Welcome to Part 2 of the Championship Belt Series on WCG! If you missed the intro, please go back and read Part 1. The concept and “rules” are all explained up top, followed by the first 7 championship belt bouts. Part 2 below documents the title holders starting after Bronko Nagurski leaves the Bears following the 1937 season to pursue a career in professional wrestling (yes, that’s real – I’m not creative enough to make something like that up!).
Part 2 – Dynasty to Birth of the MLB
Dan Fortmann 1938-1940
In Nagurski’s absence after his retirement, the belt was really and truly up for grabs. The best two players for the Bears in 1938 were both on the line – Tackle Joe Stydahar and Guard Dan Fortmann. Both were great players that helped the Bears to multiple championships. Both players were named to the 1930s All Decade Team by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. By the skinniest of margins, Fortmann comes out ahead as he was a First Team All Pro seven straight seasons (1937-1943) before going off to fight in World War II. Stydahar’s All-Pro count stopped at 4 (1937-1940) and so during the time in question, both were at the top of their game. Fortmann was the second-leading vote getter in All Pro voting in 1939 while Stydahar was third. While Stydahar was a monster at 6’4”, Fortmann was 6’ even, but was considered the best lineman in the NFL after the 1940 season and called “the heart and soul of the running game.”
A quick, fun aside – Halas supported Fortmann’s career aspirations of becoming a doctor, working with the University of Chicago Medical School to allow him to attend class while playing for the Bears. After the war, Fortmann started his career in medicine, stitching people up after a career of ripping open holes. He served as team doctor for the LA Rams for many seasons.
Walk up music: Dr. Feelgood, Mötley Crüe. “He’s the one they call Dr. Feelgood. He’s the one that makes ya feel alright.” Maybe this is a little on the nose (as opposed to up the nose as the song intends…) but this jam still rocks and is too good to pass up for the good Doctor’s entrance.
Top Challenger: Joe Stydahar. The margin between the two is razor thin, but I’m taking Fortmann on the strength of his 7 straight All Pros.
Sid Luckman 1941-1947
Luckman, coming off the championship in the new T-Formation, established himself as the premiere downfield passer of his era. A four time champion, five-time First Team All Pro (1941-1944, 1947) and one time 2nd Team All Pro (1946), and the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1943, Luckman is clearly the most accomplished quarterback in Chicago Bears history. Even in 1945, a year without any postseason honors, Luckman led the league in passing yards and TDs. Luckman’s MVP year in 1943 is still considered one of the greatest QB years of all time with a 13.9% TD throw percentage and establishing new QB records in pretty much every category including a 107.5 QB rating!
If we were to extrapolate Luckman’s stats from the ’43 season out into an average number of pass attempts per season in 2018, using the median pass attempts for QBs with 16 starts, his numbers would look something like this: 316/580, 6,303 yards, and 80 TDs. I know, I know, the completion percentage isn’t great...
While Halas wasn’t known as a player’s coach and had famous battles over money with many top players over the years, Luckman and Halas enjoyed a mutual admiration for each other arguably unsurpassed in Bears history. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this article that printed Halas’ letter to Luckman and you’ll wonder why it’s so dusty in here all the sudden…
Beating out an absolute stud like Fortmann comes down to the simple fact of positional advantage and changing the way the position is played. Having a quarterback change the game like Luckman did in the T-Formation altered the course of professional football and as amazing of a lineman that Fortmann was, it pales in comparison to that leap in innovation.
Walk up music: Bombs Over Baghdad, Outkast. “…Thunder pounds when I stomp the ground (Woo!). Like a million elephants with silverback orangutans, You can’t stop a train. Who want some? Don’t come un-pre-pared, I’ll be there, but when I leave there, Better be a household name.” Outkast changed the music game like Luckman and the T-Formation changed football. This song embodies the pure energy that the Luckman offenses brought down on opponents in the game changing stretch of Luckman’s career. Add in the oft-used term of a long pass as a “bomb” and the obvious theme and title of this song and it’s a perfect match.
Top Challenger: Both of the biggest challengers to Luckman’s 7 year reign with the belt were lineman. Fortmann, as he retained his stellar play until 1943 and then Bulldog Turner, considered by most the best offensive lineman in team history. Bulldog would match Luckman’s All Pro honors in the 1940’s until the transition year of 1948. As good as Bulldog was, he simply can’t outshine a QB at the top of his game. Special shout out to George McAfee and his stellar 1941 season.
