The history of the Monsters of the Midway and NFL are intertwined
The NFL kicks off its 100th anniversary season on Thursday night when the Chicago Bears meet the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field. The league has grown from a fledgling sideshow to the biggest operation in sports today.
The Chicago Bears have been along for that entire journey. Starting out as the Decatur Staleys in central Illinois, the team moved to Chicago, where it won eight NFL titles. None of this would have been possible without the franchise's indefatigable owner and head coach George Halas, who was with the team through its first 63 years of existence. So committed was he to the Bears that up until 1959, he had to borrow money at the beginning of each season to cover the costs of the team and then pay back the loan through ticket sales.
That's one fact about the history of the NFL through the Chicago Bears. Here are 10 more that you may or may not know.
1. George Halas was the 1919 Rose Bowl MVP
Halas had served as an ensign in the Navy during World War I and played football for the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near North Chicago. Since the number of players on many football teams' rosters was significantly lower because of World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic, President Woodrow Wilson allowed military teams to play in the 1919 Rose Bowl, the only bowl game at the time. Halas made a name for himself in Pasadena, returning an interception for 77 yards and catching a 32-yard touchdown pass to earn the game's MVP honors in a 17-0 win over the Mare Island Marines.
2. The NFL was formed at an auto dealership
After being discharged, Halas accepted a job selling starch products for A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company in Decatur. Staley's company fielded semi-pro baseball and basketball and in March 1920, company superintendent George Chamberlain invited Halas to lead its new football team as a player and coach. When the Staleys had the opportunity join a national professional football league, Halas represented the fledgling franchise.
The league was formed on Sept. 17, 1920, when representatives of all teams met in car dealer and Canton Bulldogs owner Ralph E. Hay's showroom in Ohio. At the meeting were representatives from the 10 original teams from Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and New York.
"There weren't enough chairs for all of us," Halas later said. "Autos in those days had running boards, you know. So we all sat around on the running boards and in something like 10 minutes we organized the league and elected Jim Thorpe president."
During that meeting, the league also chose its new name, the American Professional Football Association (APFA).
3. The Staleys' first season shows the early struggles of pro football
In 1920, Decatur remained unbeaten through its first 10 games and because of the practice of scheduling games during the season, played six games in 22 days. The new league did not have a championship game so the team with the best record was crowned champion. For the final game of the season, the 9-1-1 Staleys signed to play the 8-0-2 Akron Pros for what was billed as the "professional football championship of the United States." Approximately 12,000 fans went to Cubs Park (now Wrigley Field) to see the game in which Decatur needed a win and Akron only need a tie. The Staleys missed a field goal from Akron's 10-yard line that sailed wide by less than a foot and the Pros won the championship with a 0-0 tie.
Despite the success, the A.E. Staley Company lost more than $14,000 during the season and the team moved to Chicago in 1921 to attract larger crowds at Cubs Park.
4. Both the Bears and the NFL adopted their new names in 1922
After winning the 1921 title, Halas changed his team's name to the Chicago Bears to align with its hometown and stadium-mate Chicago Cubs. That summer the APFA changed its name to the National Football League.
5. Red Grange was the league's first superstar and prompted a rule change
The NFL had signed many great ex-college players, but its first superstar was Harold "Red" Grange. The three-time All-American was a superstar running back for Illinois, averaging 5.4 yards a carry. When he chose to play for the Bears he signed a contract that provided a cut of gate receipts, allowing him to make roughly $100,000 a season while other players were making around $100 a game. Grange's arrival resulted in a spike in interest in professional football. Grange also did something that no other player has ever done sine. He left Illinois after the 1925 game against Ohio State on Nov. 21 and debuted with the Bears five days later. After the season, the NFL created the "Red Grange Rule," which prohibited players from playing college and pro football in the same season.
6. The NFL Championship Game happened by accident
Prior to 1932, regular-season records determined the NFL champion. However, when the Bears finished with a 6-1-6 record and the Portsmouth Spartans were 6-1-4, a playoff game was held to determine the champion (ties were not counted in final records). Chicago won 9-0 and the popularity of the game prompted the NFL to split into two divisions and create a permanent championship round. The rest is history.
7. The T formation was an overnight success for Chicago
In 1940, Chicago started the season 6-3 and lost to the Washington Redskins 7-3 on Nov. 17. For the next game, Halas installed the T formation offense, which puts three running backs behind the quarterback. Bears quarterback Sid Luckman said the new formation gave him hundreds of schemes and options that were not otherwise available. The impact was immediate. When Chicago played the Cleveland Rams the next week, the new offense clicked to the tune of a 47-25 win. Two weeks later, the Bears beat the Redskins 73-0 in the NFL Championship Game and teams throughout college and pro football began adopting this new formation.
8. Chicago also created the zone defense
After watching its conference rival Green Bay Packers win NFL titles in 1961 and '62, Chicago installed a new zone defense against the pass developed by coordinator George Allen. The Bears unleashed it on the Packers to open the 1963 season, holding the defending champion to 150 yards in a 10-3 win.
"Gentleman, this was the greatest team effort in the history of the Chicago Bears," Halas said in the locker room after the game.
"In 44 years," asked someone in the crowd.
"In 44 long years," Halas replied.
When they met again in Week 10, the Bears picked off five Green Bay passes in a 26-7 win. Those two games proved to be difference in Chicago winning the NFL Western Conference title.
"I've lost games before and I'll probably lose games again," said Packer head coach Vince Lombardi. "I'm not going out and killing myself."
Lombardi, of course, didn't kill himself. He just figured out how to counter the zone defense. But this was Chicago's year. The Bears held their opponents to a then-record 144 points and beat New York 14-10 for the NFL championship. And unless you have been living under a rock, you are aware of the zone defense's influence.
9. Halas supported the AFL/NFL merger
After six years of competition for players and fan interest between the NFL and American Football League, the two leagues announced a merger on June 8, 1966. Halas issued a statement of support that read:
"I have advocated the sensible course of peace for a long time and have been completely in accord with informal talks that took place between NFL and AFL club owners over the last several years. The most important consideration, of course, is preservation of the game and the future certainly promises a continuation of the present high quality of competition."
10. Halas was the last surviving person from the 1920 meeting
Halas passed away on Oct. 31, 1983 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. At 88, he was the last surviving person from the meeting when the NFL was founded and as Sid Luckman, who visited him every day for five months and was with him before he passed away, said, "He was an immortal man who made the National Football League."
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.