During the 1950's and 1960's, the Chicago Bears were famed for their ferocious, highly effective defensive teams that made the Bears perennial championship contenders in the National Football League.
During most of these years, the Bears' defensive wheelhorse was middle linebacker Bill George, a 6-2, 230-pound Wake Forest product who stepped into a new position evolving in pro football in the early 50s and who did the job so well that few have ever matched his proficiency.
Bill starred in the NFL for 15 years and his premier performances have never been forgotten. Proof of this comes from his 1974 election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The sport's highest honor was formally bestowed on Bill and the other three members of the 1974 class-Tony Canadeo, Lou Groza and Dick (Night Train) Lane-at ceremonies at the pro gridiron showplace on July 27, 1974.
It can be debated whether George was actually the first to play the middle linebacker position, at least regularly. What cannot be disputed are his innovative contributions to the new position and the quality of his play.
An all-America tackle at Wake Forest, the Waynesburg, PA., native was a second-round draft choice of the Bears in 1951. When he reported for play in the 1952 season, he was inserted at the middle guard position since all-Pro teams were using a five-man defensive front in those days.
George stayed there until sometime in 1954, when, during a Bears' game with the Eagles, something happened that had profound effect on the future of pro football play. In his middle guard spot, George's primary duty on passing situations was to bump the center from a tree-point stance and then drop back. This particular day, the Philadelphia quarterback was completing a lot of short passes just over George's head.
George remarked to George Connor, the Bears' defensive captain and left side linebacker: "Hell, I could break up those passes if I didn't have to hit that offensive center first."
"What are you hitting him for, then?" Connor shot back. "Why don't you go for the ball?"
The first time Bill tried that maneuver, the surprised quarterback's pass hit him in the stomach. The next time, Bill had his first pro interception, the first of 18 he would get in his career. It wasn't long before most pro teams were trying the same maneuver.
Within three years, even the wire services had dropped the middle guard position and added a third linebacker spot on all pro teams. Not surprisingly, George, who had been all-league middle guard in 1955 and 1956, started winning all-NFL linebacker honors in 1957 and he continued for five straight years into 1961. Bill won the honor an eighth time in 1963.
At the time of George's emergence as a possible superstar, the Bears' defensive fortunes were handled by the revered football tactician, Clark Shaughnessy. Assistant coach Shaughnessy certainly taught George a huge amount of defensive strategy, it is also true that Bill was an ideal pupil, many times plotting Shaughnessy-type maneuvers in advance of his daily lesson. George took over the Bears' defensive signal calling responsibilities after Connor retired in 1955 and he held the job for most of a decade.
"Bill George was the first great middle linebacker," former Bears coach, Abe Gibron, said at the time of Bill's Hall of Fame election. " He brought all the romance and charisma to the position. He was like having Clark Shaughnessy on the field. He called all the plays and had a special knack for it."
The Bears' ace is also credited with putting a premature end to the shotgun formation with which the San Francisco 49ers terrorized the opposition for a brief period in the early 1960s.
He did the job simply by moving back to what amounted to the old middle guard position, lining up on the shoulder of the 49ers center. When the ball was snapped, Bill barreled straight ahead, right past the San Francisco center right into the quarterback, sometimes arriving almost simultaneously with the ball. Meanwhile, the defensive ends were occupying themselves with the receivers that might otherwise flood into George's vacated zone.
It was a disastrous afternoon for the 49ers. In two previous games, they had amasses more than 1000 yards total offense. Against the Bears, they managed only 132 yards. They quickly curtailed their use of the shotgun. The Bears were a blitzing team during much of George's tenure and the middle linebacker was one of the best.
You've got to put constant pressure on the good quarterbacks," George insisted. "One time, we went into a tree-man line with eight players in the secondary to face Johnny Unitas and he still picked us to pieces. You just can't let the good quarterbacks get set."
The rugged Pennsylvanian was also involved in many a controversy over his defensive calls that were timed to coincide with the cadence of the enemy quarterback. A game against Los Angeles in 1960 proved to be a particularly bitter episode.
"The Rams were going on a quick count and any Bear who suspected this was supposed to yell: "Backs set!", George later explained. "Actually, there were a lot of people on our team yelling and the Rams could have changed everything simply by changing their count."
But George was already a villain in the eyes of the Rams fans because of another "incident" a few years earlier when coach George Halas installed a radio receiver in Bill's helmet and "broadcast" defensive instructions to his middle linebacker direct from the bench. NFL Commissioner Bert Bell quickly declared the procedure illegal but the villain's reputation stuck.
Bill, who had all of the ideal middle linebacker qualities-size, speed, strength, and intelligence-was at the height of his career when he was injured in an automobile accident just after the 1961 season. Examination showed sever neck damage between the fifth and sixth vertebra. Bill had a stiff neck for more than a year and, the next season in 1962, he played with intense pain the entire year. He missed making the all-NFL team for the first time since 1954.
A less dedicated competitor might have retired right then and there but he decided to give it one more try in 1963. That year, Shaughnessy retired from the Bears' coaching staff and, to the surprise of almost everyone, George was relieved of his defensive signal calling responsibilities. While the move rankled the big Syrian, he was determined to play better than ever. With the pain from the neck injury somewhat eased, he did just that. The Bears won their first NFL title since 1946.
So Bill, who had played out his option in 1963, signed again with the Bears. On November 1, 1964, he was given a big day by Bears fans with the usual presentation of an automobile, TV set and assorted smaller gifts at a pre-game ceremony. A few minutes after the game began, George suffered severe knee damage and missed the final six games of the season. It was the first time George had ever missed a game because of a football injury.
More injuries and the appearance of Dick Butkus as heir apparent to the middle linebacking role cut Bill's playing time to two games in 1965. He asked for and received his release from the Bears before the 1966 season and was quickly picked up by George Allen in Los Angeles. Bill played all 14 games for the Rams in his final campaign in 1966.
After his retirement, George returned to the Chicago and he has remained close to the Bears ever since. He was the first assistant hired when Gibron took over the Chicago head job in 1972.
If the bears have a warm feeling for Bill George, it can be easily explained. He was the 14th long-tenured member of the team to be honored with Hall of Fame selection and he played with the Bears 14 years. Few Bears ever lasted so long! And only a very few as well!