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.
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Football is Nietzschean, a question of finding a play or sequence that breaks the enemy. In the 1940 championship, it happened during that run. “Washington’s hopes began to dampen,” wrote Luckman. “The whole business happened in 58 seconds.”

Luckman passed for over 300 yards, completing touchdown after touchdown. Fans, who’d come to see a battle, found themselves at a clinic instead. “Everything seemed to click,” Luckman wrote. “Even a boner was good for ten yards. Coming back to the bench, I found Halas delirious with joy. After we’d rung up our fiftieth point, he began to murmur: ‘Wonder what Mr. George Preston Marshall is doin’ at this stage?’”

“With Luckman calling the plays with the genius of a clairvoyant, the Bears were a perfect football machine,” wrote Time. “By the end of the third quarter, the game had become an undignified rout.”

In the fourth, Halas told his kick holder to kill the play instead of going for the extra point. Nine footballs had already been kicked into the stands and he didn’t want to lose any more: “Who do you think pays for those balls, schmuck?”

Seventy-three to zero — it remains the most lopsided championship game in NFL history. The next morning, New York Times reporter Arthur Daley began his column, “The weather was perfect. And so were the Bears.”

In the locker room, a reporter asked Sammy Baugh what might have happened if his receiver had made that catch on the first drive. A shift in momentum can mean everything. “We would’ve lost 73 to 7,” said Baugh.

Thus began the great dynastic run of the Bears. They played 24 games without a loss: two full seasons. They won their second title in 1941, and did not lose again until December 1942, when the Redskins got revenge in the championship. Luckman had his best game in 1942 in the Polo Grounds in New York. It was Sid Luckman Appreciation Day. He threw for close to 500 yards and completed seven touchdown passes, which remains a record.

The Bears got even with the Skins in the 1943 championship, but it was a different world by then. Pearl Harbor had been attacked. As the nation’s young men went to war — Luckman joined the Merchant Marine, while Halas spent three years in the Navy — NFL rosters were increasingly filled by old-timers and has-beens.

The Monsters reassembled for one more championship run in 1946, older, slower, thicker, but determined to execute. Luckman was old Picasso, subsisting on savvy. He threw 17 touchdown passes, which led the NFL. The Bears finished 8-2-1, then played the Giants for the title. They clinched the game in an unlikely way: Sid, kneeling in the huddle, covered in grime, called his own number: “Trust me, I see something.” He had to say it twice. “Bingo, keep it.” He went to the line, looked here, looked there, took the snap, faked a handoff, a beautiful fake, jogged toward the sideline as if to say, “The old man needs a rest,” and then took off, the ball hidden beneath his arm. It was a moment before the Giants realized what was happening, that it was the ancient Luckman who had the dingus. He ran 19 yards for a touchdown, his feet getting heavier with each step. The Bears won 24-14. If the war had not intervened, that team might have won seven titles. As it is, they won four, and must be considered among the best in history.

Luckman returned for 1947, but it was a mistake. He was already a beat too slow, a season past prime. I once met a pro baseball player who, pontificating on the fate that awaits every athlete, said, “Some guys go on and on, but others just fall off the table.” Sid Luckman was a fall-off-the-table type. He was a leading quarterback right up to the moment he could no longer execute a single play. During one of his last days on the field, he took a whack to the head that knocked him insensible. That was December 14, 1947, the worst game of his career. The magic was gone. He took himself out with 12 minutes left. After that, he was old and done, just as confused as he’d been at the beginning.

He stuck around a few more years, the coach’s confidant, a monarch emeritus. When a hero gets old, he takes your youth with him. Luckman retired in 1950, but remained a figure in Chicago for decades. He was the best that had ever been, Sid the Great, who still holds just about every team passing record. If you follow the Bears, you’re familiar with the phrases “not since Luckman,” and “maybe the next Luckman.” He was part of Halas’s crew, one of the knock-around guys — Irv Kupcinet, Jack Brickhouse, Sid — sitting at a round table at the Palmer House playing cards and talking trash. He had all kinds of jobs in the years that followed, but the remainder of his life was mostly spent being Sid Luckman. That’s why it’s so hard for a star athlete to move on: No one wants you to, nor will they let you; they need you to be what you were when you were the pole star, on one knee, calling your own number: “Bingo Keep It.” Sid Luckman played football a million years ago, but died in 1998, which seems like yesterday. His ghost went out in Aventura, Florida, where the pinochle is high stakes and the pools reek of country club chlorine.

Rich Cohen’s latest book is “Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football.”

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