Monday, November 29, 2010

Bears vs. Packers, 1963

     The Bears-Packers game of November 17, 1963, was perhaps the most highly anticipated regular-season contest in NFL history up to that time. The archrivals came into the game with identical 8-1 records, and the winner would take a giant step toward the Western Division crown and a berth in the world championship game (which was not yet named the Super Bowl).
     “If we’re going to win this thing,” Bears head coach George Halas had said before the season, “we’re going to have to beat Green Bay twice.” It was a tall order: the Packers had beaten the Bears 49-0 and 38-7 the year before en route to an almost-perfect 14-1 record and a second straight championship. But the Bears had defeated the Packers 10-3 in the season opener at Lambeau Field, and now they had the opportunity to deliver on Halas’s prophecy.
     Over 49,000 fans turned out for the rematch at Wrigley Field—some of whom paid scalpers $100 for the privilege. As was true of all home games in those days, even sellouts, the game was not televised within a 75-mile radius of Chicago, so fans drove to taverns, bowling alleys, and American Legion halls in outlying areas of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. One group of 400 chartered an entire train, which they christened the Victory Special, for the 180-mile trip to a Galesburg hotel. Well supplied with liquid refreshments, these fans spent six hours on the train there and back for the chance to watch the game on television.
     They were not disappointed.
     The Bears’ J.C. Caroline set the tone on the game’s opening kickoff when he obliterated Herb Adderley after a return of just several steps. Thereafter, as George Strickler wrote in the Tribune, “the underdog Bears relentlessly carried the fight to the foe, on offense as well as defense.” The Packers were never in the game. They didn’t score until late in the fourth quarter, when they were already trailing 26-0. Only one other time, on a pass-interference penalty in the second quarter, did they advance inside the Bears’ 38-yard line. The Bears intercepted five passes and recovered two Packer fumbles. They limited Jim Taylor, the league’s reigning rushing champ, to 23 yards.
     “The Bear defense met every expectation,” Strickler wrote. “The offense exceeded even the wildest hopes of the most rabid Bears followers.” All season, the defense had been disproportionately responsible for the team’s success; when the two groups passed each other going on and off the field, Ed O’Bradovich remembered, he and his defensive mates would say to the offensive unit, “Just hold ’em.” But on this day, the offense more than held its own. With superb blocking up front and a balanced distribution of carries among Willie Galimore, Joe Marconi, Rick Casares, and Ronnie Bull, the Bears churned out 248 yards on the ground. They scored the first three times they had the ball, on two field goals by Roger Leclerc and a spectacular 27-yard gallop by Galimore. Leclerc added a field goal in the third quarter and another in the fourth before Bennie McRae’s 44-yard interception return set up a touchdown run by quarterback Bill Wade from five yards out. The final score of 26-7 could have been even more one-sided, but Leclerc missed four field goals in addition to the four he made.
     The Bears presented the game ball to offensive line coach Phil Handler, whose charges had completely dominated the line of scrimmage. Although the Packers were without Bart Starr, who’d been out three weeks with an injury, Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi offered no excuses. “The Bears were terrific,” he said. “They beat us up front where it counts—and both ways. I’m happy for Papa George [Halas]; he’s a hell of a guy.”
     Halas himself was virtually speechless after the game. “Thank you, fellows,” was all he managed to tell his team before being overcome with emotion.
     “Somebody may still beat the Bears,” Lombardi said wistfully. “I’m making no predictions. But they have four games left to play. So do we.”

Adapted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert.

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