The old warrior fights his battles from a desk now, but he is there all day every weekday and half a day Saturday, the way everybody in America worked when the warrior was in his prime. And not puttering around, you understand—working. Dressed in a snappy shirt and a flashy tie, with a short zippered coat we used to call an Eisenhower jacket (one thinks of Skycaps now), he means business. His eyes are clear, his jaw juts and his memory is unimpaired, which is the euphemism employed in print to mean he still has all his marbles. George S. Halas still has all his marbles.
Of course, as we know, it's a young man's game, sports. And Papa Bear is 82, going on 83. Eighty-two, for Pete's sake. Eighty-two and still at it. George Halas is even older than George Burns, and George Burns is the oldest man in the world. "First of all," says Papa Bear, "I wouldn't know about old, because I'm not old. I have only one rule: I don't date any woman under 48." He actually said "date." He has outlived a loving wife and then a steady girl, and he has outlasted all the other ancient symbols of sports.
Sports used to abound with grand old men who grew with their games: Mister Mack, Colonel Matt, Amos Alonzo Stagg. Sunny Fitz and Old Case are gone, too; the Masters' maestro, Clifford Roberts, blew his brains out the other day. Tom Yawkey, Phil Wrigley and Tony Hulman of the Indy 500 have left us. They pulled the Baron, Adolph Rupp, kicking and screaming, from his bench, and they shot Jack Dempsey's restaurant out from under him. It's a young man's game. It has been 10 seasons now since Papa Bear stopped coaching, but he is the only grand old man left at his desk, working every day and half a day Saturday.
To be sure, a couple of youngsters, Jim Finks and Jack Pardee, actually run the Bears, and Halas' son and son-in-law head up the office. But the old man is on top of things. He is still heard from. For the purposes of this account, just so there wouldn't be any misconceptions, he prepared a detailed account of his quotidian activities. It is entitled "Outline of Typical Day—Geo. S. Halas," and it runs to four typewritten pages. It lists all the things Papa Bear does as Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Bears, as President of the National Conference of the NFL and in his numerous civic and charitable capacities. From time to time he provides helpful commentary. Listen, not everybody's a quick study, like Sid Luckman. "Why, I used to call Sid up at 11:30 Monday night with all the plays for the next game," says Papa Bear, "and the next morning he could rattle them all off to me. And you know why? Because he worked hard and he was sharp as a tack."
December 5, 1977
Here are some samples from "Typical Day":
"Responsible for investing all club monies—Therefore, each morning get current financial picture—Bankers, Brokers, Publications....
"Telephone—These are taped—Calls are from coast to coast. All calls are logged. Each day is heavy....
"Every day is heavy. Runs the gamut of all subjects. Other than letters pertaining to business, my correspondence is from all ages. From people in all walks of life—some from inmates of penal institutions—people with problems, etc. etc....
"Try to keep current with reading material.
"Attempting to write my autobiography."
Apropos of the latter, it all seems like only yesterday. Events of, say, 1909 or 1932 are recalled as clearly as those of Tuesday past. References to the present Bears, whoever they are, are trotted out in the same tone employed for the tales of Red Grange or Bronko Nagurski. Moreover, because Papa Bear has an extraordinary ability to recall all street addresses he has ever visited in "Ellanoy" (the state Chicago is located in), his discourse has a distinct tour-guide ring. It is distracting, in the same way the Old Testament would be if it were studded with such workaday postal minutiae: 84 North Pharaoh Court, Horeb; 2163 Tabernacle Blvd., Jericho; and so on.
Also, whatever Papa Bear thinks of Chicago sports journalism, he has been reading it for so long that his speech has taken on the properties thereof. In Halasian argot, people of all ages really do hail from all walks of life; America, a football hotbed, is that part of God's green earth which stretches from coast to coast; one's heart goes out to the less fortunate; athletics formulate character, as they have produced the stars of yesteryear, and have also given us the stars of today (the Bears themselves are coming of age under Finks, who is as sharp as a tack). Then, too, Halas can communicate in other subcultures when that is required, e.g., "Forget the roll-overs. I'm just interested in the Double A, with a minimum of eight and a quarter." Not for nothing was Papa Bear also known as the Bland Bohemian. Maybe this is how you get to 82, memory unimpaired.
