One of the fundamental questions a fan can answer about their favorite sports team is “who’s your favorite player?” That’s easy as there is no wrong answer because it’s completely subjective. A slightly more difficult question is “who is the best player?” Sometimes it’s easy and that player holds the title for a number of years. Oftentimes it’s difficult to discern when a changing of the guard is taking place or when there are multiple players vying for the championship. To definitively answer those questions (or, more likely, anger everyone who reads it), I’m using the format of the “championship belt” that Bill Barnwell used back in his Grantland days to determine the best quarterbacks since Johnny Unitas and best defenses. We are going to run through who held the belt as the best Bears player through the entire history of the Chicago Bears organization.
A few basic rules I followed when putting this together. At the end of the day, this exercise is as much art as it is science.
· Once a player has the belt, he gets the benefit of the doubt in retaining it until he retires, his play falls off, or someone is clearly better.
· A player can potentially retain the belt through a season ending injury if there are no significant challenges and/or he comes back strong from that injury.
· A single great year from a challenger may not be enough to take away the belt from a champion as a champion has staying power.
· Post season awards like MVPs, Defensive Player of the Year, All Pros, and Pro Bowls are important – as are setting team and league records – but not the be-all, end-all.
· It is easier to gain the belt from positions that garner more attention like quarterback than it is for an offensive lineman.
· A “tie” goes to the homegrown player over an acquisition.
· When in doubt, who is the most likely person to emerge from asking 100 random fans at the time the question “who’s the best player on this team?”
My colleague Will Robinson (aka WhiskeyRanger) has designed some amazing artwork to illustrate the journey along the way:
Oh, and one last thing – every champion gets “walk up” music, a song that would play when they walk onto the field (or into the ring). The song will try to encapsulate something about the person, their playing style, or be a connection with the group – but above all, it must be a song that would reasonably be used as a walk up song (and no repeats of artists). Let’s do this!
Part 1 – Foundation through Great Depression
Guy Chamberlin 1920
Guy Chamberlin was a Nebraska alum and a WWI veteran who played End and Halfback for the Decatur Staleys in 1920. The “giant” 6’3” Chamberlin would go on to be part of five championship squads and earn post season honors four times. In 1920, Chamberlin earned All Pro honors as an End and in 1921, returned an interception for a 90 yard score to seal a victory in what was billed as the championship game. He was enshrined in Canton, Ohio in 1965 and was a member of the 1920’s all-decade team. Chamberlin went on to have a successful career as a player-coach for the Canton / Cleveland Bulldogs and the Frankfort Yellow Jackets. His career record as a professional in his first 6 years of football was a ridiculous 56-3-8. George Halas wrote that Chamberlin was “the best 2-way end I’ve ever seen. He was a tremendous tackler on defense and a triple-threat performer on offense.”
Walk up music:
How you like me now? by The Heavy. “Now there was a time, when you loved me so… So, how you like me now?” Chamberlin absolutely terrorizes the Bears and Halas throughout the 20’s and I think this song captures that “we used to like you but now we hate you” turn.
Top Challenger: If there was ever the perfect challenger to the original belt, it’s George Trafton. The future Hall of Fame Center and Chicago native was more of a brawler than what would pass in today’s NFL. Trafton was a boxer and won a fight with White Sox first baseman Art Shires in a 5 round bout before winning three more professional fights. It was said that he was strongly disliked in every NFL city except for Green Bay, where he was hated. Trafton may be the perfect “heel” for the championship belt as a player who was hated by opponents above all others. Trafton went on to make several All Pro lists, was named as the 1920’s Center of the decade by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was enshrined in the Hall’s 2nd class in 1964.
Gaylord “Pete” Stinchcomb 1921-1922
Chamberlin might have had the star power in 1920, but Stinchcomb was an All-American halfback out of Ohio State and another veteran of World War I. In his brief professional career, he stole the show, highlighted by his two years in Chicago with two First Team All Pro honors. Stinchcomb was the only Chicago player honored with a postseason award in each of those two seasons, which makes this an easy selection as the key cog in the 1921 championship team. From the College Football Hall of Fame: “Although a lightweight at 165 pounds, Stinchcomb was a halfback blitz, quick and shifty as he made his way through enemy defenses.”
