Rights to #2 overall pick George McAfee, a halfback from Duke
  • Tackle Joe Mihal, the 19th overall pick in 1939
  • Philly’s first round pick

Eagles receive:

  • Fifth-year tackle Russ Thompson
  • Sixth-year tackle Milt Trost

This has to be in the running for the greatest trade in Bears history. The Hall of Famer McAfee played his entire career with the Bears, earning one All Pro selection and helping the team to championships in 1940, 1941, and 1946. Five years after he retired, Halas called him “the most elusive runner in the history of football.”

Mihal was a great pickup too. He reached the Pro Bowl in 1940 and 1941, winning two championships before heading off to war.

Thompson and Trost, meanwhile, played one season each for the Eagles for a combined total of 16 games. The team released Trost in November, while writer Cy Peterman of the Philadelphia Inquirer described Thompson in December of 1940 as having made “just one good blocking assignment all season — that of elbowing the bar,” a reference to a hotel bar where Thompson spent so much time the team fined him.

George McAfee starred with the Bears for eight seasons between 1940 and 1950, missing three seasons while enlisted in the military. After McAfee retired, George Halas called him “the most elusive runner in the history of football.” (From the Courier-News in New Jersey, Dec. 8, 1941)

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: For 12 seasons, from 1933 to 1944, George Musso was a star Bears lineman on both sides of the ball. He won four championships with the franchise, was elected to three Pro Bowls and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982. His number 16 is worthy of retirement.

(I’ll note here that Hall of Famer George Blanda — and maybe HOFer Ed Healey too — also wore #16 with the Bears. But despite playing more years in Chicago than he did elsewhere, Blanda only had two standout seasons with the Bears. If he’d retired then, I don’t think he was headed to the Hall. That was the result of his time with the Oilers and Raiders, and then his longevity overall. As for Healey, he was a four-time All Pro in the 1920s, but I can only find one reference to his having worn #16, and his name is misspelled. So let’s leave him off for now.)

Current Bear I want to see in this jersey: I’m pretty much indifferent on this one, as no Bears QB, kicker or punter other than Trubisky excites me as someone who would wear the recently unretired number of a Bears legend. Bears backup quarterback Chase Daniel is wearing number 4. Let’s bump him up one number and get him in that McAfee jersey with the GM sleeves.

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating George McAfee’s #5?

This poll is closed

  • 91%
    Yes
    (324 votes)
  • 8%
    No
    (30 votes)
354 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should the Bears retire #16 for George Musso?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    Yes
    (37 votes)
  • 65%
    No
    (237 votes)
  • 24%
    No opinion
    (87 votes)
361 votes total Vote Now

28: Willie Galimore

  • Bears career: 1957-1963
  • Year Bears retired his number: 1964
  • Players who’ve worn it since: none
  • Year unretired: now (2014)
  • Hall of Fame: no

Galimore is one of two players whose numbers were retired following their premature deaths. The other, Brian Piccolo, is more famous due to Hollywood, but Galimore was the greater talent, reaching the Pro Bowl in 1958 and leading the team in rushing in 1961.

Galimore’s final game of professional football was the 1963 NFL championship. On July 27, 1964, during training camp in Rensselaer, Indiana, Galimore and teammate Bo Farrington died when Galimore’s Volkswagen skidded out of control on a country road and crashed into a ditch, throwing both players from the car. Galimore, 29, was survived by a wife and three children, ages 4, 5, 7. Farrington, 28, was survived by his pregnant wife.

Halas personally gave Mrs. Galimore the news, later calling the fatal crash “the saddest day in Bears history.”

“We all share the same sad feelings,” he told the team the next day. “Something like this reaches the heart and makes everything else seem petty. It’s going to take a great deal of will power to carry on, but I know you can do it. A great honor can be bestowed upon Willie and Bo if you will dedicate the season to them.”