It is easy to forget that this man across the desk is a certified institution. Papa Bear was tackled by Jim Thorpe and struck out by Walter Johnson. He played six games in right field for the Yankees in 1919 (the Babe settled in that very realty the next season), and Halas was also there in Canton, Ohio, sitting on a running board in a Hupmobile showroom on Sept. 17, 1920 when pro football was created. It was a Friday, one of the last things to be created in just one day. And this fellow across the desk was right there, live. Then Papa Bear won 326 games, 12 more than Stagg, more than anyone in the history of the pros or the colleges. He is the only man Vince Lombardi would embrace and one of the few he would call Coach.
Coach, what makes a good coach?
"Complete dedication," Papa Bear declares straightaway. And another surprise: "He must know football." Hmmm. "And he must apply himself. And he must have the right temperament."
Which is what?
"I don't know. I just knew my own."
Which was what?
"I liked to win and I fought for everything in the book. Nothing else mattered." Pause. "That's all."
"Cards, pictures, magazine articles, books, old programs—these are sent in. Then the usual requests for autographed pictures and footballs. (These requests, again, come from people of all ages, in all walks of life.)...
"Unless I have an appointment for lunch, my lunch is brought in. At this time, I read The Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger and Janeway."
Coach Halas has lived virtually all his days in Chicago, starting at 1850 South Ashland Ave. He was born in 1895, when Grover Cleveland was President. It is hoary journalistic custom to certify American antiquity by citing the President in office at the subject's moment of birth. This tradition is exceeded in uselessness only by the one wherein the size of a distant patch of earth is identified as being equivalent to the size of a couple of disparate states. Thus, for example. Yemen is equal to Nebraska and Virginia put together, which they are not. George Halas is the age of Senator Joseph Biden, Tatum O'Neal and Billie Jean King put together. Think about it that way.
His birth date is Feb. 2, which is Groundhog Day or, on the Roman Catholic calendar, Candlemas; in either case, Feb. 2 is the first official day for looking ahead to spring planting—surely, a felicitous day to be born.
Halas' father was an immigrant tailor, from Pilsen in what is now Czechoslovakia, but in Halas' Chicago pretty near everybody was an immigrant, and he recalls no discrimination. Of his childhood, Halas volunteers these three things, in order: 1) the addresses where he lived, 2) the observation, "That's where I learned to work," and 3) detailed recollections of playing games and attending them—most especially watching Tinker to Evers to Chance at the old Cub Park, which was located at the corner of Polk and Wood ("Very few people remember that").
Then there was college—he lettered in football, baseball and basketball at the University of Ellanoy—followed by the Great War and the season of baseball. The rest is pro football. And for a fact, the early years of Halas and his Bears are the early history of the game itself. Halas, six feet and 170 pounds, played end and was known for his toughness and skill, as well as for his eloquence in the illegal use of the hands. He was coach from the team's inception—the first year as the Decatur Staleys, the second as the Chicago Staleys, then the Bears in 1922, and soon, in legend, the Monsters of the Midway. Papa Bear and the Monsters of the Midway!
In 1925, in league with the storied promoter Cash and Carry Pyle, Halas signed Red Grange and toured the land, coast to coast, 18 games in two months. It did not make pro football in the U.S., but at least it dented some consciousness. Some. "I always enjoy animal acts," President Coolidge said when he was introduced to Messrs. Halas and Grange of the Chicago Bears.
It was Halas who brought the T formation to the pros. Also daily practices, assistant coaches, press-box spotters, training camps, films, the first pro marching band and the first pro fight song, Bear Down, Chicago Bears. With George Preston Marshall, the truculent chief of the Redskins, Halas usually fought tooth and nail, but in rare moments of concord they worked to introduce a championship game to the NFL; they produced a more exciting passing game, too; and they had the goalposts advanced to the goal line to boost the offense.
Papa Bear was occasionally out of tune. In the '34 championship, on a frozen field, the Giants donned sneakers at halftime and slipped away from the exasperated Bears. A few years later Halas perceived unlimited substitution as a potential evil, and he warned the brethren that it would "take all the fun out of the game." Luckily, this time the other owners did not heed the admonitions of the old 60-minute man, and thus were platoons platooned and money coined.