Stinchcomb came to Chicago as part of a package deal with his former college teammate Chic Harley, who parlayed his bounty of Ohio State standouts into an ownership stake with Halas. However, 9 games into the season, Harley failed his physical due to the discovery of syphilis and it voided the ownership agreement. After a legal dispute with the NFL ownership group, Harley lost his appeal and the ownership stake reverted back to Halas and partner Dutch Sternaman.
Walk up music:
Runnin’ Down the Dream, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. “It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down… Little runaway, I was flyin’. Yeah, runnin’ down a dream.” I can’t find a ton on Stinchcomb in the pros as most of his accolades were from college ball, but I have to think he’d identify with a song that has the word “running” in the title – and Tom Petty is boss.
Top Challenger: George Halas was a very good player in his own right and this would most likely be considered his prime. His career highlight likely came in college as the MVP of the Rose Bowl but he was an ironman for the Staleys and Bears throughout his career.
George Trafton 1923-1924
Stinchcomb left for the Columbus Tigers in 1923, vacating the belt after two years and setting up a battle between Trafton and Ed Healey. Trafton was back after a year of coaching in college to man the Center position again and Healey was an All-Pro Tackle acquired midway into the 1922 season. Trafton’s career was longer and likely more meaningful to Bears history plus he is credited as the first center to snap the ball with one hand and the first nose on defense to roam / move off the line. Plus, Trafton only played for the Bears and I think he successfully claims the belt and holds it for two years.
Trafton’s reputation earned him the nickname “The Brute” including breaking the leg of halfback Fred Chicken of Rock Island by throwing him into the fence. That incident resulted in the crowd throwing bottles and rocks. In the rematch, Halas grabbed his share of the gate ($3K) and handed it to Trafton and made a dash for the train. Halas later said that “I knew if trouble came, I’d be running for the money. Trafton would be running for his life.”
Trafton’s mother is an unsung hero in the history of the NFL as a $20,000 investment helped carry the team through tough times in 1931. She sold it for a tidy profit at $40,000 when the team became profitable.
Walk up music:
Mama said knock you out, LL Cool J. “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years… I’m gonna knock you out, Momma said knock you out.” As the only certified boxer on the list and the fact that Trafton’s mother had a big hand in the financial stability in the early years, this might have been the easiest walk up music to pick.
Top Challenger: Ed Healey was also a member of the 1920’s All Decade Team and elected to the 1964 class of the Hall of Fame as well. They shared similar post season honors throughout the ‘20s and in almost all cases were considered equals. As good as Healey was, Trafton gets some tie-breakers in his favor, most of all being a longer career and credits for innovation.
Red Grange 1925
If there is one event from the early days of professional football that highlights the importance of a single player and their impact to the viability of the league, it’s Red Grange. The Galloping Ghost was the NFL’s first star player and he was the centerpiece of the Chicago Bears’ grueling barnstorming tour that helped truly launch the NFL. Grange was widely considered the greatest running back to ever play the game and his performances are literally legendary. In an odd series of events, Grange hurt his knee on a tackle by George Trafton in 1927 as a member of the New York Yankees football team against the Bears. Grange sat out the 1928 season to recover from the injury and it is said he never fully regained his speed or cutting ability before signing with the Bears in ‘29. Grange was born in nearby Wheaton, Illinois and played his college ball for the University of Illinois, establishing Chicagoland credentials for years before fully investing his skills for the Bears.
Walk up music:
Ride of the Valkyries, Richard Wagner. You might think I’m crazy, but every time I think of the barnstorming tour, I think about Grange riding in to Ride of the Valkyries, a powerful classic made famous by Apocalypse Now.
Top Challenger: Trafton, but no one was packing stadiums around the country to see Trafton.
Paddy Driscoll 1926-1929
Driscoll’s history with George Halas was as intertwined as could be imagined. Driscoll played with Halas in the 1919 Rose Bowl game that Halas was named MVP, throwing him a TD pass. After spending the first six years of his career with the Racine and Chicago Cardinals, Driscoll was traded to the Bears for the 1926 season after winning the championship for the Cardinals in 1925. Already an established star in the NFL, Driscoll signed a huge contract with Halas to keep the talented player in the NFL and away from a rival football league.
Driscoll played well from the beginning for the Bears in ’26 and was a real threat to win the belt right away. Given that Grange was gone and Driscoll was already established in the same market, it seems likely the exchange was seamless. Driscoll added All Pro honors to his resume in 1926 and 1927 and started all but one game between ’26-’28.