While the unretiring ceremonies would be special for all family members, my guess is that this one would be particularly special considering that Galimore left behind a young family. Two years ago, the oldest Galimore child, Ron, was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, and the article referenced his mother and sister in Tallahassee. I don’t know the whereabouts of the other son, Marlon, though this Marlon Galimore appears to be the right age and shares a resemblance with Willie.

Willie Galimore on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Nov. 25, 1963. In Galimore’s final game of professional football, he helped the Bears win the 1963 NFL championship.

Current Bear I want to see in this jersey: Galimore was a burner on the field with a dedicated work ethic. Imagine hearing his name mentioned whenever the Joystick lit up Soldier Field. I’m with it. Give me Tarik Cohen, #28.

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: Again, this is a no-brainer. Hester’s #23 needs to breathe among the stars. I would actually be okay with holding this one back a bit, since Hester is obviously the youngest player on my newly retired numbers list. But getting to retire this jersey on a day also honoring Galimore — a fellow Florida native — would be perfect.

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating Willie Galimore’s #28?

This poll is closed

  • 87%
    Yes
    (310 votes)
  • 12%
    No
    (43 votes)
353 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should the Bears retire #23 for Devin Hester?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    Yes
    (189 votes)
  • 43%
    No
    (159 votes)
  • 4%
    No opinion
    (17 votes)
365 votes total Vote Now

41: Brian Piccolo

  • Bears career: 1966-1969
  • Year Bears retired his number: 1970
  • Players who’ve worn it since: none
  • Year unretired: 2020
  • Hall of Fame: no

Willie Galimore’s death was a stunner. Brian Piccolo’s was a slow demise.

Piccolo was a good running back, though not a great one. His best professional season was his 3rd, in 1968, carrying the ball 123 times for 450 yards and two touchdowns — all career highs. Diagnosed with cancer in 1969, Piccolo passed away June 16, 1970, at the age of 26. His story was immortalized in the 1971 film “Brian’s Song,” and his jersey number 41 was never worn again.

“He was so young to die, with a future that held so much for him,” George Halas said shortly after Piccolo’s death. “But Brian made the most of the brief 26 years allotted to him, and he will not be forgotten.

Brian Piccolo scores on a 25-yard touchdown reception against the Steelers, Nov. 9, 1969, the only Bears win of the season. This was the 2nd-to-last game of Piccolo’s career; he was diagnosed with cancer soon after and died June 16, 1970. (From Chicago Tribune staff photographer Edward Feeney, Nov. 26, 1969)

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: A number in the 40s frees up a running back, fullback, tight end, linebacker, defensive back or long snapper. There are a number of strong potential candidates. Matt Forte comes to mind, as do Doug Buffone, Lance Briggs, Otis Wilson, and Wilber Marshall. In the secondary, we can look at Gary Fencik, Doug Plank, Mike Brown, or Peanut Tillman.

But how about Danny Fortmann? He played eight seasons for the Bears in the 1930s and 1940s as a guard and linebacker, making the All Pro team six times. He is the only Bear with five or more selections at 1st team All Pro whose number is not retired.

The beauty of this one is that he wore #21, so we can use that here, because the positional overlap of the 20s and the 40s is strong.

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating Brian Piccolo’s #41 in the year 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 62%
    Yes
    (231 votes)
  • 37%
    No
    (138 votes)
369 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should the Bears retire #21 for Danny Fortmann?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Yes
    (15 votes)
  • 76%
    No
    (263 votes)
  • 19%
    No opinion
    (68 votes)
346 votes total Vote Now

61: Bill George

  • Bears career: 1952-1965
  • Year Bears retired his number: 1974
  • Players who’ve worn it since: none
  • Year unretired: 2024
  • Hall of Fame: 1974

We always hear that Bill George invented the middle linebacker position, standing up from his position middle guard (like an early d-tackle) in order to better defend the pass. His first two seasons with the Bears were in number 72; in his third season he changed to 61 and made his first of eight Pro Bowls, while in his fourth he was credited as a MLB and earned the first of his eight All Pro selections.

