Sidney Luckman

Sidney Luckman

Stories about Sidney Luckman

Bears' Luckman Dies Legendary Qb Helped Revolutionize Football

    Sid Luckman's generosity and quick thinking were things his former Bears teammates and family members recalled Sunday after the Hall of Fame quarterback died at 81.

    Luckman, the greatest quarterback in Bears history and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died at Aventura Hospital in North Miami Beach, Fla., of a heart attack, family members said. He had also been suffering from pneumonia.

    "I personally knew Sid for 47 years," said former Bears receiver, assistant coach and head coach Jim Dooley, "and everything good that's come to me and my family was because of him. He was good to everyone. He donated religious paintings to St. Joseph's (Ind.) College where we used to train."

    "Sid was the type of guy who actually tried to help everybody," said Chuck Mather, who coached with Luckman on George Halas' staff when the Bears won the NFL title in 1963.

    "Once at an exhibition game in Milwaukee, our son, George, put his watch down to hit some golf balls," Mather said. "Somebody stole the watch. Sid saw George was so upset, so he bought him a new watch."

    "He donated to so many charities," said his daughter Ellen Gardner in Miami where Luckman died. "To colleges like Northwestern . . . to Mayo Clinic to a foundation to train doctors."

    Luckman began a 12-year career with the Bears in 1939 and led them to four National Football League championships. He was a pro football trailblazer, a single-wing tailback at Columbia who was converted by Halas into the game's first nationally acclaimed T-formation quarterback.

    Halas once said, "In Sid, we created a new type of football player, the T quarterback. Newspapers switched their attention from the star runners to the quarterbacks. It marked a new era for the game. Colleges changed from the single- and double-wing to the T, using Luckman as their model in molding quarterbacks. In Sid's 12 years with the Bears, football was completely revolutionized."

    Older Bears fans remembered him wistfully for decades after his retirement in 1950, because in most of the years since then, quarterback has been a problem position for the franchise. Even his capable successors came nowhere near matching Luckman's winning achievements.

    Not counting playoff games, he completed 904 of 1,744 passes. He still holds Bears records for career passing yards (14,686), touchdown passes (137) and average gain per pass attempt (8.42 yards). He was an All-Pro selection six times.

    "Sid was quick, and he had a good arm and he was smart," said teammate George McAfee. "I remember one time we had a tackle named Ed Kolman, and his man was getting to Sid. So, Sid begged him, Eddie, boy, holdem out.' And Kolman blocked his man. Sid knew how to get results."

    Luckman's success story continued in the business world as the head of Cellu-Craft, once the largest independent food-packaging company in the nation. He also was an officer in numerous other businesses. The reason he declined a Bears coaching offer at the time of his retirement was because he was too busy running an auto dealership and serving as an executive with a TV firm. Later, he rejoined the Bears as a part-time quarterback coach, accepting no salary.

    From the time he came to Chicago, Luckman was a dedicated disciple and confidant of Halas, who called him his "second son." In the closing months of Halas' life, Luckman regularly visited his old boss and was with him until just before his death Oct. 31, 1983. "I just didn't have the heart to be there when he died," Luckman said.

    Because of his close relationship with Halas, Luckman was frequently rumored to have an influence on Bears decisions. He insisted that wasn't so.

    "George Halas has made the big decisions on his own all through the years," Luckman said in 1982. "I have gone to him, maybe a thousand times from my playing days until now, to seek his advice. But I can truthfully say that he never has sought my advice on any big decision. Sid Luckman has no input in the operation of the Bears."

    A native New Yorker who was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 21, 1916, Luckman became a passing, running and kicking star for famed Columbia coach Lou Little. The Bears drafted him in 1939 through a deal with the Pittsburgh club, then known as the Pirates.

    Halas, who acquired the rights to his future quarterback by trading end Eggs Manske to Pittsburgh, had decided Luckman could be a valuable asset to his team while watching him play a college game in a driving rainstorm.

    Luckman's quick arm and quick mind were things that caught Halas' eye when Luckman was an All-America single-wing tailback in 1938.

    "I saw him play a game in the rain in Baker Field," Halas said, "and he did so many tricks with the ball I said, `We have to have this man.'

    "Luckman was a coach on the field, because he studied so constantly," Halas said after Luckman joined the Bears and began to work on the new T-formation.

    "We coaches would work until 11 p.m. on our plays for the next game. Then I'd call Sid at home and tell him the plays. The next morning I'd ask him to repeat the plays and have to say, `wait a minute . . . go a little slower.' "

    Halas might never have landed him if he hadn`t made a personal recruiting visit to Luckman's home in Brooklyn. He convinced the young New Yorker that Chicago, despite its rowdy reputation, would be a haven for him.

    "At that time, I wasn't certain I'd go into pro football," Luckman said. "Chicago was a mystery town."

    The Brooklyn Dodgers of the NFL wanted to keep Mr. Luckman at home for his drawing power and made a lucrative offer to buy him from the Bears. Halas said Dodgers owner Dan Topping "told me to write my own ticket, but I told him Mr. Luckman is not for sale or trade under any circumstances."