But Papa Bear sees no flies on the game today. Oh sure, if pressed he agrees that here and there you might chance upon an owner who is a tad selfish, but otherwise, hear this: "Football! First, you've got competition! You've got to be alert to play it! You've got to be sharp! The stars of yesteryear had a great desire to play, and they set the pace for modern-day football, that fine brand of football that you see on the field today! And we know it's got appeal! Why, it's the greatest game there is! You've got action! And it's a spectacular! It's—"
Maybe just a wee bit violent? Is it really necessary for quarterbacks to be maimed at the rate of Ugandan cabinet ministers? (This unseemly intrusion from a captious and ill-bred caller.)
"It's a violent game, sure," Halas goes on, suffering fools, "but it's just that kind of game! It's always been violent! But it's not dirty! No, football's not a dirty game! We haven't come anywhere near to its zenith!"
Papa Bear sits back for the moment, spent from delivering this encomium for his game, his love. The office is a fair representation of what football has been in his life. It is done largely in gridiron green. Save for two volumes of Who's Who and another testifying to The Joys of Wine, every book—200 or more—appears to be about football. On a shelf there is one framed exhortation—"Never Go to Bed a Loser," it says. George S. Halas said that and lives by it.
And across the way there is a long sofa where he naps every afternoon. This is no concession to the years. Papa Bear has always napped every day. Not for him three-martini lunches, or rich, starchy foods. "All those younger coaches always wondered where I got my energy," he chuckles, relishing the memory. Eleven, 12 o'clock midnight, they'd be yawning and bleary-eyed, while Papa Bear, fresh as a daisy, would be ready to dial Luckman with the plays.
What was your greatest satisfaction. Coach?
"The 73 to nothing," he replies directly, sure that no elaboration is required. The numbers are sufficient. It is probably the most famous score in American sports. When you think about it, very few scores are remembered. What was the score of Don Larsen's perfect game? Of the Super Bowl just last January? Name any basketball score in history; surely, not even Jerry Lucas can pull that off. But everybody knows 73-0, the Bears conquering the hated Redskins in the 1940 NFL championship game 73-0. The Monsters of the Midway! Incarnate.
The Bears won the title again the next year, in Pearl Harbor month, and in '43 when Halas was Commander Papa Bear, and in '46 when he was back from the war, 51 years old. But thereafter, the Bears declined, drifting most years in the horse latitudes of mediocrity. Halas took his third respite from coaching in 1956-57, but he returned by personal demand. The Chicago press always remained in his corner, but this time he was scarred by whispers and innuendo: he was too old; it had passed him by; he was a miser, too patronizing of the players; he was blindly loyal to the family and old cronies who rattled about the Bear payroll.
Some of this was all too true, but probably these grumblings dog anyone who stays in one place for so long. As consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, so, too, does it sustain the steadfast soul. And loyalty. What would we expect of someone who spent his whole life at the same stand—the migratory qualities of Elizabeth Taylor?
Then, too, there is something about Halas' hometown that nurtures—or countenances—these virtues. Chicago is, after all, the second largest city in the U.S., but for all its size it is curiously contained. It never makes waves across the land, as New York and Los Angeles do. In a way, Chicago is not an end in itself but only a huge crossroads, which, throughout history, Indians, cattle, gangsters, conventioners, trains and airplanes soon enough have stumbled upon. Merely because of its convenient central location, all sorts of national publications, such as this one, are printed in Chicago. The New Yorker, of all things, is printed in Chicago. Type is set there. But these magazines are not conceived in Chicago, not written there, not affected by the place, any more than are America's networks or fashions or mores.
Hence, local figures can grow to large proportions in Chicago while rarely casting long shadows nationally. The sagas of such diverse creatures as Mayor Daley, Colonel McCormick of the Tribune and George S. Halas are not that dissimilar.
So Chicago was just the ticket for Papa Bear and, save for the odd world war, he has never really been away from the Windy City, nor it from him. After he came back from the Navy in 1945, he did not age so much as he fell out of joint with the times. There was nothing in the immigrant tailor's son to prepare him for the relaxed days of peace and prosperity. Here was a fellow who had played a football game with a broken jaw, who had threatened to slug affable Art Rooney of the Steelers over a lousy $500 dispute, who, a friend once said, "believes that if you haven't got anything to do, you ought to be at your office doing it."
