Who's To Blame For the State of Today's NFL? Try Sid Luckman

How a Brooklyn Legend Helped Create Football as We Know It

First Monster of the Midway: Before he joined the Chicago Bears, Sid Luckman was a star at Erasmus Hall High School, then at Columbia University.
AP Photos Courtesy of Rich Cohen
First Monster of the Midway: Before he joined the Chicago Bears, Sid Luckman was a star at Erasmus Hall High School, then at Columbia University.

By Rich Cohen

Published December 08, 2013, issue of December 13, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The course of the current NFL season demonstrates the great flaw of professional football: The quarterback has become too important. Teams like Green Bay Packers or Chicago Bears lose a single player — Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler respectively — and the entire season washes out. To understand how this crazy state of affairs came to be, you have to go back to the beginning, the dawn of football time, when one Chicago Czech and one Brooklyn yid teamed up to create the look of the modern NFL and establish the quarterback as we know and love and hate and desperately need him today.

Sid Luckman was a Brooklyn playground legend before he was the first modern pro quarterback, the first pocket passer, the antecedent of all those Mannings and Bradys. He was a star at Erasmus Hall High School, then at Columbia University, where George Halas, coach and owner of the Bears and a founder of the NFL, scouted him in 1938. Halas was trying to install a new offense in Chicago, the brainy T formation, which turned the QB into a coach on the field, calling plays, reading defenses, and juggling hundreds of options. In looking for a player to command the T, Halas made something like the following calculation: “Jesus Christ, the thing is so complicated, you’d need a Jew to run it!”

Luckman struggled his rookie year. and then one day, it clicked. What had been fuzzy became clear. This was the fall of 1940, and the Bears were playing Green Bay. Crouching under center, Luckman looked up and suddenly the defense opened like a book. There were the answers, all of them, right there! He could read them! He shouted a few coded words. His players shifted. He took the snap. Everything slowed; he knew where to turn, when to look. Receiver One is covered? What about Two? He’s open. I’ll throw him the ball. He’s got it. And he’s running. We’ve scored another touchdown!

The Bears got better and better. At times, they seemed unstoppable. The other players loved Luckman, this kid putting up unheard of numbers. Three hundred yards in the air. Five touchdown passes, six. After finishing 8-3, the team faced the Washington Redskins for the NFL championship game. The Skins were favored to win by 10. While the Bears were led by an untested Ivy Leaguer, the Redskins had Slinging Sammy Baugh, a lanky Texan once considered the best quarterback ever. If a writer wanted to praise Luckman, he’d call him “Halas’s answer to Sammy Baugh.”

George Preston Marshall, the owner of the Redskins, needled Halas all that week. At issue was a game the teams had played earlier in the season. The Bears were down 17-14 with less than a minute. They had the ball near the Redskins’ goal but no time-outs. Halas told guard George McAfee to fake an injury to stop the clock. The refs saw through the ruse and penalized the Bears, ensuring a Redskins victory. Halas, who insisted the injury had been real, bitched about it to anyone who would listen. “I probably used all the words I had used on the Chicago street and maybe even made up a few new ones,” he said. Marshall called Halas and his team “a bunch of crybabies.” He sent Halas a telegram when the Bears clinched their spot in the big game: “Congratulations. I hope we have the pleasure of beating your ears off next Sunday and every year to come. Justice is triumphant.”

In the locker room, Halas gave a speech organized around the hideousness of being called a crybaby: “Are we just gonna take it! Are we gonna let that c–ksucker get away with that bullshit!” As the team ran onto the field, Halas held Luckman back, and put his arm around him. He told Sid the first three plays to call: “How they react, that’s going to tell us everything we need to know.” He squeezed Sid’s shoulder, said he was proud of him, and wished him luck. The relationship between these men was coach-player in platonic form. Years later, before he died, Halas wrote Luckman a letter. They were both old men, with their glory days a million miles behind; the letter ended, “I love you with all my heart, Sidney. My friend, you have a spot in my heart that NO ONE else can claim.”

Sammy Baugh marched his team down field on the first drive. There was something romantic about him — the slow walk, his laconic way. He never got flustered. He was relaxed when he threw. Whereas Luckman released from his shoulder, Baugh extended his arm to its apex, releasing at 12 o’clock, a premonition of the over-the-top style of the moderns. He got his team into Bears territory. On one play, he eluded the rush and found a receiver in the end zone. He hit him in the chest, but the pass was dropped. It would be the Redskins’ best chance of the day.

A few minutes later, the Bears had taken over and Luckman was thinking through Halas’s plays. For a quarterback, a lot of any game was played in his head, a stream of consciousness that goes like this: “First I do this, which will make them do that, but if he does that, I’ll go here, which will make him go there and do that, in which case I will do this, unless, of course, they do that, in which case I’ll go come back with this, then look for McAfee, and if he’s covered…”

The early break came on the ground. One of the innovations of the modern T was trickery, fakes and feints that disguised even a basic play; half the time, you didn’t know who had the ball. Sid called it in the huddle: “Spread left 0, scissors 46.” He hiked, faked right, then tossed to fullback Bill Osmanski, who got tangled up in the line, broke free, and then made it outside, where a hole opened. He went 68 yards for a touchdown, a perfect run, but it was the block that opened the hole that people remembered. For years, it was the most famous block in NFL history. It was made by George Wilson, who, according to Luckman, “coming from his right end position, dashed at an angle toward [Omanski’s] line of flight. Around mid-field… he hurled his body, at full speed, into Malone of Washington, who bounced back into his partner, Justice, and the two of them somersaulted helplessly over the sideline.” In other words, one guard took out two tacklers — in bowling, they call this picking up the 7-10 split. “Watching it,” Luckman went on to write in his 1949 book “Luckman at Quarterback,” “I assured myself that I’d seen the most wicked block perpetuated by man or beast.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.