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Who owns the Bears rookie passing touchdown record? A 79-year mystery, solved.

Justin Fields has a chance to set a new Bears rookie record for touchdown passes. Until this week, that record was in dispute. But due to a query from WCG historian Jack M Silverstein, the Bears are changing their record books. Meet Chuckin’ Charlie O’Rourke, Bears record holder.

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Justin Fields (photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) flanked by fellow Bears rookies, from top, Charlie O’Rourke, Jim McMahon and Kyle Orton (photo by Bob Rosato/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Even if he does not start for a few more weeks, Justin Fields has a good shot at breaking the Bears rookie record for touchdown passes in a season. That much we know.

But what is the record? And who holds it?

Until this week, those questions were in dispute.

There were two possibilities. The first comes from the Bears media guide and common reporting, showing the record as 9, shared by Jim McMahon in 1982 and Kyle Orton in 2005.

But in 1942, the Bears had a quarterback in his first NFL season — crucially his second season after college — named Charlie O’Rourke, who threw 11 touchdowns.

This discrepancy has been a topic of conversation among the Windy City Gridiron staff members since Mitch Trubisky’s rookie year in 2017; we resumed our discussion when the Bears drafted Fields.

Now, after my communications this week with a Chicago Bears spokesperson about the debate and a mountain of research that I’ll explain here, the Bears will be updating their records to re-assign the rookie touchdown record to O’Rourke in 1942.

With apologies to K.O. and the Punky QB, this is the story of how a Bears record was reclaimed, 79 years after it was set.

Mitch Trubisky kickstarts a Windy City Gridiron mystery

I don’t remember when I first heard of Charlie O’Rourke, but I think it was in my research for this piece in October of 2017 on Bears quarterbacks deemed “The Future.” O’Rourke didn’t make it into that piece but I did review his career and saw that in 1942, his first season in the NFL, he threw for 11 TDs.

What I didn’t do was consider O’Rourke’s place in the Bears rookie record book. That didn’t come until early December, when Mitch Trubisky led the Bears to a 33-7 Bears win over the Bengals, passing for one touchdown — his sixth on the season.

That’s when my WCG colleague Sam Householder began tweeting about Trubisky’s place in Bears rookie history:

The next week, Trubisky threw for 314 yards and one touchdown, meaning he was closing in on Orton’s Bears rookie record of 1,869 yards (he was at 1,822) and was now four TDs from tying O’Rourke.

Yet other than in WCG staff email threads, no one seemed to be crediting O’Rourke with the record. Rather, that credit was going to McMahon and Orton.

On Dec. 28, heading into Week 17, our editor Lester Wiltfong and I each gave O’Rourke credit. Lester did so in this story, while I started exploring the O’Rourke-McMahon-Orton question in this thread within my season-long Trubisky thread:

It was all moot. While Trubisky did pass Orton in passing yards (setting a new record at 2,193), he did not pass for anymore touchdowns, leaving his season total at 7, two behind McMahon and Orton and four behind O’Rourke. He was outside the record either way, so that conversation ended until we drafted Fields this year.

The arrival of Fields brought back to the fore a forgotten man in Bears history: Charles Christopher O’Rourke, known to football fans far and wide as “Chuckin’ Charlie.”

Charlie O’Rourke: a one-year Bears star sets a forgotten record

On January 1, 1941, the legend of Charlie O’Rourke was born.

As a starting back for undefeated Boston College, O’Rourke led the Eagles to a 19-13 win over Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl, giving B.C. a shared claim to the national championship. His passing, running, kicking and defense spurred a comeback victory — most famously, he led an 80-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, ending with his 24-yard touchdown run, to break the 13-13 tie.

O’Rourke’s future in pro football seemed secure. Indeed, one month earlier, on Dec. 10, 1940, George Halas and the Bears had selected O’Rourke 39th overall in the 1941 NFL draft. This was two days after the Bears defeated Washington 73-0 to win the NFL championship, and Halas was loading the cupboard once more, picking 24 players in the draft, including the passing specialist O’Rourke.

That pick was exciting on Dec. 10. After seeing O’Rourke emerge as a Sugar Bowl hero, the pick was downright magical.

To everyone but O’Rourke, that is.

“I’ve had enough,” O’Rourke said. “You play professional football three or four years, you’re through, and what have you?”

His plan was to coach high school football, and he spent the 1941 season working at Cardinal Hayes High School in New York. According to reports, Halas made multiple contract offers to O’Rourke, who would not budge.

It hardly mattered. The Bears went 10-1 in 1941, and then trounced the Packers and Giants in the playoff by a combined score of 70-23 to win their second straight NFL championship.

In July of 1942, Halas finally succeeded in wooing the star passer. As the Boston Globe reported via O’Rourke, Halas made “such an attractive offer” that O’Rourke couldn’t turn it down.

Boston Globe, July 23, 1942

These were the days in which multiple quarterbacks would play for a team even in the same game, so while Sid Luckman remained the starter in 1942 and even threw the most passes with 10, O’Rourke still played a bunch, throwing one more touchdown than Luckman on 88 attempts.

With Luckman and O’Rourke leading a devastating Bears backfield and the team allowed just 7.6 points per game, the Bears pulled off an unbeaten season, entering the title game against Washington 11-0. That was the end of the line: Washington upset the Bears 14-6 to win the 1942 championship, with Luckman struggling all game.