He still thought it a point of honor to fight for everything in the book, but now it was a world of easy credit, cigarette-smoking women and Saturdays off, and nobody else wanted to put their dukes up. "He succeeded in rewarding all the wrong people," says an old colleague. "The more intelligent, sensitive players wouldn't fight him, so they got screwed." No indeed, Papa Bear never did grow old, but he did grow old-fashioned, and it really was incidental whether that happened when he was 60 years of age, or 40 or 25. He was a man of the times, and the times had changed.
He suffered most for his parsimony. Mike Ditka's celebrated gibe—"He throws nickels around like manhole covers"—cemented his reputation for all time as a Scrooge. It did not matter that his family always knew him as a benevolent patriarch, that he was an easy touch for friends and good causes, that he had made a fortune in oil and real estate and several other endeavors. The Bears' ledger was frozen in time, back when Halas' office was a hotel lobby, when he sold tickets himself on the street, when Bronko and the Galloping Ghost had to take IOUs.
Maybe it is easy to throw nickels around like soybean futures if you are from money—Lamar Hunt, Clint Murchison, that crowd. And it is easy to spend rashly if you are nouveau, if you made it wheeling and dealing—Ray Kroc, Gene Autry, fellows like that. It is seldom how much money we have that indicates how we will spend it. No, it is how we obtained the money. And what Halas made from oil and land doesn't count, not with the Bears it doesn't. Here are three stories that will tell you something or other about this.
Story one: Brian Piccolo used to shake his head and laugh about it, even as he neared his death. In Piccolo's last season, he fought Halas for three weeks to get an extra $500. Then when Piccolo became ill with cancer, Halas paid all his bills, thousands of dollars' worth, right to the end. And never a word.
Story two, told by Mike Pyle, the center on the '63 team, the only Bear champions since '46: "The two years before. Green Bay had won and Lombardi had given fur coats and TV sets to the wives and girl friends. So we win, and the old man gives some charms—worth maybe $50, tops—and only to the wives. The single guys don't get a thing. I mentioned this to Mugs [Halas' only son, a team executive] and he said, 'Now, Mike, of course I'm not talking about you, but we just can't take the chance of having any Bears jewelry end up on some Playboy bunny or some Rush Street floozy.' "
Story three: George Allen ran the team defense and the college draft in Halas' last years of coaching. The '63 club won because of its defense, Allen's defense. When Allen got a chance to take over the Rams a couple of years later, Halas refused to let him out of his assistant's contract and took him to court over it. As soon as it was routinely established in court that Allen and the Bears did have a contract, Halas rose and withdrew his objections. Then, all he asked of Allen was that he hand over his Bear playbook.
George Allen says now, "Grudge? I understand completely what he was doing. George Halas is a great man, and every day I appreciate him more and more. Just a great, great man."
Probably it has never had anything to do with money. It was just that Papa Bear valued the Bears more than anyone else, and no one was going to take a piece without his extracting fair payment. Buying jewelry, giving Jim Finks his authority, parceling out a $500 raise—it is all the same when you are the guardian of an institution and/or you are the institution itself.
So, Coach, do you have any regrets? Any at all?
"Well, I'd be glad to do it all over except for two things."
"First would be the goddamn rubber-shoe game."
And the other thing?
"It was the Depression, and I decided to buy out my partner, Dutch Sternaman. But to get his half of the team for $32,000, I had to pledge everything, including my half. You understand? If I couldn't get all the $32,000 in time, Sternaman got the Bears. And I couldn't find the last $5,000. It was the Depression, and I couldn't raise it anywhere.
"Luckily, a few years before, in '28, I had invested in a development in Antioch, Ellanoy, and so I knew Mr. C. K. Anderson, who was the president of the First National Bank of Antioch, and so I went to see him at his office at 134 South LaSalle Street, and I explained my predicament, and he gave me the $5,000, and I got the money to Sternaman five minutes before I would have lost the Bears. Now, that is the other thing I would not like to go through again."
You mean you wouldn't try and buy the other half of the team?
