Welcome to Part 3 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 takes us through the dynasty of the 1940’s all the way up to Bill George and the birth of the Middle Linebacker. Part 3 starts with a new belt holder around the time George Halas lifted the actual championship trophy for the last time and takes us through the most famous Bears team. It’s a star-studded lineup so let’s dig in!
Part 3 – Halas’s Final Triumph to the Super Bowl Shuffle
Doug Atkins 1962-1963
It may be controversial to take the belt away from the great Bill George in 1962, but George didn’t make a Pro Bowl after the 1961 season and was certainly on the back end of his career. Atkins, while working alongside George’s greatness, was on a run of 7 straight Pro Bowls culminating in a 1963 First Team All-Pro honor. Atkins might be the best defensive lineman in Chicago Bears history and I think there’s a good argument to be made that he was the best defensive player on a championship defense. That’s enough for me to give him the belt. The 1963 defense was absolutely dominating and too frequently suffers from Bear-fan amnesia after the ’85 Bears took the city by storm. It’s safe to say that the ’63 defense was the best in team history up to that point.
The NFL network ranked Atkins as the #9 pass rusher of all-time and it’s not hard to see why. Big and ferocious, offensive tackles of the era weren’t up to the task to physically match the hulking Atkins. It’s unfortunate that sacks statistics didn’t start until 1982 because I imagine Atkins’ exploits would be near the top of any lists given his amazing longevity (17 seasons). Whatever you’re doing, make time for this old NFL films clip and thank me later.
Walk up Music: Sabotage, Beastie Boys. “Scheming on a thing, that’s a mirage / I’m trying to tell you now, it’s sabotage.” Sabotage captures the pure chaos, jail-break type energy of an Atkins pass rush. If I had my druthers, NFL Films would set his highlight film to this song.
Top Challenger: Joe Fortunado and Mike Ditka make incredibly good cases on their own to claim the belt for themselves. Fortunado was an outstanding outside linebacker, earning First Team All-Pro honors in 1963-1965. Fortunado had a great career and there’s an argument to be made that he’s a Hall of Fame snub, but Atkins had a more distinguished career, earning him the edge. Ditka was the rookie of the year in 1961, becoming the first Tight End to record a 1,000 yard season. However, the Bears offense was atrocious during their championship run, so the belt stays with the devastating defense. These two would soon fight for the belt in 1964.
Mike Ditka 1964
Iron Mike captures the belt against Joe Fortunado for a single season in 1964. Coming off the championship, the Bears vaunted defense collapses, cratering the team to a 5-9 record. Ditka capped his third straight First Team All-Pro season and was the best player on the better side of the ball for the Bears. If there was one player on offense who acted more like a player on the defensive side of the ball, it was Ditka. A devastating blocker and effort player, Ditka is widely credited with transforming the game as the first great receiving threat at the position.
While many fans of this franchise would identify Ditka the coach or maybe even the TV analyst, Ditka still owns team records in catches (316), yards (4,503), and TDs (34) for the tight end position. A member of the Class of 1988 Hall of Fame, Ditka also holds the honor of having the last number retired for the Bears.
Walk up Music: Turn Down for What, Lil Jon. “Fire up that loud / Another round of shots / Turn down for what?” Ditka’s game was 100% every down, no turning it down or off, and his fiery personality could go from zero to 100 in press conferences when he was a coach. The whole song sounds like winding someone up and shooting them out of a cannon.
Top Challenger: It’s still Fortunado, but unfortunately for him, his defense falls apart around him and Ditka has the edge in position and innovation.
Gale Sayers 1965-1967
In the 100 year history of the Chicago Bears franchise, there is nothing more symbolic than the 1965 NFL Draft. The Bears held the 3rd and 4th picks of the first round and took a running back and a middle linebacker. Sayers, known as the Kansas Comet, streaked onto the scene as a revelation. Payton before Payton in the backfield, Hester before Hester on returns, Sayers was a virtuoso of moves and speed. Give him 18” of daylight – that’s all he needs.
