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George Halas — Father of the NFL

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Our history lesson today takes us to one of the most important figures in the NFL

Buffalo Bills v Chicago Bears

One might say that the most important team in the National Football League (NFL) is the Chicago Bears. Not necessarily because the club is located in the nation’s third largest city, but because of its longtime player/coach/owner George S. Halas.

The Bears are a charter member of the league. It began as a company sports teams just like someone may play for the softball team for their establishment or factory where they worked. Halas was hired by the A.E. Staley corn starch company of Decatur, Illinois as the head of the corporation’s athletic department to which he was head baseball and football coach. Halas had spent time as an outfielder with the New York Yankees and was also a star football player for the University of Illinois.

Mr. Staley wanted his company nationally known. In 1920, Halas heard that a new professional football league would be forming and thought what better way to tout the company than on a national platform, and also to get more teams to play. Halas attended a meeting with other area club representatives to form the American Professional Football Association (APFA). His team was called the Decatur Staleys and was funded by his employer. That first team would go 5-1-2, good enough for second place in the maiden season of the league.

The following season, Halas was informed that the company was in a business recession and could no longer afford their sports teams. Mr. Staley told Halas that he should consider moving the club to a much larger city and that if the team would continue to be called the Staleys he would receive a one-time stipend of $5,000. Halas chose nearby Chicago (where he grew up on the West Side) and obtained a lease with Wrigley Field - home of baseball’s Chicago Cubs.

The Chicago Staleys played the 1921 season as agreed upon. For the following year, Halas renamed his team the Chicago Cubs; but after a few months decided that if baseball players were cubs then football players must be bears.

Halas the Intimidator

The 1921 Chicago Staleys would go on to win their first league championship, but folks considered the victory to be of fraudulent means. In fact, the season has been coined the “Staley Swindle.”

Back then there wasn’t any playoff system. The team with the greatest percentage points at the conclusion of the season was considered the winner (ties did not count regarding win percentage); but not officially until the winter owners meeting where a vote would be taken. Scheduling back then was also very loose as it was up to every team to come up with their own schedule with as many – or as few - games desired. Usually all games would be concluded by mid-December.

The Buffalo All-Americans had the best record in the league at 8-0-2 (1.000 win percentage) going into their final game against another tough team the Akron Pros. The Bears were currently in second place in league standings with a record of 7-1-0 (.875) with their schedule already concluded. The Bears only loss was a 7-6 defeat to Buffalo. Halas challenged Buffalo owner Frank McNeil to a rematch to which McNeil agreed as long as it was considered a post-season exhibition game and no matter the outcome the contest would not count in the final standings.

The All-Americans played their last game on Saturday December 3 against the Pros and won 14-0 to finish their season 9-0-2 (1.000 win percentage). Directly after the game the team then traveled by train from Buffalo to Chicago and played the Staleys the very next afternoon. The Staleys won 10-7.

McNeil assumed that his franchise had won the league crown. He even purchased small gold footballs for every one of his players as a keepsake of the title.

Halas claimed that the match was a late arranged game. He then quickly scheduled two more games against the Canton Bulldogs and the Chicago Cardinals. Both of those teams agreed to play the added contests in Chicago in order to receive the visitor’s percentage gate which gave them an added financial gain as Bears games drew large crowds. Halas’ thinking was that if the other owners considered the rematch against the All-Americans as an official league victory and if his club could pull off two more wins, this would propel Chicago to a 10-1 record and be crowned the league champion.

The Bears defeated the Bulldogs 10-0 but tied the Cardinals 0-0. This brought the Bears record to 9-1-1 and Buffalo’s record to 9-1-2. Since tie games did not count in the percentage column, Halas assessed both clubs had identical 9-1 records.

Halas appealed to the other owners that the Staleys were league champs based on the fact that his club had the best record and they had defeated Buffalo in the rematch. His argument was that rematch games should count more than previous contests between two teams. He also countered that the combined scoring between the two was 16-14 in favor of the Staleys. McNeil stated that the final game against Halas’ club was simply an exhibition plus extra gate revenue for both teams and nothing more.

