Thursday, October 14, 2010

Impressions of Papa Bear, Part 3


     “There's only one man I embrace when we meet,” said the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, “and only one I call ‘Coach’—George Halas.”
     One Sunday, according to Green Bay star Paul Hornung, the Packers were dressing for a game against the Bears when insistent knocking was heard at the locker-room door. Hornung opened the door, and found none other than Halas standing there.
     “I need to see Lombardi,” Halas said to the startled Hornung.
     Lombardi came to the door. “Hello, Coach,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
     “Vince,” said Halas, “I just came by to tell you that we are gonna kick your ass!” With that, he turned and walked away.

     At a banquet in 1966, Mike Ditka got off a memorable remark about Halas’s frugality: “He tosses nickels around like they’re manhole covers.” Ditka claimed to have heard it from teammates Bill George or Fred Williams—he couldn’t remember which. Either way, Halas was furious. Twenty years later, Ditka reflected on another side of “the Old Man.” “I was probably one of fifty who owed him money that he never got back,” Ditka wrote. “They don’t tell the stories about how many times he bailed someone out of a bad jam. He helped Willie Galimore’s family and Brian Piccolo’s family after their deaths. I think that was an element that made you closer to the club and more obligated to the club and I think that was good. It was a loyalty thing and I’m sure he wanted it that way. You wouldn’t see that now.”

     Halas retired from coaching for good on May 27, 1968. Except for a pair of two-year sabbaticals and three years in the Navy during World War II, he had been the Bears’ head coach since 1920. He had won 324 games—95 more than Curly Lambeau, who ranked second at the time. He’d compiled a winning percentage of .671. The Bears had won eight championships.

     At Lambeau Field in Green Bay on November 3, 1968, Gale Sayers had one of the greatest days of his incomparable career, rushing for 205 yards as the Bears upset the defending Super Bowl champions 13-10. One week later, on a gloomy afternoon at Wrigley Field, Sayers took a pitchout and was upended by the 49ers’ Kermit Alexander just as he was making one of his patented cuts. His right knee buckled. Sayers popped up and took a step or two toward the sideline before collapsing. All of the ligaments in the knee had been torn. Although he would come back the next year and perform courageously, he would never be quite the same again. As Sayers was carried off the field on a stretcher, Kermit Alexander wept. So did George Halas.
     More injuries followed. “There was a series of operations,” Sayers remembered. “In 1971, I played in St. Louis to see how I could go. I felt my movement was good, but the pain was just too great. I told Abe Gibron, the new head coach, that I’d had it. I saw Mr. Halas. The meeting was kind of emotional. He asked me if there was anything he could do. I told him there was nothing and I did appreciate everything he had done for me. ‘Well,’ Mr. Halas said, ‘I do want to do something.’ He gave me a check for $50,000.”

     Halas’s old-fashioned paternalism grated on some, and indeed it proved increasingly anachronistic when the big money started rolling in during the 1960s and 1970s. By then many players viewed the concept of team loyalty in a different light, believing that they needed to look first and foremost after their own individual interests. Like Sayers, Dick Butkus had his magnificent career cut short by knee injuries. After the 1973 season, Butkus was through, but there were still four years left to run on the contract he had signed the previous summer. When Halas balked at paying him for the remaining years, Butkus slapped a $1.6 million lawsuit on him. “He never thought I would really sue him,” said Butkus. “Other guys had talked about it, but no one had ever done it.”
     The two parties eventually settled out of court, but for Halas it was a bitter reminder that life had changed since the early days. “I was asked not so long ago,” Halas wrote in 1979, “if I were 24 now instead of 60 years ago, would I have my old eagerness to make a career in professional football. I said, as a player, yes. But as a coach, manager and owner, no. Football has largely turned from a personal sport into an impersonal business. The personal relations which meant so much to me are no longer so strong.”

     When the Bears needed a new head coach in 1982, Halas interviewed Mike Ditka at his (Halas’s) kitchen table and then hired him—bypassing his general manager, Jim Finks, was supposed to be the one who made these decisions. At the press conference held to introduce Ditka, one member of the media suggested that perhaps the decision should have been left to others. Halas was 87 years old, after all, and maybe not in full possession of his faculties. Rising to the occasion, Halas looked squarely at his interrogator, moved forward in his seat, and declared, “There’s no senility in this goddamn carcass!”
     Halas was vindicated when Ditka and the Bears became world champions in Ditka’s fourth year at the helm. Sadly, he was not around to say, “I told you so,” having passed away on Halloween night in 1983.

     “If there was ever anyone quite like him,” David Condon wrote in the Tribune the morning after Halas died, “I never met the person.”

     For other, wealthier moguls who’d made their fortunes in other businesses, owning a professional sports franchise was an ego-gratifying diversion. For Halas, the Bears were never a hobby. They were his life.

Part 3 of 3.

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