One can only imagine how great his career could have been had he not suffered a knee injury in 1968 or had access to modern medicine to effectively repair his knee. Unfortunately, his athleticism was sapped and Sayers could not regain the dominance that made him so special during his first three seasons. Still, he was able to turn that short career into a Hall of Fame resume on the strength of five First Team All-Pro honors.
Walk up Music: All Along the Watchtower, Jimi Hendrix Experience. “Two riders were approaching / And the wind began to howl.” The greatest virtuoso runner of all-time deserves the greatest virtuoso guitarist of all-time.
Top Challenger: Dick Butkus, obviously, and we’ll get to him in a minute, but it’s worth noting that Safety Richie Petitbon had a great career. A First Team All Pro during the 1963 championship season, Petitbon was still producing at a high level during the Sayers reign with Pro Bowls in ’66 and ‘67.
Dick Butkus 1968-1972
While Sayers held the belt by the thinnest of margins, Butkus was seamlessly taking over for the retired Bill George. By 1968, Butkus was considered the best in the game, earning his second of five First Team All Pro honors. The Chicago native played his college ball at the University of Illinois and would define Chicago Bears football for a generation of fans. Named to both the 1960’s and 1970’s All-Decade Teams, Butkus broke the mold that Bill George created for the position and became the new bar that all future players would be measured against with ferocious hitting and intimidation. It’s no surprise that college football named the award for the best college linebacker after him.
First ballot Hall of Fame inductees, Butkus and Sayers will forever be linked in the hearts and minds of Chicago Bears fans, and this exercise is no different. If you’ve never taken the time to watch the Football Life, or if it’s been awhile, do yourself a favor and watch. The Bears retired their jerseys together in 1994.
Walk up Music: Hells Bells, AC/DC. “I’m a rolling thunder, a pouring rain / I’m comin’ on like a hurricane / My lightning’s flashing across the sky / You’re only young but you’re gonna die.” First off, the bells ringing are totally ominous – you’re in trouble. Next, the guitar riff is a slowly building crescendo of adrenaline. Add in the drums and oh buddy, we’re ready to go. Then in comes an absolutely devastating first stanza of trash talk. Plus, ringing Hells Bells sounds like something a linebacker would do – not to mention the totally BA line – “I’ll give you black sensations up and down your spine / if you’re into evil you’re a friend of mine.”
Top Challenger: Once Butkus wrestles the belt away from Sayers, there really isn’t any legitimate competition. The best season during that time was owned by Dick Gordon who rose from a steady producer to a magical 1,000 yard receiving campaign in 1971. Gordon earned 1st Team All Pro honors that season on the strength of a league leading 13 TDs, but it wasn’t nearly enough to knock off Butkus.
Note: I came across this NFL Films clip of Butkus teammate Ed O’Bradovich during my research and it is an absolute must-watch.
Wally Chambers 1973-1975
In 1973, Dick Butkus limped through his final season with the team on a bad knee. It was obvious to anyone watching at that point that the once invincible linebacker was toast. The belt was seized by the 8th overall draft pick out of Eastern Kentucky – Wally Chambers. The 6’6” Chambers was an absolute force to be reckoned with early in his career, earning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. In fact, Chambers was the only Bears player elected to the Pro Bowl during the span of 1973 to 1975. A second team All-Pro in ’74 and ’75, it appeared as though Chambers was on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
Chambers may not be a household name for many fans, but on a per season basis, he was one of the best defensive linemen in team history. In 1976, Chambers was a 1st Team All Pro and honored as the Defensive Player of the Year by United Press International – not bad for a player on a 7-7 squad. Unfortunately for Chambers and the Bears, a knee injury in 1977 brought his career to a grinding halt and he was traded to Tampa Bay* the following season.