Since a vote by the owners determined the league champion, they decided to form the first-ever tie-breaker. This new rule stated that a rematch should count more than the first time two teams play, which basically awarded the Staleys the league title. If the All-Americans had not agreed to play Chicago in that final game, they would have been the league champs.

Halas the Innovator

After the second season of the APFA, Halas suggested to the other team owners to change the league name to the National Football League (NFL). The measure passed and has since retained its new moniker.

Halas was the first to hire a team press agent in the early 1930s. Even in the local paper, most teams received very little mention before a contest much less after the game. The press agent would write play-by-play outlines, visit various newspaper offices and offer pre-game hype in the hopes of granting some coverage.

Halas invented the hash marks labeled on every football field today. In 1932, the NFL was devoid of any playoff system. When the Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans were tied for the league lead a one-game playoff was scheduled for Wrigley Field in Chicago. However, a heavy snowstorm blanketed the Midwest with zero degree temps. It was decided to play the contest indoors at Chicago Stadium (home of the NHL Blackhawks) instead.

The field was only 45 yards wide by 60 yards long goal line to goal line. Back then, the next play was spotted where the player was tackled. This meant sometimes the next play would be a few yards from the sideline. For an indoor game with hockey sideboards, this simply would not work, so Halas drew lines up and down the field 10 yards from each sideline. So, for this one game, if a player was tackled near the sideline the very next play would begin at the closest painted line. The league adopted this the following season and hash marks were born.

In 1934 a college All-Star game was proposed that would pit the best of the college game against the reigning NFL champion – the Bears. At first Halas didn’t want anything to do with this with the possibility of injuries plus his team’s image in case his club lost. But when he found out the contest would benefit Chicagoland charities, he approved the game. This began an annual event until 1976 with over $4 million contributed to those in need.

From the league’s inception up until the 1935 season, all clubs made their roster in any means possible. In evidently though, only a handful of clubs were the league champs year-after-year; and yes, the Bears were one of those top teams every season. When Philadelphia Eagles’ owner Bert Bell suggested a unified college draft wherein the worst team would select first and the league champs would choose last, Halas was one that voted to change the system. He asserted that the league was only as strong as its weakest link. That year the NFL conducted its very first college disbursement draft.

With television in its infancy regarding sporting events, Halas believed there was a future to this avenue even though there were only about 7,000 television sets in the Chicagoland area. In 1946 he made an agreement with local TV station WBKB to broadcast games. Today, revenues from television make franchises triple the income than actual gate receipts.

Halas was also the first to have daily practices, drape a tarp on the playing field and place his assistant coaches in the press box, play home games at a major league stadium, first club to have a team fight song (“Bear down, Chicago Bears”) and the first team to broadcast live games on radio. He was also instrumental in the league-wide profit sharing protocol which meant clubs such as his own would not dominate financially and give the small-market clubs an equal footing to benefit the league as a whole.

Halas the Player, the Coach, the Owner

Halas played end on offense (now called wide receiver) and defensive end on the defense. From the league’s inception of 1920 until 1950 all athletes played both ways (with the exception of the World War II years). He had a 98-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown in 1923 – a record that stood until 1972. He was also the coach. When the Staleys moved from Decatur to Chicago, he then became part-owner along with a partner and continued to play until 1929.

In the early years of the NFL, most teams struggled financially year-after-year. To be truthful, most lost money every season. Halas was well-known for being thrifty and even a cheapskate. Most players would make between $100 - 200 a game while an occasional college superstar could net $300.

Halas worked another job during the off-season to help off-set some of the team’s bills. He kept his costs to a minimum and was an excellent coach which enabled the club to not have to go after the higher-priced college talent. But all it took was bad weather or a lame team to have a bad gate and the franchise would be in dire straits again. He also handled ticket sales and the general running of the franchise.

