The Chicago Bears are in their 44th year, all of them under the direction of George Halas. They have lacked, from time to time, quarterbacks, pass catchers, punters, receivers and money, but they have never (well, hardly ever) lacked at least one hotshot running back. Even in years when the Bears were a motley bunch of rinks, they could always point to a Red Grange, a Bronko Nagurski, a Ray Nolting or a George McAfee, not to mention a Beattie Feathers, a Paddy Driscoll, a Hugh Gallarneau or a Rick Casares. The tradition continues in the person of Ronnie Bull (see cover), last year's Rookie of the Year and this year's backfield workhorse for Halas' title-contending Bears. Bull, who compares favorably with the great backs shown on the preceding pages, is built like a fullback, with most of his weight (i.e., muscle development) from the waist down. But unlike most fullbacks, he can move in the open field. He has run the hundred in 9.7, ran the 220 in 21.4 to beat Bobby Morrow's high school record and is equipped with a sort of all-weather radar for spotting holes in the line. If this were not paradise enough for Halas and the Bears, Bull also can catch passes and has been known to throw a few. He is, in a word, the all-purpose back. As Offensive Coach Luke Johnsos of the Bears explains:
"The day is almost gone when all you had to be was a good runner. They can defense you too easily if they know you're going to run every time you get the ball. Even Jim Brown threw a pass for a touchdown two years ago. Alex Webster has started throwing the way Frank Gifford used to, and Paul Hornung will be driving everybody crazy again next year with that pass-run option of his. It won't be long before every back will have to be able to pass, run, catch passes and block, or the defense will murder him. You could say that Bull is the typical runner of the future."
"The typical runner of the future" is a half inch under 6 feet, two pounds over 200. His calves are elliptically muscled, like a sprinter's, and his thighs are heavy and long, like a fullback's. He is larger than life in that portion of his male anatomy sometimes known in the football trade as the butt. Like many ice skaters of both sexes, he juts out from over-developed pushing muscles. Withal, his muscles are loose, more soft than hard, more tennis-player type than weight-lifter type. When he walks, he leans forward a little, as though walking uphill. Forward is his natural attitude of movement. He is, in physique, a yardage machine. For the rest, he is a handsome young man, with brown crew cut, prominent cheekbones and a wide face, a ski-jump nose and eyes that change, willy-nilly, from green to brown and back to green. "I can't seem to control it," says Bull. "It just happens."
As a football player, Bull is nothing more nor less than history's answer to the conditions forced upon running backs by the schemingly clever defensive coaches of today. In football's paleolithic era, 15 or 20 years ago, the function of the safety man was to let nobody by him for a touchdown; the function of the defensive halfbacks was to grab anybody who came into their territory, and the function of the line was to "hold that line." "But now," says Johnsos, a former All-League end, "you never know what's going to happen. Even the safeties may come red-dogging in on you. It's like dodging bullets out there. Used to be the offside defensive linemen would take a few steps in, see that the play was going around the other side and either quit or make a halfhearted effort to chase the ballcarrier from behind. Nowadays, the offside linemen will take one step, then run right along the line of scrimmage after the ballcarrier. It's pursuit, pursuit, every second."
October 13, 1963
A runner like Bull combats such defensive sophistication with running sophistication peculiarly his own. With little time to sidestep, he feints instead. Bull must make the defensive back commit himself, but he does not slow down or change pace to fool the back because the pursuit men will come up from behind and give him the old Sonny Liston. So he feints: a flicker of movement toward the left with his head, a jerk of his shoulder toward the right. He uses eye fakes and hand fakes. But he does this at full speed, and the moves are mixed up, like a pitcher's repertoire—fake left, go left; fake right, go right; fake left, go right; fake right, go straight, etc.
Oddly enough, the running back cannot execute these fakes successfully unless, at some point or other, he runs straight at the defender he is trying to beat. Explains the erudite Chuck Mather, backfield coach of the Bears and author of texts on football: "If I'm running on an angle toward the right sideline, the defensive corner man knows I can't stay on that line; so he has two things to watch: either I'm going to cut to his left, or I'm going to run straight at him. If I'm running on an angle to his left, he knows I can't keep that up because there are tacklers out there; so he knows I'll either cut toward his right or run straight at him. Either way, he knows he has me limited to two choices. But what happens if first I run straight at him? Now I've got three choices: I can go right, left or straight. So we teach our backs to straighten up the defender by running right at him. Then they can make their feints and fakes. The trouble is, it's against nature to run straight at a man. You'd be surprised how many pros have trouble getting over the habit of dodging. But not Bull. He seems to do it by instinct."
"Ronnie is also expert at setting the defense up for his blockers," says Luke Johnsos. "You have your ballcarrier, and you have a couple of blockers out in front of him, and you have the defense. Now the worst thing a back can do is try to turn this into a footrace, because if he does he's gonna lose. The defense can see the line he's running on, go straight at him, and the blockers will have a tough time because they'll have to throw blocks on men who are moving at top speed. What Ronnie will do is he'll set up the defense. He'll dip this way or zig that way or give a little head fake—anything to make those defenders hesitate. And when they hesitate, our blockers can take them out of the play. I've never seen a kid that can use his blockers like Bull. And this is the absolute essence of pro running today."