*Note: that trade to Tampa Bay was a first round pick and yielded another great defensive lineman for the Bears - Dan Hampton!
Walk up Music: Lonely Boy, The Black Keys. “Well I’m so above you / And it’s plain to see… / And I don’t mind bleeding / Any old time you keep me waiting.” Chambers was the lone star on the team during his reign. Plus, if this isn’t the greatest low budget music video of all time, I’m not sure what is.
Top Challenger: Doug Buffone was a solid linebacker who played in 140 straight games (126 starts) between 1966 and 1975. Buffone’s best seasons were played beside Butkus, but held his own after Butkus retired. When Buffone retired in 1979, his 186 games played had set a franchise record.
Walter Payton 1976-1985
Walter Payton is the greatest player in team history. Period. He is on the short list for greatest football player of all time.
The question was never if Payton would hold the belt, but when does he take it and how long does he hold onto it. Payton’s rookie year in 1975 was a bit of a disappointment as he shared carries, averaged only 3.1 yards per carry, and missed the only game of his career. With Chambers safely entrenched as a star, Payton did not take it as a rookie. The next two years, however, Payton breaks out with back to back 1st Team All Pro seasons by racking up 1,539 and 2,121 yards from scrimmage… in 14 games! While Chambers did make 1st Team All Pro in ’76, this is a star running back we’re talking about.
While Payton had a down year in 1981 and the strike shorted 1982 campaign did nothing to help his numbers, he was still very clearly the best player on the field through some tough times and the rebuild to the great teams of the 1980’s. Payton would top 2,000 yards from scrimmage in each campaign from 1983 to 1985, taking home his 5th and final First Team All-Pro Honor in 1985. He broke Jim Brown’s all-time rushing yardage record and one can only wonder how much further he would’ve pushed the record had he not played in two strike shortened seasons or started his career with 14 game schedules. Add in another 15 games and the career rushing mark would’ve likely been over 18,000 yards and might have held off Emmitt Smith.
He was the AP Most Valuable Player in 1977 and the Bert Bell award winner for Most Valuable Player in 1985. He is a member of the 1970s and 1980s Pro Football Hall of Fame All Decade team and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He was also the Man of the Year in 1977, an award that was eventually renamed after him. Award winners of the Walter Payton Man of the Year now wear a patch on their jerseys for the rest of their career to emphasize how important that award is to the league. I shouldn’t need to convince anyone about the greatness of Payton, but it’s worth stopping and realizing just how special that man was.
Walk up Music: Use Me, Bill Withers. “They keep trying to tell me all you want to do is use me / But my answer, yeah to all that use me stuff / Is I want to spread the news that if it feels this good getting used / Oh you just keep on using me, until you use me up / Until you use me up.” Payton literally danced on Soul Train and so I knew I needed a song from that show. Withers is a personal favorite and I like the lyrics here for a running back who averaged over 20 carries per game over his career.
Top Challenger: Gary Fencik had his best year in 1981, a down year for Payton, and Dan Hampton made the Pro Bowl in the strike-shortened 1982. Those are great players but there’s no reason to take the belt from Walter. Mike Singletary makes the best charge at it, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 on the legendary ’85 defense, but I just don’t see it. Payton finished second in the AP voting for MVP that year and won the Bert Bell MVP. Given all our rules, Payton holds onto the belt for the championship.
This is the end of Part 3 – check back soon for Part 4. This article has used many sources as reference including but not limited to the indispensable profootballreference.com, the books Papa Bear by Jeff Davis, Butkus: Flesh and Blood by Dick Butkus; Sayers: My Life and Times by Gale Sayers; Sweetness by Jeff Pearlman; and Monsters by Rich Cohen.
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.
Author’s note: Will Robinson provided excellent illustrations and graphic designs for the majority of this article but due to unforeseen circumstances, the author produced two images to complete this section of the series. Those images (Pay the Iron Price and Super Bowl Scuffle) may be updated in the future with Will’s handiwork.