    Recalling his conversion from triple-threat tailback to quarterback, Luckman said, "I was to have been a left halfback with the Bears, but they had too many great runners like Ray Nolting, Bob Swisher and Jack Manders, and I knew I couldn't compete. Besides, I was supposed to be a passer, and in those days, I loved to pass. So I had a chat with Coach Halas, and he told me that, while I was playing left half, to learn the quarterback plays. My wife used to help me learn them at home at night."

    Luckman quickly learned the intricacies of quarterbacking from the Bears' staff, though his first reaction to the quick-hitting T-formation plays was one of concern.

    "I don't see how our halfbacks can avoid getting killed, the way they come busting in for the ball," he said.

    Assistant coach Luke Johnsos, alluding to the Bears' awesome backfield depth in those days, replied, "Sid, as fast as each halfback is murdered, we'll send another one out on the field."

    Luckman became a Bears regular in 1940 and created the style and set the standards for modern quarterbacks with his brilliance as a passer, ball-handler and field general.

    Dooley, who joined the Bears as a player in 1952, recalled that before the 73-0 Bears title victory over Washington in 1940, "nobody in college used the T formation. Then about 85 percent of schools turned to it. Sid went to Red Blaik at Army and Frank Leahy at Notre Dame and helped them install the T."

    After only one season as Irish coach, Leahy junked the school's famed box formation in favor of the T in 1942 after watching Luckman and the Bears dominate the NFL with it the previous year.

    "At the time, I knew nothing about the T," Leahy said. "But I made arrangements to talk to Sid Luckman in New York. Sid didn't know me, and I didn't know him. To Sid, I was merely a Notre Dame coach who has asked for help. We wrote down all Sid had to say. Next, we took footballs and had him demonstrate. First, I was the quarterback and Sid was the center. He showed us the automatic exchange. Then I acted as the center and Joe McArdle, my No. 1 assistant, was the quarterback while Luckman criticized our maneuvers.

    "We copied the Bears' offense kit and kaboodle. We studied their blocking. We numbered our backs and our holes in the line the same way. That way, when I later telephoned Luckman for advice, he knew exactly what we were talking about. That spring, I had Luckman come to Notre Dame to coach the T in practice. Afterwards, he told me it was one of his greatest thrills in football--a Jewish quarterback from Columbia being invited to teach football at America's leading Catholic university."

    During his playing days, Luckman served as a special QB tutor in spring practice at several other colleges, including Stanford, Columbia and Pitt.

    As the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1943, Mr. Luckman set league records for most touchdown passes in a game (seven against the New York Giants) and in a season (28).

    He was the Bears' leading passer nine years in a row, including 1944 when he missed several games while serving in the merchant marine and played others while on leave. His 19 consecutive games with at least one scoring pass is another club record. He directed the Bears to four straight Western Conference titles (1940 through '43) and to league championships in 1940, '41, '43 and '46.

    In the 1943 title game, Luckman threw for 276 yards and a record five touchdowns, ran eight times for 64 yards and intercepted two passes--oh, yes, he also played defensive back--as the Bears routed Washington 41-21. But two other championship games are even more indelibly linked with the Luckman legend.

    The 73-0 crusher over the Redskins in 1940 was the one he called "the greatest day I ever knew in my career" because it was the ultimate team--and revenge--victory. The Bears had lost 7-3 to the Redskins three weeks earlier, then were labeled "cry babies" by Washington sportswriters. The Bears' response, noted Luckman, was "a perfect game in every sense of the word. After we scored our seventh or eighth touchdown, one of our substitutes said, Gee, we've got 55 now, let's take it easy.' And just about every other guy on the bench jumped and growled at him,Take it easy? Heck, we want 100!' "

    Then there was Luckman's famous "Bingo-Keep-It" play in the 1946 title showdown against the New York Giants. The game began under a cloud of suspicion because two Giants, quarterback Frankie Filchock and reserve fullback Merle Hapes, had admitted only hours before the kickoff that they had been offered bribes to go in the tank. Hapes was ruled out of the game, but Filchock was allowed to play and threw two TD passes to produce a 14-14 tie.

    That was still the score in the fourth quarter when Halas sent in guard Ray Bray with the "Bingo" caper. Luckman, however, was undecided. But after a 15-yard penalty on the Giants moved the ball to their 19, they called a timeout and gave Halas a chance to reinforce the call that had been phoned down to him by Johnsos. On the sideline, Halas grabbed Luckman by the arm and told him, "Luke says Bingo-Keep-It can't miss.' "

    So Luckman faked to halfback McAfee, who ran left and was swamped by the New York line, which had stopped Bear running plays all day. Luckman bootlegged to the right with no immediate interference, sidestepped the only defender with a shot at him and raced in for the touchdown that turned the tide in a 24-14 Bear victory. It was a perfect surprise play because Luckman had run from scrimmage only once before that season.

    The Bears retired Luckman's No. 42 in 1954, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1965. His wife, Estelle, died of cancer in 1981, and Luckman underwent triple bypass heart surgery in 1982. He spent his recent years in retirement.

    Luckman is survived by three children, Ellen Gardner, Robert Luckman and Gail Weiss; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and fiancee Sandra Jordan.

    Services will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Piser Original Weinstein chapel, 3019 W. Peterson Ave., Chicago.

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    03 Sep 2008
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