It is the contention of Bear partisans that Bull, in his second season as a pro, already can match such past masters as Jim Taylor of the Packers and John David Crow of the Cardinals at still another important wile of the running back: reading the field. Says Johnsos: "He knows where to go, where their weakness is. He senses it. A lot of times we'll call an off-tackle play and he'll make 10 yards around the end, or vice versa. Sure, most running backs have that option, but they don't use it. If there's a nine-hole play, by God, they're gonna run through the nine hole in spite of everything. With Bull you never know where he's going."
"And when he does get hit," says Mather, "he has a fine sense of balance, and he doesn't go down unless it's a real good tackle. Some backs, the moment they see they're gonna get hit, they plop down. They forget to churn their legs forward. It sounds simple, but half of them don't do it. It's only the great backs who can get hit and still have their legs under them and get going again. Sure, it's another of those things that are against natural instinct. That's why they're so hard to learn. But Ronnie had them when he came here."
The young man who inspires such praise is in his 14th season of football and his 12th of T formation at the advanced age of 23, which sounds unlikely until you remember that Ronnie Bull was born and reared in Texas, where boys learn football shortly after the teething period. Bull was a T halfback in the fifth grade, and a lot of those techniques that Chuck Mather calls "unnatural" came to Bull simply by long experience, the sort of experience that a graduate of, say, Mother Willingham's School for Young Gentlemen is not going to get. There were only 38 students in Bull's class in Bishop, Texas, a tiny town near the King Ranch and not far from Corpus Christi, but the principal of the school decided that the fifth graders should play football. "Every day at P. E. time," Bull recalls, "he'd get us out there and put shoulder pads and jerseys on us and drill us in the fundamentals. He called us the 'Poochies.' We played on a regulation field, and the night we played the sixth grade, I wore this little old green helmet that was different from all the others. But I liked it, and it was a cold night, and there must have been 500 people there, and I was the only player in bare feet and a green helmet. I ran 65 yards for a touchdown, but the sixth grade beat us 13-7. The next day my art teacher said she was real proud of me because she could see that little green helmet popping around all over the place. Now I love to play football. I love the challenge of getting past somebody, faking or feinting or spinning, and it all goes right back to that first game. There's no greater fun than to have that ball under your arm and see what you can do with it."
Bull became a star running back for Bishop High School, averaging 25 carries per game. In one bi-district championship game, he carried the ball 44 times. At Baylor, he started 36 of a possible 37 games, going both ways, and played 40 minutes in the one game he did not start.
Bull was the first draft choice of the Bears and the Dallas Texans of the American Football League. "Everybody thought Halas was nuts to draft Bull," says a Bears' official. "In the first place, we were sure he wouldn't leave Texas, so we'd be wasting a draft choice. But George was a little bit on the spot. Nothing much had happened around here [the Bears have not won an NFL championship since 1946], and he felt Bull would be a big help to the team, either on offense or defense. Nobody has ever released any figures, but my guess would be that George didn't exactly impoverish the boy when he signed him."
Getting Bull signed up was a recruiter's nightmare from which Personnel Director George Allen though! He would never awake. Says Allen, who doubles as defensive coach of the Bears: "We were all ready to sign him right after his last game in 1961, but then Baylor got a bid to play in the Gotham bowl, and we couldn't sign him till that was over, and in the meantime Lamar Hunt was down there wining and dining Ronnie and his wife. We figured Hunt might even give them a ranch, because Hunt has ranches he doesn't even know he has."
In a master stroke of cunning, Allen invited Bull's wife, the former Connie Travland, to go to the Gotham Bowl in New York as guest of the Bears. Says Allen proudly: "That's something Lamar Hunt, with all his money, hadn't thought of." After the game, Allen had a taxicab standing by to rush the young couple from the Polo Grounds to La Guardia Airport, where they would emplane for Chicago and be the Bears' guests at the Sunday game with Cleveland. And if Bull wanted to sign a contract right after the game, just to show his appreciation....
But it was snowing in the Midwest that night. Bull, his wife and Allen sat around La Guardia for six hours while one plane after another was canceled from under them, usually after they were already aboard. "Each time they'd wash out a flight," says Allen, "Ronnie would say, 'Well, I guess we'll go back to the hotel now. I'm kinda tired out.' I could just see him getting back to the hotel in time to take a long-distance call from Lamar Hunt. So I'd say, "Let's just try one more flight, and we'll go in and have some ice cream while we wait.' We must have had six quarts of ice cream."
They finally took a plane to Detroit, landed at 3:30 a.m. and flew on to Chicago at 6 a.m. The journey was so confused that the Bulls' bags went on to Seattle, and they sat through the ball game (and the first snow they had ever seen) in their light Texas-style clothes, wrapped in towels and sweatshirts thoughtfully provided by the Bears. "And after all that," says Allen, "wouldn't you know he'd sign? Nope, he wouldn't. Later I went down to Dallas and met him at the airport and talked to him for five hours. That's where he signed. Right at Love Field. That same night Lamar Hunt was waiting for Ronnie at his home."
