Bear Down!

Pro football fans in Illinois are probably familiar with that catchy fight song, “Bear Down, Chicago Bears.” The 1941 song about the “pride and joy of Illinois,” marching to victory on the gridiron was inspired by one of the most dominant professional football teams to ever take the field. The “Monsters of the Midway” were the reigning NFL champions, having smashed their way to a 73-0 victory in the NFL championship game, the team’s fourth league title in just 20 years.

The song is particularly fun because of its play on the term “bear down;” meaning to focus and concentrate; and of course the team’s name. It would have sounded a lot different had it been written about a team called the Staleys.

One hundred years ago, professional football barely existed in the United States. Colleges fielded teams, but otherwise most football squads were company teams organized by businesses in small cities and towns around the nation. This was true of central Illinois, where several communities had teams which played in a regional league. It was this league which Decatur businessman A.E. “Gene” Staley sought to join with employees of his manufacturing firm in 1919.

It turned out that Staley was a pretty good talent scout. His employees formed into a team, the Decatur Staleys, and put together a 6-1 record in their first season, winning the league championship. But after being crushed by the Staleys, some of the local teams surprised the Decatur squad by insisting on rematches. Staley soon uncovered the reason: they had gone out and hired “ringers”; talented college football players brought in solely for their football skill; to work in their companies and play a little football on the side.

Staley was furious, but soon saw an opportunity. A championship-caliber football team bearing the company’s name would be good for advertising, he thought, and so he too began to look for employees who would be hired for their football talent.

It was then that he met a Navy veteran and University of Illinois graduate named George Halas.

Halas was already a football star, having played at Illinois and then for the Naval Academy in the Rose Bowl. Halas set about recruiting former teammates and foes, including players from the Notre Dame squad, to come and work in Staley’s plant in Decatur, with a couple of hours off each day for football practice. The players were paid $50 a week. On September 17, 1920, the Decatur Staleys were officially founded as a professional football club. Tickets for one of the team’s 1500 seats cost just $1, but were half-price for Staley employees.

With the 1920 season just around the corner, Staley felt his regional central Illinois league didn’t provide enough exposure, and so he and Halas connected with an established league in Ohio, the American Professional Football Association, which he convinced to expand into Illinois and other Great Lakes states. Legendary Olympian Jim Thorpe was the league’s first President. That year the Staleys went 10-1-2, and took the league’s western division title with a 6-0 win over the Chicago Tigers. Five of the inaugural Staleys players went on to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Decatur Stayleys in 1920. 

But while the Staleys were a success on the football field, they were not producing the kind of results the team owner had hoped for in his business model. Cuts were going to have to be made to keep the company solvent, and shareholders couldn’t justify spending scarce resources on a football team.

So in 1921, Halas and another star player, Dutch Sternaman, became co-owners of the team and bought out Staley’s share for $100. They agreed to keep the “Staleys” name for the 1921 season, and set their sights on Chicago, where they were more likely to draw larger crowds. The new owners moved the team to a field on the city’s north side then called Cub Park, which they would share with a baseball team that was headed to a 64-89 record and a 7th place finish in the National League. The football to be seen there was of much higher quality: the Staleys beat a team from Buffalo 10-7 for the APFA championship, their first league title.

Ironically, there was a brand new venue available for the Staleys in Chicago in 1921, but they chose not to locate there. Grant Park Stadium had just opened in 1919. That facility; located near the lakeshore; hosted college and exhibition games, including an Army-Navy game shortly after World War I, when it was re-named Soldier Field in honor of those who had fallen in the nation’s defense in the Great War.

Staley, meanwhile, was ready to be rid of professional football. The team had cost the company $100,000, and his employees were unhappy with their co-workers who seemed to spend more time on the gridiron than on the factory floor – and the better wages they received. In 1922, Staley cut the last remaining ties with his creation.

“Considering everything, especially the interests of the stockholders, we did not feel warranted in keeping it up,” he explained to the Decatur Herald.

George Halas, 1922
Now firmly in command, Halas made a number of changes. To honor his alma mater, he changed the team’s colors from Staley’s red-and-tan to a University of Illinois style blue-and-orange. He also rechristened the team the Chicago Bears. At the same time, the league rebranded itself, becoming the National Football League. The Bears are one of only two original teams which remain in the league today. The other was a squad across town called the Racine Street Cardinals. They have since moved to the southwest.

While the Bears and Cardinals would prove to be fierce rivals in the early years of the NFL, they were soon joined by another pro squad to the north who would prove to be the Bears’ archrival for a century: the Green Bay Packers. The Bears faced struggles in their early years, including losing out in attendance to the University of Chicago football team. That problem that was solved, in part, when the Bears signed the All-American Harold “Red” Grange from the University of Illinois.

Under Halas, the Bears became a juggernaut. They claimed a championship in 1924, but the NFL disagreed due to a scheduling technicality. All agree that the Bears won championships in 1932, 1933 and in that legendary performance in the 1940 championship game. The next year the Bears won another title and also acquired not only their famous fight song, but also the distinctive C logo that still adorns their helmets today.

Halas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. Having earned so much of the credit for the success of the team over the decades, he is lovingly known as “Papa Bear” today. He owned the team until his death in 1983. In 64 years in professional football, Halas won 324 games as a coach and six league championships. Halas never got a Super Bowl ring, however, dying just two years before the 1985 Bears crushed the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX.

“I’ve loved sports since I was old enough to cross a Chicago street by myself,” Halas said. “I’m happy that I made pro football a career. It has been good to me in the material sense, but more important is that I have been associated with youth in all my years as a pro football coach and owner.”

The Bears played their home games in the venue which came to be called Wrigley Field until 1971, when they moved to Soldier Field for its larger seating capacity. In 2002, the Bears returned to central Illinois, playing a single season at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium during an extensive renovation of Soldier Field. The next year, as a salute to the team’s founding, the Bears introduced their new mascot, Staley Da Bear.

Photo from Staley Da Bear on Facebook.
Over the last 100 years, names like Halas and Grange have been joined by many other NFL legends: Nagurski, Sayers, Butkus, Payton, Ditka, Urlacher, the list goes on and on. In that time, they have amassed nine world championships, had 28 team personnel inducted into the Hall of Fame, and become the winningest franchise in professional football.

And it all started on the grass field of a corn products manufacturer in Decatur, Illinois.

The Bears’ 100th season kicks off tonight with a 7:20 game at Soldier Field against their old nemesis, the Green Bay Packers.