football pin on chicago map

Bear Down, Chicago Bears!

Published on August 31, 2023

This week’s blog post focuses on the history of the Chicago Bears. If you’re making your way to a game this season and want to do something before the tailgate starts, check out eATLAS’ scavenger hunt of public art at the Museum Campus directly north of Soldier Field.

By Dave Lifton (@daveeatschicago)

In 1919, the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co. of Decatur, Ill., created a football team for its employees. It was common practice at the time, with the belief being that exercise and teamwork led to greater productivity and character. The Decatur Staleys went 6-1 as an independent team and were crowned Central Illinois Champions.

A year later, they signed Edward “Dutch” Sternaman and George Halas, with Halas also serving as coach. The Staleys officially became a professional team as charter members of the American Professional Football Association, with a 10-1-2 record and a second-place finish.

But the economics of running a football team in a small market hurt A.E. Staley. He gave Halas and Sternaman control of the team and allowed them to move to Chicago, with the promise that they would keep the Staleys name for one year. After a 9-1-1 season, the Chicago Staleys, who played at Wrigley Field, were named APFA champions over the Buffalo All-Americans. But it wasn’t without controversy, and would come to be known by Buffalo fans as the “Staley Swindle.”

Halas then changed the Staleys’ name to the Bears as a nod to the Cubs and the APFA was rebranded as the National Football League. Over the next decade, the Bears went through a drought, and Halas stepped down as player and coach in 1929. Under Ralph Jones’ leadership, they righted themselves and won the championship in 1932, with Hall of Famers Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski leading the way.

But with the team struggling financially during the Great Depression, Halas bought out Sternaman for $38,000 and, to save money, returned as coach. In 1939, Sid Luckman signed with the club and, with their three-back T-formation, the Bears thrilled the nation. Luckman became the sport’s first great passing quarterback and the Monsters of the Midway appeared in five NFL Championship games in seven years, winning four, starting with a 73-0 destruction of Washington in 1940.

Then the Bears’ fortunes went downhill. For the next two decades, they only made the championship game twice, losing to the New York Giants in 1956 and beating them in 1963. Two years later, running back Gale Sayers and middle linebacker Dick Butkus were drafted but despite being among the most dominant players of their era, the Bears still failed to make the postseason. Halas, who became known as “Papa Bear,” retired in 1967 with 324 wins, a record that stood for 26 years. The only other notable fact of this era was their move from Wrigley Field to Soldier Field in 1971.

Help arrived in 1975 in the form of a rookie running back named Walter Payton. His dazzling speed, power, and elusive moves led to “Sweetness” being named the league’s MVP in 1977, when the Bears made the playoffs for the first time in the Super Bowl era. But they would still need more before they could return to glory.

In 1982 Mike Ditka, who’d played tight end with the Bears in the 1960s, was hired as head coach. Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense was innovative, and the Bears gelled in a way they hadn’t in 40 years. They returned to the playoffs in 1984—a year after Halas’ death—but only the most biased Bears fan could have predicted what followed.

The 1985 Bears won their first 12 games en route to a 15-1 regular season. With a defense led by middle linebacker Mike Singletary and defensive end Richard Dent, the team allowed only 198 points in 16 games. The offense held its own, too. Payton, who had become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher the year before, had one of his best years with 1,551 yards and nine touchdowns.

But arguably the team’s most famous offensive weapon that year was a 330-pound rookie defensive lineman named William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Ditka used him as a back in goal-line situations, and he became an overnight sensation after scoring a touchdown against the rival Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football in Week Seven. With an exciting team of superstars and a charismatic quarterback in Jim McMahon, the Bears became national celebrities, even cutting a hit rap record, the Grammy-nominated “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”

The postseason confirmed that this was a team of destiny. They shutout the Giants and the Los Angeles Rams in the first two rounds and obliterated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, 46-10, to become world champions.

The Bears continued to dominate through the 1980s, but that squad never got back to the Super Bowl. Then came a spell where they rarely made the playoffs until the mid-2000s. Once again, the defense led the way, with Brian Urlacher as a ferocious middle linebacker in the tradition of Butkus and Singletary. And the surprise offensive dynamo wasn’t a defensive lineman, but return specialist Devin Hester. The Bears got back to the Super Bowl in 2006, but lost to the Indianapolis Colts, 29-17.

Since then, it’s been stretches of mediocrity with occasional flashes of greatness, such as the 2010 run to the NFC Championship, only to lose to the hated Packers. The 2023 season brings with it a lot of questions about whether they can rebuild from a league-worst 3-14 record under second-year head coach Matt Eberflus. The club’s time at Soldier Field is also in doubt, with the Bears looking to build a new stadium in the suburbs.

But even though they haven’t always given us something to cheer about, the Bears still seem to unite the city in ways that Chicago’s other teams can’t.

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