The stock market isn’t the only thing that crashed in 1929. The Bears suffered their first losing season in franchise history with a 4-9-2 mark, but with no real competition, Driscoll hangs on through the ’29 season. George Halas called Driscoll “the greatest athlete I ever knew.”
Walk up music:
Shipping up to Boston (Instrumental), Dropkick Murphy’s. I’m not a huge fan of the song with the vocal track, but the instrumental version stokes something primal and I think it’s safe to assume that a guy whose given name was John Leo Driscoll but went by Paddy would like some Irish walk up music.
Top Challenger: Healey in ’26 and Jim McMillen, a standout Guard in ’28, were honored as All Pro’s. Healey’s career was winding down and McMillen’s career was good but too short to give Driscoll serious competition.
Red Grange 1930-1931
Because the 1929 team, Grange’s first back with the team after the injury, was the only losing squad in Bears history until 1945, it’s tough to point to any discernible evidence that Grange took the mantle from Driscoll in ’29 or in ’30 after Driscoll retired. Falling back on the rules, the champion retains the belt with no evidence of a greater performance but Grange seizes the belt in 1930 on the strength of back to back All Pro seasons at halfback and corner.
Most of the information that can be found about Grange was just how diminished he was as a runner after the injury, but he still had those two All-Pro seasons, as he put the ball in the end zone and played extremely well at corner. The one risk of using the All-Pros as the defining rationale during this period is that Grange may have benefited from name recognition more than anything. However, the only stats that are readily available are for touchdowns and Grange was still productive.
Walk up music:
O Fortuna, Carl Orff. “Well-being is vain and always fades to nothing, shadowed and veiled you plague me too; now through the game I bring my bare back to your villainy. Fate is against me in health and virtue, driven on and weighted down…” We’ve already used the triumphant, world conquering music of Ride of the Valkyries for Grange when he was fully healthy. O Fortuna, sung in the original Latin, is maybe the most powerfully angry / mournful piece of music ever. The words of the poem sung on the track basically say that life is hardly fair, and injuries to Grange cut him down from great heights. Injuries to great players will be an unfortunate theme in this article series.
Top Challenger: Bronko Nagurski’s first two years in the league simply weren’t filled with honors like Grange and he couldn’t match Grange’s TD total in either season. However, the torch was soon passed.
Bronko Nagurski 1932-1937
When Bronko Nagurski entered the world, legend has it that Paul Bunyan sensed it and told his blue ox Babe “we have a challenger!” Nagurski was literally a world champion professional wrestler, so of everyone on this list, his reign feels the most natural. While Grange remained a useful player until his last season in 1934, he was no longer a star. Nagurski, on the other hand, burst on to the scene as a star fullback and linebacker, earning First Team All Pro honors in ’32, ’33, ’34, and ’36. Nagurski averaged an impressive 4.4 yards per carry over his career and according to legend, ran into the brick wall at Wrigley Field with such force that he cracked the brick. Even in today’s game, his 22” neck and 19.5 size ring finger would be remarkable.
Nagurski is one of the rare players from that era who had the size to be reasonably projected in today’s game. His career likely would have been longer had it not been for a dispute over money with George Halas that pushed Bronko into a career in professional wrestling. He was honored as a charter member of the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. His teammate Red Grange said “When anybody asks me who the greatest football player I ever saw was, I don’t even hesitate. It was Nagurski… equal to Butkus in his prime on defense… faster and equal to Larry Csonka (on offense).”
Walk up music:
Immigrant Song, Led Zeppelin – “I come from the land of the ice and snow…” If there’s a more obvious walk up song, I want to know. Nagurski, born in Canada and a resident of International Falls, MN, certainly came from a land of the ice and snow – and I’m truly not sure there’s a better walk up song out there.
Top Challenger: Throughout Nagurski’s reign, Bill Hewitt was the most decorated teammate. Hewitt was an outstanding End for his time and racked up 3 All Pro’s during his tenure with the Bears. The second half of his career was spent in Philadelphia before being enshrined in Canton in 1971.
This is the end of Part 1 – check back soon for Part 2. This article has used many sources as reference including but not limited to the indispensable profootballreference.com, the books Papa Bear by Jeff Davis, The First Star by Lars Anderson, and Monster of the Midway by Jim Dent.
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