The Chicago Bears have roared their way through the history of American football and often frightened the wits out of their opposition. They are not only a fighting and intimidating force on the playing field but an institution off the pitch too.
They have bagged countless playoff appearances over the years, won the NFL and NFC titles equally as many times and were proud winners of the illustrious Super Bowl XX in 1985. For many years now they have played their home games at Soldier Field and, together with their committed and determined fighting spirit, there was never a more fitting place for them to play.
Like many teams in the history of sport, what we all know as the Chicago Bears originally began as a group of men that formed a sports team at their place of work. The company was based in Decatur and was owned by Mr A.E. Staley. In 1919 the Illinois lads formed a football team and were originally christened the Decatur Staleys.
The founding of the club is often attributed to George Halas, who brought the lads together in 1920 and introduced them to the world of the National Football League, or NFL to you and me. Remember Halas’ name too as it’s going to pop up a few more times in the course of this.
Decatur was too small for the men’s ambitions so in 1921 they packed their bags and made the short but all important trip to their state’s capital, Chicago, where they renamed themselves the Chicago Staleys.
This name would soon change again when, in 1922, Mr Halas paid off Staley for $100, took ownership of the small yet promising team and called them the Bears. They picked the name, Bears, because Chicago’s baseball team were called the Chicago Cubs. They would also share the same ground with the baseball team at Wrigley Field.
The Chicago Bears wasted no time in showing the NFL that they wished to dominate. They pretty much took the league by the scruff of the neck in the 1930s and caused quite a scene. Never did they come up against more spirited competition than when playing their neighbours, the Arizona Cardinals, who have become one of a few arch-enemies they have in the sport.
In the first six years of the new NFL the Chicago Bears only lost two games. It’s an incredible statistic and one that meant they were the dominating force at the time.
Perhaps due to being so strong, the Bears had many rivalries with other teams at the time. One such rivalry was with the Green Bay Packers. Some would go as far as saying there was hatred for each other. This might have been to do with the Bears having the Packers kicked out of the NFL so they could sign a certain player they both wanted.
Halas: the Moses of the Bears
Halas was a pretty venomous coach but one that got results, even if he wasn’t particularly popular. One of his tricks was to spot future talent from the strong and fashionable university teams and then sign them up before they even finished their studies. This sort of pressure and greed led to the NFL imposing the rule that still stands today, that a player cannot be signed until he has finished his education.
The 1940s were some of the Bears’ greatest days. While the world was fighting a war, the Bears were fighting in the NFL, against the likes of the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins. Halas was now firmly at the helm of the ship and he didn’t look as though anything could stop him now.
They reached the final of five NFL Championships and came away with a victory in four. In 1940 a historic victory against the Washington Redskins became the pinnacle moment in the Bears’ history and to this day they still hold the record for the biggest margin in terms of winning points.
At the Griffith Stadium in their home city of Washington DC, the Redksins were beaten 73-0 by the Bears. Much of this success was put down to a genius new tactic conjured up by Halas, which involved a T-formation and used two running backs rather than one.
Their incredible quarterback, Sid Luckman, made history in that game and he still remains the holder of the record for most passes in the team’s history.
Fall from grace
Never has there been one team that has completely dominated one sport for its entire history, so it was in the 1950s that the Chicago Bears dipped in form a little. Young players got a bit older and other teams played better, but never did the Bears really look as though they had given up the ghost.
Back they came in 1963 and once again they were crowned the NFL champions. More fool those who had written them off. Not only did the silverware change the direction of the wind in the Windy City but also the players looked like some of the best in the league.
Names like Butkus, Sayers and Piccolo would become legendary with the team. Piccolo was the subject of a film starring James Caan, following his unexpected death in 1970 of an embryonic carcinoma. The film became a cult hit and Jack Warden won an Emmy for his role as the infamous Halas.
The man himself would retire from his coaching role in 1967 but the Bears couldn’t get rid of him that easily and he remained in the backrooms until his death in 1983. He became the longest serving ambassador for the NFL with a run of over 60 years.
He became the president of the National Football Conference towards the end of his life and when he passed away, the game showed their respect for him by renaming the National Football Conference Championship Trophy the George Halas Memorial Trophy. When he died he handed the ownership of the team to his oldest daughter, Virginia Halas McCaskey.
Plenty more of the cheer-lead about.
Even though Halas had stepped down as overall coach of the Bears they continued their success. A hugely important acquisition came in 1975 when they drafted in the young, fresh, straight out of college boy, Walter Payton, who would go on to win the NFL Most Valuable Player Award in 1978. Nicknamed ‘Sweetness’, Payton was a hero with the Bears’ fans and he was sadly mourned and missed when liver cancer took him in 1999 at only 45.
Halas left another pivotal mark on the Chicago Bears when he championed the role of a properly organised Cheerleading Squad. He called them the ‘dancing girls’ and felt they played a vital part in the game.
During the 1980s the Bears remained strong and, with their new coach, ex player Mike Ditka, they won their first and only Super Bowl to date in 1985 and reached impressive standings in the leagues throughout the entire decade.
The boss, Mrs McCaskey, didn’t take any prisoners if there was a dip in form, even if this meant giving her own son Michael the boot as president. His replacement was Ted Phillips and he found his feet much more quickly and more effectively than Michael.
Lovie Smith became the new coach, along with some more coaching staff to help him, and they eventually found their way back to playoffs and to the NFC North league title and a place in the Super Bowl.
The family-run ownership of the Bears, under Virginia McCaskey’s reins, has been criticised by the press, by some of the fans and by the share-holders. Some have argued they are not moving with the times enough but they are not short of a few bob and are currently the 7th richest team in the NFL.
Their logo bears the black bear with the wishbone ‘C’. They have gone into battle wearing their customary brown and blue stripes since the 1920s. There have been some alterations in the design of the jersey and shorts over the years but the principle colours have remained the same and have become an instantly recognisable part of the game.
They play at Soldier Field, which was rebuilt in 2002 where only the actual exterior wall has remained from the original structure. The new stadium houses around 50,000 fans and the turn-out is always near capacity.
If you go down to the woods today you’ll be sure to see Staley Da Bear, who began life as an unofficial mascot but has since been welcomed by the team as an integral part of stadium life.
Their history is a hard one to summarise, as they have been involved in so many important areas and moments in the life of the sport. They continue to produce players of incredibly high standard and this looks set to continue on into the next century.
They’re a close-knit team that thrive on their bravery and fighting spirit and they don’t look likely to become any less bear-like in the years to come.