Here is how he explained the new position, in 1974:

“One day we were playing the Philadelphia Eagles, and they were completing a lot of short passes over the middle. I said to George Connor, who was playing tackle: ‘Hell, I could break up that pass if I didn’t have to hit that offensive center first.’ Connor said, ‘What the hell are you hitting him for, then? Why don’t you go for the ball?’ So the next time the Eagles had a passing situation I dropped back and knocked down a pass. The second time they tried I intercepted it.”

George is another tragic Bears story — in 1982, eight years after he reached the Hall of Fame, he died at age 52 in a three-car automobile accident. Following his death, Halas called him “the key man in our defense” and “one of the shrewdest players in the league.”

Bill George wore #61 for the final 12 years of his career, and made his name as the originator of the middle linebacker position and the game’s greatest linebacker until the end of his career. (From the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 6, 1974)

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: The Bears have retired 14 numbers. Additionally, 13 players who are in the Hall of Fame and played the bulk of their career with the Bears do not have their numbers retired. We’ve addressed seven of those: Dent, Fortmann, Hampton, Musso, Trafton, Stydahar, Urlacher. We’ve removed two: Blanda and Healey.

Here’s who is left:

  • Doug Atkins, DE, 81 (17 seasons — 1953-1969 — 12 with Bears)
  • George Connor, two-way, 81/71 (8 seasons — 1948-1955 — all with Bears. 81/71 4x each)
  • Stan Jones, OT, 78 (13 seasons — 1954-1966 — 12 with Bears)
  • William “Link” Lyman, OT, 12 (13 seasons — 1922-1934 — 9 with Bears)

Numbers in the 60s can be used for offensive or defensive linemen, which gives us some options here. I think the move here is to retire #81 in honor of two of Bill George’s friends and teammates: George Connor, an eight-year Bear and four-time All Pro who wore #81 for his first four seasons in Chicago, and Doug Atkins, a 12-year Bear and eight-time Pro Bowler who wore #81 his entire Bears career.

We’ve mentioned Connor: he was the man who told George to go after more interceptions. Atkins, meanwhile, had this to say after George’s death:

“I guess I’m feeling as bad as I ever have in my life. He was the best friend I’ve ever had. I don’t know whether I can take it. Bill never bothered anyone. He was the best person and the best middle linebacker I’ve ever known.”

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating Bill George’s #61 in the year 2024?

This poll is closed

  • 79%
    Yes
    (268 votes)
  • 20%
    No
    (69 votes)
337 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should the Bears retire #81 for either Doug Atkins or George Connor?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    Atkins only
    (65 votes)
  • 0%
    Connor only
    (0 votes)
  • 9%
    Both
    (33 votes)
  • 53%
    Neither
    (184 votes)
  • 17%
    No opinion
    (59 votes)
341 votes total Vote Now

34: Walter Payton

  • Bears career: 1975-1987
  • Players who’ve worn it since: none
  • Year Bears retired his number: December 20, 1987
  • Year unretired: 2037
  • Hall of Fame: 1993

Every idea needs an exception. If one exists here, it’s Walter. I assume there are plenty of readers whose defenses went up when they saw the headline to this story, leading to internal (or even external) shouting: “NUMBER 34 IS STAYING RETIRED UNTIL THE END OF TIME AND YOU’RE FIRED FROM WINDY CITY GRIDIRON.”

Believe me, I feel you!

That said, Payton’s number isn’t up for unretirement until 2037. The team held a number retirement ceremony on Dec. 20, 1987, during his second-to-last regular season game at Soldier Field. This was the same month in which Michael McCaskey said that Payton’s 34 would merely be unofficially retired — blowing smoke, I suppose.

“I’d like to, if possible, not issue it unless we absolutely have to,” McCaskey said.

Payton on Dec. 20, 1987, as the team retired his uniform. (Tribune photo by Bob Langer)
Tribune photo by Charles Cherney

In 2037, a 15-year-old Bears fan in the prime of his or her fandom would have been been born 23 years after Payton passed away, and 35 years after Payton retired. That is approximately the equivalent of me being born 31 years after Sid Luckman retired. If someone told me when I was 15 that the team was unretiring #42 in this sort of scenario, I would might have an intellectual objection, but definitely not an emotional one.