Bulldog Turner 1948-1949
After years of relentless pursuit, Bulldog Turner finally takes out his quarterback and claims the belt. Luckman played through the 1950 season but was basically transitioning the offense to a new QB in 1948. Even in ’47, it would be fair to question a league leading 31(!) interceptions that Luckman threw as to his veracity as the top player. Turner played through 1952 and earned his 7th and final All Pro honor in 1948.
The 1948 season was a bit of an odd one. Halas had signed Bobby Layne and Johnny Lujack to learn from Luckman and take over as the next great T-Formation quarterback. While many expected Layne to be the guy who took over, Lujack was more effective in limited time. Halas traded away Layne in what he considered to be one of his greatest blunders as Bears owner. Meanwhile, Turner was the steady rock through the 40’s, widely considered as the best offensive lineman in the league and team history.
Turner was a true iron man, never leaving the field. While he was known as a great center, he excelled on defense as well. He is credited with 17 interceptions including 4 in championship games. George Halas once said that Turner was the smartest player he had ever coached and carried the reputation of knowing everyone’s responsibility on every play. Named by the Pro Football Hall of Fame to the All-Decade Team of the 1940’s and the Hall of Fame Class of 1966, Bulldog received the ultimate honor when his #66 was retired by the Bears.
Walk up music: Iron Man, Black Sabbath. “Heavy boots of lead, Fills his victims full of dread, Running as fast as they can, Iron man lives again.” I don’t know if the term “Iron Man” existed in Bulldog’s day like it does now, but for a guy who never left the field, it’s the perfect song.
Top Challenger: Johnny Lujack’s 1949 did not earn any post season honors but it did make Halas look like a genius, at least initially. While Layne struggled in New York, Lujack led the league with 2,658 yards and 23 TDs.
Johnny Lujack 1950-1951
Try putting yourself in the mind of a Bears fan in 1950. Your beloved Bears just finished a decade of dominance at 81-26-3 with 4 championship wins in 5 games and only one losing record. George Halas, the Godfather, knew he needed to replace Sid Luckman and invested the 4th overall pick in 1946 in Johnny Lujack and the 3rd overall pick in the 1948 draft in Bobby Layne. Lujack, upon returning from the war, returns to Notre Dame and wins the 1947 Heisman Trophy and back to back national championships before joining the Bears in 1948. After a year in the system, Halas chooses the legendary Lujack to be the starter moving forward and trades away Layne, a partier of legendary proportions, paving the way for Lujack to take the dynasty into the 50’s.
Lujack rewards Halas with a prolific 1949 and follows it up with a 1st Team All Pro selection in 1950 and Pro Bowl selections in ’50 and ’51. The future indeed looks bright with the dual threat Lujack leading the league in passing yards in 1949 and rushing scores by quarterbacks in 1950. Oh, he was also an excellent kicker. Marketable due to his legendary career at Notre Dame, everything was perfect… until Lujack walked away from the game after the ’51 season, his body in worse shape than most understood and a possible (likely?) contract dispute with George Halas. Still, for two shining seasons, the future had to seem as bright as the sun glaring off Lake Michigan in July.
Walk up music: Uptown Funk, Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson. “I’m too hot (hot damn) / Make a dragon wanna retire man / I’m too hot (hot damn) / Say my name you know who I am.” This song was the hottest thing out there featuring a guy who is impossibly cool. Lujack, three-time national champion at Notre Dame and a Heisman Trophy winner, was also the hottest thing out there appearing in his own radio program – The Adventures of Johnny Lujack. And I think it’s fair to say Lujack is impossibly cool as well.
Top Challenger: George Connor, Lujack’s teammate at Notre Dame and the first Outland Trophy winner, was starting to put together his legend with back to back All Pro campaigns. Connor was the best player on a defense that wasn’t particularly good.
George Connor 1952-1953
With the belt put up for grabs by Lujack’s retirement, the obvious contender was Connor. His stretch of All Pro campaigns stretched into the ’52 and ’53 seasons, giving him four total for his career. At 6’3” and 240 pounds, Connor was big and versatile, playing both offensive and defensive line and linebacker, earning post season honors at all three spots. These two years were the peak of Connor’s career as he was the rare player in the 50’s to be honored on both sides of the ball.
Connor was born and raised in Chicago and spent his post-playing days in the Windy City. He won the first Outland trophy award in 1946 for Notre Dame. Connor’s stretch of dominance earned him a place in the Hall of Fame in the class of 1975 despite suffering an injury in 1954 that cut his career off after 8 seasons.