"No, I mean I wouldn't ever want to come so close to losing the Bears."
"Several each day—some days are entirely devoted to appointments; many people—authors, press from out of the city—just drop in and my schedule must be such to accommodate them.
"Civic (Mayor's functions, etc.)
"Award Ceremonies—Now booked through April 1, 1978
"(Most recent—the 'I' Award and the M.S. Award. Coming up: Mother Cabrini Award—Dec. 3)"
The lobby of the Bears' offices is pretty much filled exclusively with Halas' memorabilia, awards and trophies. Strangely, the one picture of Papa Bear in the lobby shows him on the sidelines with George Blanda, who spent his most depressing seasons in Chicago, subsequently testifying that Halas "took my 10 best years in pro football and all he gave me in return was a dead sparrow and a piece of string."
But inside the offices, on the wall leading to Papa Bear's office, there are several photographs of the more convivial stars of yesteryear, most of whom—Grange, Luckman, George McAfee, Gale Sayers—are also registered as "men of character, then and now." Every year, Halas holds an Alumni Day, and this year the proceedings were highlighted by a duet sung by Papa Bear and Ed Healy, a tackle on the 1922 team. They warbled Hail to the Orange, the University of Ellanoy fight song. A fine time was had by all, although here and there some of the oldtimers wondered out loud when the Bears would growl again. The newspapers and television stations are now doing nostalgia features on the '63 Bears, who played when Lyndon Johnson was President and George S. Halas was a kid of 68.
Just about everybody but a few surviving contemporaries calls him Coach. Last year, as much of the family gathered for the holidays, an interview with Papa Bear and Phyllis George was aired. For some reason, Miss George's usually impeccable Miss America manners deserted her, and throughout the interview she referred to the gentleman octogenarian as "George." The family watched, aghast and bemused at such sassiness, but Papa Bear himself did not appear to be distressed at this untoward familiarity. What the heck, Phyllis was single at the time, some dish, and in another 20 or 25 years she is going to be 48.
The coach is quite well behaved, except perhaps at games. He would not permit an observer to accompany him to see the Bears play, lest he appear too coarse and obstreperous. At all times his life is well ordered. In his six-room apartment at Edgewater Beach, he begins each day with exercises—riding a stationary bike, lifting dumbbells and jogging in place. For breakfast, he fixes himself grapefruit, bran flakes, sliced bananas ("That keeps up the potassium levels in my body"), coffee and a sweet roll. Then he drives himself to the office and gets down to business. For lunch, he partakes of soup and crackers at his desk, or a fruit plate and salad with Thousand Island dressing. Then he takes his nap, getting an edge on all those dissolute whippersnappers.
The day's work done, he returns home for a dinner of veal, chicken or fish ("Stay away from animal fats") and more salad ("I'm a firm believer in roughage"). He exercises again ("Never go to bed a loser") and before he turns out the light he makes sure that a note pad and pen are arrayed at his bedside in case he has any inspirations in the middle of the night.
Papa Bear is on the move. He is first on the dance floor; he legged out a triple in a recent family whiffle-ball game; and now that his arthritic hips have been repaired, he is preparing to take up golf again when the Bears season is over and he holidays in Arizona. He has no intention whatsoever of retiring; his brother Frank labored contentedly for the Bears until he died several years ago at age 89. "I see some of these old people mooning around who have given up," says Papa Bear, "and I try to give them a little goose." He is older than the Pope and Sam Ervin, if not quite so old as George Meany and Norman Rockwell. Papa Bear is just about as old as the states of New Mexico and Alaska put together. Think about it that way.
And largely because of the Monsters of the Midway, it has been one great life, booked up now through April 1, 1978. Here is why, Papa Bear explains: "Look, you can have a session with your girl friend. What's that last you? Twenty minutes, half an hour? Or you can go out and get stiff with the boys. A few hours, right? But to win a game in the National Football League! That lasts a whole week!" A pause. (A savoring pause.) "Whatta thrill!" He said that: "Whatta thrill!"
"Review my calendar for the next day.
"Leave the office between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m.
"I have no need to search for hobbies or outside interests—I have them all.
"Each day is most interesting and rewarding—As I leave the office, I look forward to tomorrow."