Point is, we don’t have to make a decision on this now. Of all of the Bears legends we’ve listed, Walter is the only one whose number I would consider making immune.

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: Considering that we might not even end up unretiring Walter’s number, let’s leave this alone.

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating Walter Payton’s #34 in the year 2038?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Yes
    (71 votes)
  • 82%
    No
    (340 votes)
411 votes total Vote Now

JULY 22, 2018 UPDATE. I was on CLTV SportsFeed tonight with Jarrett Payton, and asked JP how he would feel if the Bears unretired his father’s number in 20 years. We had a really interesting discussion. See below for the clip and click here for the full talk.

7: George Halas

  • Bears playing career: 1920-1928
  • Players who’ve worn it since: at least three — Ed Sprinkle, 1950-1955; John Huarte, 1972; Bob Avellini, 1975-1984
  • Year Bears retired his number: unclear — somewhere between 1985 and 1989, though probably 1988
  • Year unretired: 2039, latest
  • Hall of Fame: 1963

Some numbers are so special that their unofficial retirement feels like an actual retirement, because it’s impossible to believe that the number isn’t retired. That was the case with Singletary’s 50, for sure, as well as Butkus’s 51 and Sayers’s 40, and of course Papa Bear’s 7. At one point, even Halas himself was confused about that last one.

“Jeez, I never thought about it,” he said in 1978 when a reporter asked why his number wasn’t retired. He explained that the number had always been in circulation, that Ed Sprinkle wore it in the 1940s and 1950s, and that the team’s then-quarterback Bob Avellini was wearing it and “how could we take it away from him if he has a good season?”

Halas noted that perhaps the team would retire number 7 once Avellini was gone. Halas died in 1983. Avellini’s final season was 1984. The Bears media relations team told me the franchise retired number 7 for Halas in 1985, but a Tribune article in December of 1987 said that Halas’s 7 was still in circulation, with then-president Michael McCaskey saying, “That was the way (Halas) wanted it.”

An article in the Tampa Bay Times in 1989 lists Halas’s number as retired, meaning the retirement happened some time between 1985 and 1989 — my best guess is that it was 1988.

I cannot find any photos of George Halas in his number 7 jersey, because unfortunately the Bears did not have numbers on the front of their jerseys until 1932, four years after Halas retired as a player. But here he is in 1923. (From the Moline Dispatch, Sept. 29, 1923)

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: The last man on our list is Link Lyman, an offensive tackle who played with the team from 1926 to 1934 and wore number 12 in at least 1933 and 1934. He as elected to the Hall in 1964, the second year of the Hall’s existence.

Like Galimore and George, Lyman tragically died in an automobile accident, his in 1972.

For what it’s worth, I’m open to the arguments in favor of honoring Blanda and/or Healey. But for now, the retirement of Lyman’s 12 leaves us with just one man on our list.

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating George Halas’s #7 in the year 2038?

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    Yes
    (121 votes)
  • 67%
    No
    (256 votes)
377 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should the Bears retire #12 for Link Lyman?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Yes
    (15 votes)
  • 80%
    No
    (280 votes)
  • 14%
    No opinion
    (52 votes)
347 votes total Vote Now

40: Gale Sayers

  • Bears career: 1965-1971
  • Players who’ve worn it since: One replacement player during the ‘87 strike
  • Year Bears retired his number: 1994
  • Year unretired: 2044
  • Hall of Fame: 1977

51: Dick Butkus

  • Bears career: 1965-1973
  • Players who’ve worn it since: Seven, most recently and most significantly Jim Morrissey from 1985 to 1993
  • Year Bears retired his number: 1994
  • Year unretired: 2044
  • Hall of Fame: 1979

When that aforementioned reporter asked Halas in 1978 why the numbers worn by Gale Sayers (40) and Dick Butkus (51) weren’t yet retired, Halas’s answer wasn’t about “too many numbers.”

