Friday, September 6, 2019

The Chicago Bears and NFL at 100 Maybe

The NFL's "100th Season" logo was everywhere this week.  But is it really?
Last night amid all of the impressive hoopla that the National Football League (NFL) can muster the “One Hundredth Season” was launched with a Bears/Packer’s game at Soldier Field in Chicago.  It did not go well for the home team whose sky-high expectations fizzled with the touted offense.  Not that Green Bay did much better.  It was a defensive slug fest but Bears Quarterback Mitch Trubisky threw and end zone interception in the second Quarter.  The visitors maintained their humiliating dominance at the Lakefront stadium.

The new statues of George Halas and Walter Payton were unveiled outside Soldier Field.

The game was almost anticlimactic after a week of hype and hullabaloo by the League, the Bears, and NBC.  The Bears unveiled a pair of statues honoring founder/owner/coach George Halas in his fedora and overcoat like he prowled the sidelines  in during the ‘50’s and ‘60’s and running back Walter Payton, the most beloved Bear since Red Grange.  There were carnival-like events most of the week in near-by Grant Park, press conferences and photo ops galore.  There was even a Meagan Trainor concert for tailgaters before the game.
The League’s Jay-Z approved charm offensive to convince Black fans and liberal critics that it really does care about social justice after all was in full swing despite the fact that it continues to essential black ball Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee to protest police killings of Black folk and threatens sanctions against any players who might be tempted to do it this year.  It also has to do it without triggering a new Donald Trump Twitter storm or offending its White and jingoistic fan base.

Part of the NFL charm offensive to convince Black fans that they are good guys after all.
The Bears featured reunions of survivors of the 1985 Super Bowl champion team, renditions of the  Super Bowl Shuffle, and skits featuring mustachioed, meat loving fans of “Da Bears” that originated on Saturday Night Live.
Much of the rah-rah was focused on the NFL and Bears centennial.  But there is a minor problem with that.  While it is the 100th year of the team coached and led by George Halas, it was not playing in Chicago in 1919 and the NFL was not founded until 1920 playing its first season that fall.  Nor is the Bears-Packer rivalry the oldest in the league.  That rivalry was the one between the Chicago Cardinals and the team from Decatur.  Those two franchises are the only ones left from the original members of the league.  The Packers did not join the NFL until 1921.
Let me explain.
On October 17, 1920 there was a football game at Rock Island, Illinois.  The Decatur Staleys, under the leadership of former professional baseball player George Halas, beat the home town Rock Island Independents by a score of 7-0.  The only thing that made the game memorable was that it was the first game played by teams of the new American Professional Football Association; a fledgling professional league renamed two years later as the National Football League (NFL.)

The 1920 Decatur Staleys professional foot ball team with coach/player George Halas front row center.
The Staleys, who started out as a semi-pro team in 1919 sponsored by the food starch producer A. E. Staley Company, had a pretty good season finishing with 10 wins, 1 loss, and 2 ties.  They finished second to the Akron Pros.
The new league was the brainchild of legendary athlete Jim Thorpe, player-coach of the Canton Bulldogs.  He had been promoting the idea among other independent pro and semi-pro teams since 1917, but World War I and then the 1919 Spanish Influenza pandemic prevented anything from happening.  Thorpe and Leo Lyons, owner of the barnstorming Rochester Jeffersons got representatives from a number of teams to gather for a meeting in August 1920 in a Hupmobile Dealership in Canton, Ohio to launch the league.    Thorpe was elected President of the league in addition to his player/coach duties with Bulldogs.  

Legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe of the Canton Bulldogs was a founder of the new professional football league, its first president, and public face.
The teams competing that first year included Canton Bulldogs, Decatur Staleys, Chicago Cardinals, Akron Pros, Cleveland Indians, Dayton Triangles, Hammond Pros, Muncie Flyers, Rock Island Independents, Rochester Jeffersons, Buffalo All-Americans, Chicago Tigers, Columbus Panhandles, and Detroit Heralds.  Of these teams only 11 managed to finish the season.
In 1921 Halas got permission to take his team to Chicago.  The Staley Company gave him $5000 to keep the name for at least the first year.  The team played Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field.)  The team finished with a 9-1-1 record to win the League’s second Championship. 
Freed from his contractual obligation Halas renamed the team the Chicago Bears in 1922 as a nod to his stadium hosts, the Chicago Cubs.  The league was still struggling in 1925 when Hallas signed the biggest star in college football, Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost of the University of Illinois.  In honor of his prize player, Halas changed the team colors to the orange and navy blue of the Illini.  

College football hero Red Grange, immortalized in the purple prose of sportswriter Grantland Rice,  became the fledgling NFL's first superstar when he signed with the Bears.  Halas changed the team colors to navy blue and orange in honor of Granges's alma mater, the University of Illinoi.
Today only two of the original franchises remain active, neither of them in their original location.  The Cardinals have moved twice, from Chicago to St. Louis and then to Arizona.  The Staleys became the Bears after only two seasons and moved to Chicago after one.  But the team is the only one still owned by the same family.  
Virginia Halas McCaskey, George’s daughter who was born in 1923, the year the team became the Bears, is the principle owner.  After her son Michael McCaskey retired as team president in 2009 he was replaced by Ted Philips and for the first time day-to-day management of the team is not in family hands.  Michael’s brother George, however, is still the Chairman of the Board.  Members of the Halas/McCaskey family own 80% of the company stock and show no signs of selling.
In the team’s storied history it has made 29 post-season competitions, won nine NFL Championships and the 1985 Super Bowl.  In addition to Grange and Payton legendary players have included Bronco Nagursky, Sid Luckman, Mike Ditka, Dick Butkus,  Gayle Sayers, Brian Piccolo, Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, George Blanda, and Brian Urlacher.

Chicago fans pin their hopes on QB Mitch Trubisky and head coach Matt Nagy.
Early on the team was noted for grinding out a ground game—“three yards and cloud of dust” and the T formation celebrated in the anthem Bear Down Chicago Bears.  With Sayers, Payton and more recent running backs it has featured an explosive running game.  But the Bears have gone through more Quarterbacks than it is possible to count.  Super Bowl QB and cool icon Jim McMahon was injured in a famous body slam by a Packer and never again was a dominant factor.  Jay Cutler had the longest run at the position—7 seasons—but was frequently injured. The current hope is Mitch Trubisky who has steadily improved over the last two seasons under Head Coach Matt Nagy.  

The Chicago Park District plunked this modern bowl with plenty of lucrative sky boxes within the shell of its old Neo-classical Soldier Field, a lake front stadium dating to the 1920s.  The Bears lease the facility paid for by Chicago and state of Illinois tax dollar and bonds brokered by political insiders.  Untold millions of infrastructure work was born entirely by taxpayers.
The team plays in the renovated Soldier Field which famously resembles the crash site of a UFO thanks to a favorable lease from the Chicago Park District, fancy bond deals involving the City and State, and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure work provided by the City at no cost to the team at all.

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