One of Halas’ best ideas was to institute what he called a “barnstorming tour.” What this entailed was after the Bears season was over, the team would go across the country playing various community clubs in a match. From Chicago the team would venture into Memphis down to Florida then back up the eastern seaboard playing as many as 18 games in two months. The players welcomed the extra pay and Halas could pocket as much as over $100,000 in profits.

Halas signed the great college football sensation Red Grange in late 1925. Everyone in the country seemed to want to see this glorious star and the Bears did not disappoint. The New York Giants were about bust when Grange played before a capacity crowd of 70,000 at the Polo Grounds in New York. The game is considered the savior of the Giants franchise and put the club into the black.

Halas began the process of the quarterback no longer being a blocker. In the past, all backs blocked, ran the ball and most also would throw an occasional pass. Coach Halas stopped that process. He also had an offensive playbook with 2,300 plays.

During the 1940 NFL Championship Game, the Bears were up 48-0 over the Washington Redskins in the third quarter. It was reported to Halas that the game was almost out of footballs because so many had gone into the stands for the PAT and kept by fans. Halas then instructed his long snapper, Bob Snyder, to deliberately flub the pass to the holder in order to retain the two balls they had left. Snyder refused stating he had never had a bad pass and he wasn’t about to start. So, with the next two touchdowns Halas got the holder to mess up the placement; and then the finals two touchdown point after attempts were pass efforts to a wide receiver. The Bears won, 73-0.

When Halas stepped down as head coach, his career coaching record was 318-148-31 (.682 winning percentage).

Halas the Winner

In the early years of the league, the Staleys/Bears were annually one of the best teams. From 1920-1925 the club went an amazing 43-8-8 and captured one title.

In 1934 the Bears were undefeated (13-0-0) going into the championship game with the Giants. That 30-13 loss to the Giants has been famously coined the “Sneakers Game.” The same thing happened again in 1942. 11-0-0 Chicago was favored by three touchdowns but lost, 14-6, to the Redskins.

There are several Bears teams that are considered one of the best of all time: 1941, 1963 and 1985. Each of these rosters took home the NFL crown.

From 1933-1946 the Bears appeared in the NFL Championship Game seven times, winning four crowns. The club has a grand total of nine NFL titles – second only to the Green Bay Packers (13).

Halas the Man

George S. Halas, one of the founders of the NFL, owner of the Chicago Bears, league champion over-and-over, did not shirk his duty for his country. He enlisted in World War II as a Navy lieutenant commander and by the war’s end was the rank of Captain. He earned the Bronze Star during his stint.

Halas continued to coach until 1967; although he was still active as the team’s owner. Every phase of the NFL went through his fingers and thought process. He served on almost every committee imaginable and was the zenith to the growth of the league. Even though he was tough and stern when he had to be, he also was a person who wanted the best for his players.

He was known for his discipline and the integrity he demanded from his players. In the early days he would have players meet weight requirements and fine them $100 if they didn’t.

But he truly cared for his players. Halas would withhold a small percentage of each player’s weekly pay so that at the end of the season they would have a nest egg in which to begin their offseason. When Dan Fortmann signed with Chicago to play the 1936 season, Halas arranged practices around Fortmann’s medical education while he played for the Bears. One player lost his son during the season. At the conclusion of the year, the player found an additional $1,000 check attached to his nest egg check.

Halas was a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. The Bears have 14 jersey numbers retired some of which are the game’s greatest including Dick Butkus, Bulldog Turner, Gale Sayers, Bronko Nagurski, Walter Payton, Red Grange and Sid Luckman. Another is Halas’ playing number 7.

And if you watch a Bears game, you might notice the GSH on the left sleeve of the uniforms to commemorate his passing in 1983. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is located on George Halas Drive while the NFC Champs trophy is the George Halas Trophy.

The Halas imprint is stamped on everything regarding pro football. And the ultimate tribute might be the 1997 postage stamp with his likeness. “Papa Bear” would have been proud.