“I gave a thought to retiring Gale’s and Butkus’s numbers at one time a few years back, but we never got around to it,” Halas said. “But let’s get around to doing it now. That’s a potent idea there, and we’ll have to work on it.”

Sayers had been retired six seasons at that point and was already in the Hall of Fame. Butkus had been retired four seasons and would be a first-ballot inductee the following year. A rumor persisted that Butkus’s number wasn’t retired because of bad blood between Butkus and Halas following Butkus suing the Bears for breach of contract in 1974, though in the years following both Butkus and Halas said there was no animosity.

Regardless, the years rolled on and numbers 40 and 51 remained active. Sayers’s number remained mostly out of circulation; the only player who wore it after him was defensive back Steve Trimble, a replacement player during the 1987 strike. But seven players wore 51 after Butkus, most notably Jim Morrissey from 1985 to 1993.

“I asked ‘em if they had the right number,” Morrissey said in 1986 about being assigned 51. “I thought they had retired it.”

Added Morrissey: “A lot of people make a big deal out of it. He (Butkus) just laughed. He said, ‘You can have it.’ He didn’t care.”

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: Sayers and Butkus finally had their numbers retired in 1994, meaning they can be unretired in 2044. Butkus’s 51 let’s us retire 78 for Stan Jones, the final Bears Hall of Famer on our list. Jones spent the first 12 years of his 13-year NFL career on the Bears. The offensive tackle was a 7-time Pro Bowler and 3-time All Pro. He was elected to the Hall in 1991.

As for Sayers, if we want, we can retire number 47 for Johnny Morris, the franchise leader in receiving yards. But that’s a judgment call.

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating Dick Butkus’s #51 and/or Gale Sayers’s #40 in the year 2044?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Yes, but Butkus only
    (2 votes)
  • 8%
    Yes, but Sayers only
    (34 votes)
  • 33%
    Yes, both
    (126 votes)
  • 57%
    No, neither
    (218 votes)
380 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should the Bears retire #78 for Stan Jones?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Yes
    (24 votes)
  • 71%
    No
    (235 votes)
  • 21%
    No opinion
    (69 votes)
328 votes total Vote Now

89: Mike Ditka

  • Bears playing career: 1961-1966
  • Players who’ve worn it since: 14, starting with tight end Terry Stoepel in 1967 and ending with Matt Spaeth in 2011 and 2012
  • Year Bears retired his number: 2013
  • Year unretired: 2063

When the Bears announced in 2013 that Mike Ditka’s number 89 would be retired — and that it would be the final one — I was surprised, because the team had shown zero commitment to the number for the nearly 50 years following Ditka getting traded to the Eagles. From 1967, the first year post-Ditka, to 2004, the Bears issued number 89 in every season except for 1989 and 1991.

After Dustin Lyman wore it from 2000 to 2004, no one had it until Matt Spaeth in 2011 and 2012. The team retired it the next year, meaning its unretirement would be for the 100-year anniversary of the 1963 championship team, on which Ditka starred. Awesome!

Mike Ditka in his famous #89, seen here in his rookie year of 1961. (From the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 9, 2013)

Bear whose number we can retire because of this: At last… a receiver/tight end! No one jumps out yet — not even Harlon Hill’s 87 — so we’re just going to keep this in our back pocket. By then, perhaps the rules on uniform positions will be totally new, giving teams lots more flexibility assigning numbers. I would like that — it will get us an early jump on retiring number 10 :)

Poll

Would you be okay with the Bears unretiring and re-circulating Mike Ditka’s #89 in the year 2063?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    Yes
    (213 votes)
  • 42%
    No
    (159 votes)
372 votes total Vote Now

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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.

[Mar. 4, 2021 UPDATE: In the original version of this story, I did not know the actual date of Walter Payton’s jersey retirement, and instead estimated it at 1988. Thank you to @mts312 for correcting me!]