We're remembering the 19 Chicago athletes whose splendid seasons have earned them the Most Valuable Player award for their respective leagues. The two Bears who rank among them also rank among the greatest football players of all time.
Like Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw in the 1970s and San Francisco’s Joe Montana in the 1980s, Sid Luckman of the Bears quarterbacked four world championship teams in one decade. People tend to forget that the NFL existed for almost fifty years prior to the first Super Bowl in 1967—but, as they say, you could look it up. Luckman led the Monsters of the Midway to championships in 1940, 1941, 1943, and 1946.
Luckman came to Chicago in 1939 after earning All-America honors at Columbia University, and he quickly proved to be the ideal quarterback for the Bears’ vaunted T-formation. He also played defensive back (hence his uniform number—42) and punted. In his first five seasons, the Bears went 49-9-1. They won their first championship of this period in a fashion that still defies belief, demolishing the Redskins 73-0 in the 1940 title game. They repeated in 1941, routing the Giants 39-7 in the championship game. In 1942, they stormed through a perfect 11-0-0 regular season but lost the title game to Washington.
Luckman had his finest year in 1943, throwing for 28 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions, as the Bears reclaimed the championship. The highlight came on November 14, Sid Luckman Day at the Polo Grounds in New York. After being honored by the hometown folks in a pre-game ceremony, he went out and threw for 433 yards and seven touchdowns (breaking the NFL single-game records in both categories) as the Bears defeated the Giants 56-7.
Luckman was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965. "My boy," George Halas wrote to him when both were old men, "my pride in you has no bounds." Luckman was the first—and last—great quarterback for the Bears. The search for his successor continues.
Although he played in an age of very specific roles, Walter Payton had all-around football skills—and a furious desire to succeed—that would have come in handy in any era. “He’s the very best football player I’ve ever seen,” Mike Ditka said. “At any position, period. He’s a complete player. He does everything you ask.” Not only did Payton rush for more yardage than anyone ever had before, but he was also a punishing blocker, a sure-handed receiver, a strong and accurate passer, and even an exemplary tackler.
Early in his career people joked that the Bears’ typical offensive sequence consisted of Payton, Payton, Payton, punt. It wasn’t so funny—Payton broke the NFL single-season record for rushing attempts twice in three years. Though he was running behind a mediocre line, against defenses specifically geared to stop him, Payton led the NFC in rushing five straight times.
In 1977, he ran for 1,852 yards and 14 touchdowns (with a staggering average of 5.5 yards per carry) and led the Bears to their first playoff appearance in 14 years. He gained 205 yards at Green Bay on October 30, and followed that with a record-shattering 275 against Minnesota three weeks later at Soldier Field. “You Chicago people are spoiled by Payton,” said Vikings coach Bud Grant. “He’s a phenomenon.”
By 1984, Payton had become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and the Bears had turned the corner. They pulled off an upset at Washington—the only playoff game the Redskins ever lost in RFK Stadium—and advanced to the NFC championship game in San Francisco. When the Bears lost 23-0, Payton was disconsolate. He didn’t know if he’d come so close to the Super Bowl again. “Tomorrow is never promised to anyone,” he said. Fortunately, the 1985 Bears turned out to be one of the most dominant teams ever assembled, and Payton got his Super Bowl ring.
When he retired in 1987, Payton was the leader in career rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and all-purpose yards—but even more impressive was that he had missed only one game in 13 years of giving everything he had on every play. He had become an idol not only to fans but also to his teammates and even opponents.
Payton was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. He died, tragically, at the age of only 45 six years later. “When I'm older and I talk to my grandkids,” said former teammate Dan Hampton, a Hall of Famer himself, “I'll tell them I played with Walter Payton.”