Underrated: not rated or valued highly enough.
A simple enough concept but what does it mean for the history of the players for the Chicago Bears? Is it a player like Charles Tillman who didn’t get the national-level respect until late in his career? Or maybe it was a guy who was unfairly criticized despite being better than advertised? How about players like Doug Buffone or James “Big Cat” Williams who played long careers largely without recognition? Maybe it’s a player from an overlooked era or an undervalued position. All fair points of view for this exercise.
That’s not where I’m going here.
What interests me the most with this question is identifying great players that because of an injury-shortened career, time erodes the value of their dominance from Bears fans memories. Players that were maybe even on a Hall of Fame trajectory before an injury stalled out their career. They become underrated or even forgotten by Bears fans today. I’m here to try and breathe some life back into some of those careers.
In honor of the upcoming Olympics, let’s hand out some medals.
Honorable Mention: Neal Anderson. How do you fill the shoes of the GOAT? It’s an impossible task but Neal Anderson tried to do just that, taking over for Walter Payton. He made four straight Pro Bowls from 1988-1991 but battled hamstring issues that ultimately ended his career. Anderson gets lost in the shuffle when discussing the incredible running back history of the Bears but deserves to be remembered.
Honorable Mention: Beattie Feathers. This one is interesting. Feathers was the first player to rush for over 1,000 yards in 1934. George Halas loved him so much he fed him the ball throughout 1934 despite teammates Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski ready and able. He’s a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-1930s team but is not in the Hall of Fame itself. Feathers suffered a shoulder injury near the end of that 1934 season that really took him out of his game. One shining season wasn’t enough to enshrine him in Canton though and the glow from 1934 fades a little more every year.
Honorable Mention: Tommie Harris. Unlike his teammate Mike Brown, the memory of Harris’s dominance is starting to fade in the minds of some Bears fans. Let’s chalk that up to interior defensive line highlights aren’t quite as popular as back-to-back walk-off pick sixes, but Harris deserves just as much love as Brown, if not more. Harris dominated from the 3-technique, earning 3 straight Pro Bowl selections before his knees betrayed him.
Honorable Mention: Ken Kavanaugh. The 3-time First-Team All-Pro played a crucial role in 3 Bears championship seasons. He set and still holds the record for TD receptions with 50 and was a member of the 1940s All-Decade team. He’s arguably a Hall of Fame snub and while he missed three seasons, it was WWII, not an injury. Still, it’s worth considering that an uninterrupted career for Kavanaugh could have resulted in football immortality as he still put up incredible numbers despite missing the prime of his career.
(The following images are from the Championship Belt series and designed by Whiskey Ranger)
Bronze Medal: Johnny Lujack. Everyone knows about the terrible Chicago Bears history at the quarterback position. Some people embellish this by saying they’ve never had a good QB and those people can walk themselves directly off the Navy Pier in January, courtesy of Hall of Famer Sid Luckman. You’ll hear many others say the Bears have been looking for a QB since Luckman, but that’s only partially true.
Johnny Lujack came to the Bears as one of the best college prospects to ever play in the NFL. George Halas drafted Lujack as Luckman’s successor in 1946 despite the fact that he was still playing college ball at Notre Dame for another two seasons. Lujack won 3 National Championships and a Heisman Trophy as a golden domer and hit the ground running in the NFL with a stellar 1949 season, a First-Team All-Pro selection in 1950, and Pro Bowls in ’50 and ’51. He instilled so much confidence in Halas that Papa Bear traded away future Hall of Famer Bobby Layne, convinced he had the right man for the job.
Unfortunately for the Bears, Lujack had injury issues. Combined with a contract dispute and options outside of football, Lujack hung up the cleats after the 1951 season, setting off a truly dismal 70 years in search of the next franchise signal-caller.
Silver Medal: Wally Chambers. The 1973 Defensive Rookie of the Year won the award playing defensive tackle for a miserable 3-11 Bears squad. He made three Pro Bowls and earned inclusion on First- or Second-Team All-Pro squads three times during his first four seasons. The Bears over those years combined for 18 wins against 40 losses. It is impossible to overstate how amazing it was that an interior defensive lineman won Rookie of the Year and made All-Pro teams on a terrible squad. It just doesn’t happen very often but it did for the dominant Chambers.
He hurt his knee in the Pro Bowl game following his dominant 1976 campaign, which derailed his career. After a contract dispute, Chambers asked to be traded. Because of his reputation, the Bears were able to get a first-round pick for Chambers from the Buccaneers, turning a high first-rounder into Dan Hampton. If Chambers remains healthy, it is likely he would have continued his Hall of Fame trajectory and landed a bust in Canton, Ohio. With the great history of defensive linemen in the history of the Bears, Chambers is often left out of the discussion. His four dominant years in navy and orange deserve better.
Gold Medal: Harlon Hill. Harlon Hill was the man. He was essentially Randy Moss in the 1950s. Don’t believe me? Extrapolate Hill’s 12-game season numbers out to a comparable 16-game season played in the modern NFL, and Hill’s yards and TDs (4,057/43) essentially match those of Moss (4,163/43), only on far fewer catches. He set franchise records with TD catches in a game (4), most receiving yards in a game (214), most 100-yard games in a season (7), and most 100-yard receiving games in his career (19). Did I mention that he played 12 game schedules?!
Hill won the 1955 MVP by the Newspaper Enterprise Association, known as the Jim Thorpe Award, along with earning three Pro Bowls and two First-Team All-Pro selections. It was one of the best starts to any career in the history of the league. Unfortunately, Hill suffered an Achilles injury that would sap his explosiveness, pushing his production down. Still, that three-season stretch is as good as any in the history of football and during a time that wasn’t exactly known for gaudy passing statistics.
There is not a huge difference in the career case for someone like Gale Sayers and Harlon Hill. I understand that may sound sacrilegious, but it’s simply a compliment to the career of Hill and that he should be remembered in a similar way to some of the greats in Bears history.
The Harbinger of Thrill is the best WR in team history and that’s a hill I’m willing to die on.
Who do you believe is the most underrated player in team history? Sound off in the comments or keep the conversation going on Twitter @gridironborn.