George McAfee, a Hall of Fame two-way threat who carried the football, passed it, kicked and punted it, returned kicks and punts and roamed the defensive backfield for the mighty Chicago Bears teams of the 1940s, died Wednesday in Durham, N.C. He was 90.Enlarge This Image Associated Press
George McAfee in 1949.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Durham confirmed his death, The Associated Press reported. McAfee had attended the church.
Red Grange, a star of earlier Bears teams, called McAfee “the most dangerous man with the football in the game.” McAfee’s coach at Duke University, Wallace Wade, called him “a one-man offense, and practically unstoppable.” And George Halas, the Bears’ longtime owner and coach, said, “The highest compliment you can pay any ball carrier is just compare him with McAfee.”
For all that, McAfee had a relatively short career in the National Football League, interrupted by injury and World War II. But in his prime, undersize even then at 6 feet tall and about 177 pounds, he was an impressive player, passing left-handed, punting with his left foot and, as a former college sprinter, establishing himself as one of the fastest, most explosive players in the league.
At game time, he was known to put away his high-top shoes — almost every player wore them — in favor of a new, low-cut style that made him faster and more elusive, he said, “almost as though I didn’t have any shoes at all.”
He was colorful fodder for the sports press, acquiring the nickname “One-Play” because, people said, he was likely to score any time he handled the ball.
“The debate around Chicago has been as to whether McAfee is just as good as Jim Thorpe ever was, or better,” John F. Kieran, the sports columnist for The New York Times, wrote in 1940, the year McAfee was drafted in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles and traded to the Bears for three veteran linemen.
In his debut with the Bears, in an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers, he scored the winning touchdown on a 75-yard punt return in the final minute. In his first regular-season game, he returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown against Green Bay. And in the season finale, the Bears’ 73-0 rout of the Washington Redskins in the championship game, he returned a pass interception more than 30 yards for a touchdown. He also helped lead the Bears to another championship in 1946.
Some of his potentially best years, from 1942 to 1945, were lost to war service after he enlisted in the Navy. When he returned, he played only the last three games of 1945. The next season, he missed three games because of a knee injury.
He retired after the 1950 season and went into the oil distribution business for 31 years.
In all, he gained 5,313 combined yards, 1,685 of them rushing, and had 25 interceptions in eight seasons with Chicago. An all-N.F.L. selection in 1941, he led the league in punt return average in 1948 and holds the N.F.L. record for career punt return average (12.78) for those with a minimum of 75 returns. (Roscoe Parrish, an active player with the Buffalo Bills, is ahead of his pace.)
McAfee, whose jersey number, 5, was retired by the Bears, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966.
George Anderson McAfee was born March 13, 1918, in Corbin, Ky. Soon afterward his family moved across the Ohio River to Ironton, Ohio, a town known for a strong football tradition. One of his several brothers, Wes, became an N.F.L. running back.
At Duke, McAfee helped the Blue Devils to a 24-4-1 record and two Southern Conference titles from 1937 to 1939. The team played in the Rose Bowl in 1938. In his senior season, he led the team in rushing, receiving, scoring, kickoff returns, punt returns, interceptions and punting and earned first-team all-American honors as Duke went 8-1.
In the spring of his senior year, McAfee batted .353 while playing center field on Duke’s baseball squad, which went 16-7. He also captured the 100-meter title at the Southern Conference track and field championships. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1961.
McAfee was married and had children, but information about survivors was not available.
Even by the N.F.L.’s standards of the 1940s, McAfee was not especially imposing physically. And that was a motivating influence, he said years later in an interview withNFL.com, recalling his first Bears camp.
“I never saw so many big men in my life,” McAfee said. “I remember clearly, on one of the first scrimmage plays, that a rookie halfback was knocked cold.”
He added: “Whenever I ran with the ball, I had that picture in my mind, of that back, there on the ground, cold as a stone. I would run as fast as I could if there was any daylight.”