Bull and Allen now laugh at the memory of Allen's ordeal, all the more so because Bull claims he had always intended to sign with the Bears. "I wanted to play offensive ball," he remembers, "and the Dallas team had Abner Haynes as their running back. He was All-League and in good shape. The Bears had a great runner, too, Willie Galimore. But Willie had been playing a long time, and I figured I'd have a better chance to break in behind him." The effect of Bull's dillydallying on the signing was to drive his price up. He did not maintain a B average in business administration for nothing.
But Bull's pro career began on a sinister note. He and Ernie Davis, the Heisman Award winner from Syracuse, had hung around together in the College All-Star training camp, and both entered the hospital at almost the same time. When Davis' illness was diagnosed as leukemia, Bull was subjected to a week of tests for the same disease. It turned out that he had a virus, and for two more weeks he was not allowed to play football. Late for training, he started the first two regular-season games as a corner man on defense, saving one of the games with an all-or-nothing tackle on the Los Angeles Rams' Dick Bass. "That was the low point of my life," says Bull. "All I wanted to do was run the ball." He got his chance in the third game, against Green Bay. Galimore and his stand-in were injured, and Bull was forced into the lineup, thus proving out his original theory on joining the Bears instead of the Texans.
It took only a few plays for Bull to learn that a backfield man's life in pro ball was real and earnest. "The coaches had been warning me about getting clotheslined on a sky pattern," says Bull. "See, on the sky pattern the halfback skirts the end and goes downfield for a pass. Now you have to avoid that defensive end as you go out because if you don't, he's gonna stick his long arm out and swop you as you go by. It's just like running into a clothesline at full speed. But my head was full of offensive maneuvers, like swerve outs, and I had already had to learn all the defensive signals, and my head was reeling. So I went out for the pass and, as I went around the end, I looked up once and there was Bill Quinlan, and all I saw was fist. I couldn't duck it. He got me right on the chin. I landed flat on my back. I kept telling myself, 'You gotta make it to the sidelines, you gotta make it.' Well, I did make it to the sidelines, and then I passed out cold. The next Tuesday those guys kept running the game film back and forth showing that play over and over and laughing."
After that, Bull played every game and accumulated 694 yards on runs and pass receptions and another 235 yards on nine kickoff returns, good enough to earn him the Rookie of the Year award. He also learned more about pro-type football than he had realized existed back in the fifth grade. He learned, for example, that the bottom of a pileup is a dangerous place for a back, but not for the reasons the spectator might suspect. "It's not the weight of the players that bothers you," he explains. "After that first guy falls on you, most of the rest of them are falling on one another. But in an exhibition game against Baltimore this year, every time I'd be on the bottom of a pileup I'd feel this smash across my shins, and I'd look up, and it would always be the same player kicking me. In another game, against the New York Giants, a linebacker kept using all his strength to twist my legs when I was down. I've even had 'em jab me with their thumbs, bite me, everything you can think of. I've had players pull the hairs off my legs, but that was in college, not in the pros. Or, sometimes, one guy'll be tackling you, and you're sliding along on your back, and another guy will come down on you with his elbow."
It is shocking to hear Bull recite these grievous crimes against the spirit and charter of the United Nations, mostly because he is so absolutely unconcerned about them. "What?" he says. "Me get mad? Why should I get mad? It's all part of the game. That's why you've-got to respect those guys." Added the business administration major from Baylor: "It's a matter of dollars and cents."
Bull is careful to compliment opposition defensemen when they land a good tackle on him, and if his gorge does rise, he fights it down. In the Green Bay game opening day, he was hit by an especially savage elbow as he was skittering along the ground being tackled. "Nice elbow! Nice elbow! Nice elbow!" Bull shouted angrily as the referee came running up.
"You were still in motion," the referee said.
Bull presented a wide smile to elbower and referee alike. "I know it, Mr. Referee," he said. "All I said was, 'Nice elbow!' "
Bull talks the way he plays football—animatedly, efficiently, zestfully. More than many pro athletes, he took a genuine education away from his university (and made the All-America Academic Football Team). He speaks good English with only a slight touch of Texas, the opposite of many a Texan now in the pro leagues. In the wintertime, he works for the Harvey Advertising Co. of Waco, Texas ("Eye Opening Ideas That Increase Profits"), and his business card, which is difficult to avoid getting, features one of those eyes that blink as you turn it. Bull is also promoting a portable footwarmer for sports events. "It didn't go too well in Texas," he says, "but up here in the North we have high hopes for it." He also lectures. Does all this off-field activity interfere with his concentration on football?
"No, sir," said Bull. "Nothing interferes with my football. If anything, I'm too serious about the game. My wife says to me each Sunday, 'Now you be sure and look up at me at least once during the game.' I say, 'Honey, when I'm on that field I'm not thinking about you or the baby or the agency or anything else in this world. When I'm on the field I'm nothing but football.'
"You know something?" he added in a confidential tone of voice. "When I'm out there on that field with a football in my hand, I don't even know I'm married." Ronnie Bull gave a little laugh, and his green eyes turned to brown and back to green.