Walk up music: Welcome to the Jungle, Guns n Roses. “Welcome to the jungle we take it day by day / If you want it you’re gonna bleed but it’s the price to pay.” Let’s ignore the obvious overtones to the song for a second. It’s a raw rock song that defines the 80’s but would be right at home in the Bears defenses of Connor’s era, defined by toughness and heavy hitters.
Top Challenger: Connor was known as a clean and respectable player throughout his career, in contrast to Ed Sprinkle, aka The Claw. Sprinkle was best known as a player who flirted with the line of playing dirty and the antics of the 1950’s would likely draw a permanent suspension in today’s NFL. Still, Sprinkle made 4 Pro Bowls in 5 seasons playing next to Connor on defense, reaching out his arm to clothesline running backs and linemen alike. Sprinkle is a personal favorite so I’m designating him a walkup song even though he never claims the belt – Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap by AC/DC.
Harlon Hill 1954-1956
Let me share two sets of numbers for receiving yardage and TDs over the first 3 years of a career.
Player A: 1,500/16; 1,053/12; 1,504/15 = 4,057/43 total
Player B: 1,313/17; 1,413/11; 1,437/15 = 4,163/43 total
Player A? That’s Harlon Hill’s first 3 years extrapolated out from the 12 game schedule of the 1950’s to the 16 game schedule we’re used to in the modern NFL. Player B? That’s Randy Moss, my pick for the #2 best receiver of all time. Both players earned three Pro Bowls and two First Team All Pro honors in those three seasons. Moss went on to double those honors and earn a bust in Canton, Ohio. Hill got injured and never recovered the speed and agility that terrorized the league for his first 3 years. He set franchise records that lasted decades or are still on the books including receiving TDs in a game (4), single game yards (214), and most 100+ yard receiving games in a season (7) and career (19). Hill’s best game as a professional was a fantastic 214 yards with 4 scores… on 7 catches. Halas remarked that it was “the greatest pass catching exhibition I’ve ever seen.”
Hill was named Most Valuable Player in 1955 by the Newspaper Enterprise Association Award (known as the Jim Thorpe Award), the inaugural award for the association. Here’s a cool highlight film from the 1956 season – it’s worth waiting until the end for the 2nd Hill highlight.
Walk up Music: Bullet with Butterfly Wings, Smashing Pumpkins. “And what do I get, for my pain? Betrayed desires, and a piece of the game.” Hill was a 15th round draft pick from a small school in Alabama but broke out and dominated the competition until injuries struck him down. Still, he fought through the odds and was the first player to come back from a major Achilles injury to resume his playing career. Plus, I like thinking the fast but graceful Hill resembles the title of the song Bullet with Butterfly Wings.
Top Challenger: It’s Bill George and he’ll get his due in a second, but Hill’s takeover of the league was nothing short of remarkable.
Bill George 1957-1961
After Hill’s injury sapped his speed and killed his productivity, George takes the belt and runs with it for five years. George is of course credited as the first true Middle Linebacker in the history of the NFL and ran that innovation to 7 straight 1st Team All Pro honors and into the Hall of Fame. By moving off the ball to try and counteract passes over his head, he essentially created the 4-3 defense. George was known as the meanest Bears player of his day, which is quite a statement given the company he kept.
George was named to the 1950’s All-Decade team by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and eventually named to the Class of 1974. On a franchise known for innovation and changing the game several times throughout the 100 year history, creating the middle linebacker position stands as a franchise-defining legacy. Playing MLB for the Bears will forever mean something special and more to the Bears than any other franchise, forever compared against the mold that George crafted.
Walk up Music: Enter Sandman, Metallica. “Sleep with one eye open / Gripping your pillow tight.” Innovators of “thrash metal,” Metallica changed the music scene like George changed defenses… and if there’s a better walk up song for a mean MLB, I’m all ears.
Top Challenger: While George was racking up All-Pro honors, Doug Atkins was making the Pro Bowl every year since 1957. The top contender continued to work until he finally got his chance when George’s game took a step back. But, you’ll have to wait for Part 3 to find out if he claimed the belt.
This is the end of Part 2 – check back soon for Part 3. This article has used many sources as reference including but not limited to the indispensable profootballreference.com and the book Papa Bear by Jeff Davis.
Let us know what you think in the comments below or take the conversation over to Twitter and find me @gridironborn. Will Robinson and his excellent design and photoshop work can be found on Twitter @WhiskeyRanger29.