Countdown to Canton: Ed Sprinkle may finally "Claw'' his way to Canton

Ron Borges

Apparently there were two ways to look at Ed Sprinkle.

George Halas, who coached him throughout his 12-year career with the Chicago Bears, called him “the greatest pass rusher I’ve ever seen.’’ In 1950, Collier's magazine called him “The Meanest Man in Pro Football.’’

Now the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Centennial Committee will decide if it is ready to call him something different, something that Halas and many others who remember Sprinkle believe he should have been called decades ago – a Hall of Famer.

Sprinkle is among 20 senior finalists for the special “Centennial Class’’ of Hall of Famers who will be enshrined next September as part of the 100th anniversary of the NFL. It’s a one-time attempt to make up for past oversights by the Hall, and Sprinkle is on the top of many people’s lists.

A hard-nosed, raw-boned 210-pound pass rusher who grew up as a sharecropper’s son in West Texas, Ed Sprinkle was born hard and raised to be tough. When he arrived in Chicago in 1944, he came believing there was only one way to play pro football. The way Halas described Sprinkle’s playing style was illuminating.

“He’s got to push and shove his way past those blockers,” Halas told Collier’s, “and if somebody gets an unintentional whack in the nose now and then — well, that’s football.”

That was also Sprinkle. It’s how he was named to four Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams, twice as a first teamer. The NFL didn’t create the Pro Bowl until 1950, six years after Sprinkle first came to Chicago, yet despite the ferociousness of his style, Sprinkle was selected to four of the first six Pro Bowl teams as a defensive end before retiring after the 1955 season.

He was also named to the 1940s' all-decade team despite playing only the latter half of the decade.

To say his approach to the game was violent is to minimize Sprinkle’s philosophy. To play in such a manner and still be named by your peers to such honors speaks loudly of the respect he commanded. So did the men who most often suffered his wrath.

“Sprinkle would drive you 10 yards out of bounds, and the official would be taking the ball away from you, but Sprinkle would still be choking you,” Hugh McElhenny, a Hall-of-Fame halfback for the 49ers, told The New York Times in 1985.

In Sprinkle’s day they did not yet keep statistics for sacks. If they had he might well rank up there with Deacon Jones, Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White. In fact, so adept was he at getting to the quarterback in the formative days of the T-formation that Halas stopped using him as a two-way end. Instead, he elected to have him concentrate solely on defense for much of his career, at a time when the two-way player was still much in vogue.

His first two seasons with the Bears, Sprinkle played both guard and defensive end before Halas split him wide as an end where he caught 29 passes for 438 yards and five touchdowns the next five years. But even on offense his favorite thing to do was create mayhem. He once said his favorite offensive play was to be spread wide and rush down and deliver a blindside, crack-back block on an unsuspecting linebacker or defensive end in the days when such violence wasn’t considered all that violent.

Typical of his style was his performance in the 1946 NFL championship game against the New York Giants. By the time he was finished, Sprinkle had knocked two New York running backs out of the game -- George Franck with a separated shoulder and Frank Reagan with a broken nose. And that was before breaking the nose of quarterback Frank Filchock with a clothesline to the face he called “The Claw.’’

It really didn’t need much more of a description.

On one such play, Sprinkle nailed Filchock as he was about to pass, causing an interception that was returned for a Bears’ touchdown in what became a 24-14 Chicago victory. That is how the great pass rusher can disrupt a game and destroy an offense. Such a player can also drive an opponent to distraction, as he once did to Chicago Cardinals’ quarterback Paul Christman.

Once so distracted by Sprinkle’s vicious pass rush, Christman instructed his line not to block Sprinkle on a pass play. As Sprinkle rushed in untouched, Christman rifled a pass right at his face. Fortunately for Sprinkle, who didn’t wear a facemask, the ball missed him.

One guy who did not was Christman’s teammate, future Hall-of-Fame running back Charley Trippi. According to Sprinkle, Trippi once punched him in the face during a pileup and then fled to the sidelines to avoid the repercussions.

Yet despite his reputation, Sprinkle never felt his play crossed the line. To him, and frankly many of his peers, he was just a hard-nosed pass rusher at a time when football was a brutally physical confrontation.

“I never really played dirty football in my life, but I’d knock the hell out of a guy if I got the chance,” once said. “I believed in hitting somebody. We were meaner in the 1950s because there were fewer positions, and we fought harder for them. It was a different era.’’

Until now, Ed Sprinkle has never been a finalist for the Hall of Fame. Because the league didn’t keep track of sacks or forced fumbles, he has no statistics available to support his candidacy. What he has, though, is the word of men like Halas, who saw how he could effect a game and destroy an opponent’s passing games.

Perhaps it would be wise this time to listen to them?

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Comments (5)
No. 1-3
bachslunch
bachslunch

Good article, Ron. I’m actually less taken with Ed Sprinkle in the HoF than others are. I’m aware that George Halas said Sprinkle was the best at his position he ever saw, but I’ve heard mixed things about him in film study, plus his honors of 2/4/40s are a bit thin for my taste and he had a reputation for flagrantly dirty play even for the time period.

Ron Borges
Ron Borges

Editor

He did, which may be one reason he never got into the HOF debate. But if we threw out all the guys considered dirty there'd be a lot of room to stretch out in the Hall of Busts in Canton. Also not sure how much "film study'' from those 1940s films really help. They make Red Grange look like Gale Sayers.

brian wolf
brian wolf

Kilroy was considered dirty as well, but a great player.

Hardy Brown for the 49ers was a slow safety, but knocked out more opposing players in games than anyone.

Bert Rechichar was dirty and aggressive with the Colts, but I love him, because Weeb Ewbank wanted him to just kick later in his career, but Rechichar would sneak back into games and play as a RB, TE, Receiver or LB.

As a safety, he had more interceptions than Cliff Harris and nearly as many as Polamalu. A hard hitter, who was a true Baltimore Colt folk hero. He made three Pro Bowls and held the record for the longest FG at 56 yrds, till Dempsey broke it.


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