The one bright spot for the Bears was O’Rourke, and I would understand why any Bears fan in the spring of ‘43 assumed that Chuckin’ Charlie was going to join Luckman as an unstoppable one-two passing punch.

Instead, in June of ‘43, O’Rourke enlisted in the Navy, one of 493 NFL players who served in the U.S. military between 1941 and 1944.

Rather than continuing his Bears career in 1943, O’Rourke fought the Nazis while Luckman unleashed his greatest professional season. (Luckman would serve too, joining the merchant marines during his MVP 1943 season and becoming one of four Pro Football Hall of Fame players to storm the beach on D-Day.)

When the war ended, O’Rourke returned to football, signing with the L.A. Dons of the AAFC for the 1946 season. He played two seasons with the Dons, two seasons back in the NFL with the Colts, and then retired.

By the time he passed away in April of 2000, his Bears rookie record had essentially been erased.

Investigating the disputed Bears rookie passing record

In July, the WCG gang started talking about Charlie O’Rourke again.

I tweeted in July about this question of the touchdown record and the dispute about O’Rourke vs. McMahon and Orton. I wanted to find a definitive answer — Fields could surely break this record, after all — and my search only grew more confusing. I found a list on ChicagoBears.com ranking the team’s top rookie passers; the piece credited O’Rourke with “a franchise rookie record that still stands with 11 touchdown passes.”

In popped Sam, reminding me that the Bears media guide gives the record to McMahon and Orton.

One possible answer was in O’Rourke’s missed season of 1941. Perhaps there was some kind of technicality in the 1940s by which a player who did not enter the NFL immediately out of college was considered a “first-year player” but not a “rookie.” Or perhaps the Bears considered 1941 O’Rourke’s rookie year even though he did not play.

I emailed a Bears spokesperson, who thanked me for bringing the question to their attention and said the team was looking into it.

In the meantime, I did three things.

First, I read Newspapers.com archives from 1941 to 1943 to see if I could confirm O’Rourke’s complete absence from the Bears. This was tricky for several reasons, including that even O’Rourke’s name is in dispute. He was often listed as “Charley” in reporting of the day, sometimes as both “Charlie” and “Charley” in the same article.

So just tracking his whereabouts was tough. But there was enough reporting to confirm that he missed the ‘41 season. O’Rourke even played in an exhibition game in September of 1941 against the Bears as part of a team of college all-stars. And he wasn’t on the all-star team simply because the Bears season hadn’t yet started; two of his fellow 1940/1941 Bears draftees, Hugh Gallarneau and Norm Standlee, suited up for the Bears that day.

Second, I tried to trace the reporting around the record, looking at two alternate timelines. First, one in which O’Rourke set the record. Second, one in which O’Rourke for some reason was not considered a rookie, and the record proceeded without him.

The record before O’Rourke was six touchdowns by Ray Buivid in 1937. There was no mention of Buivid in reporting around O’Rourke.

If O’Rourke was not a rookie, then Buivid’s record was not broken until Zeke Bratkowski through for eight touchdowns in 1954. I could find no reporting of either Bratkowski breaking Buivid’s record, or falling short of O’Rourke’s.

In 1982, Jim McMahon passed for nine touchdowns. I could find no reporting of either McMahon breaking Bratkowski’s record, or falling short of O’Rourke’s.

I didn’t see the record pop up until 2005, when the Tribune and other outlets reported that Orton’s 9th touchdown tied McMahon’s Bears rookie record.

Santa Clarita Signal, Dec. 2, 2005

That finalized the erasure of O’Rourke, and I moved on to my third step, reaching out to other NFL historians. I ultimately connected with one of the best in the business: John Turney of Pro Football Researchers Association.

If you know pro football research, you know Turney’s work. Among many other credentials and areas of experience, Turney made national news this summer when Pro Football Reference officially added sack totals from 1960 to 1981 as the result of the research from Turney and fellow NFL researcher Nick Webster.

In other words, Turney is the reason that Jim Osborne and Doug Atkins now rank 4th and 5th, respectively, in the all-time Bears sack list.

I asked Turney if he knew of a reason why O’Rourke would not be considered a rookie in 1942. He knew of no such rule, and noted that the opposite had once been true: In 1973, Rams running back Lawrence McCutcheon was considered a rookie and received votes for Offensive Rookie of the Year despite being in his second season, because in his first season, 1972, he only played special teams.

“They closed that loophole shortly thereafter,” Turney told me via email. His conclusion?

“My best guess is that it’s simply an error back in the day and was never corrected,” he told me. “That happens some in old media guides, and it takes someone pointing out to get it changed.”

Chuckin’ Charlie regains the #1 spot: the Bears make the change

Yesterday, I took all of that information — the Turney material and the Buivid-Bratkowski-McMahon-Orton material — and sent it back to the Bears. The spokesperson confirmed that my information combined with their own additional research led them to decide to correct the record book.

That means after 79 years, Charlie O’Rourke once again holds the Bears rookie record for passing touchdowns, with 11. Welcome back, Chuckin’ Charlie.

May your reign be short.

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Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.

Thank you to my WCG partners Sam Householder and Lester Wiltfong. Thank you to the whole WCG team. Thank you to John Turney. Thank you to the Bears.

And of course, thank you to Pro Football Reference, Stathead, Newspapers.com and Wikipedia.