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Football Mania: Some History

In order to honor that acclaimed American institution, which celebrates its biggest day on Sunday we decided to excerpt bios of famous football players, one from the Colts and one from the Bears. Perhaps a bit of greatness from the past will help these teams when they square off on Sunday. Both excerpts are from the American National Biography Online, and are written by John M. Carroll and Paul Betz, respectively.

Go Colts!

Lipscomb, Big Daddy (9 Nov. 1931-10 May 1963), professional football player and wrestler, was born Eugene Alan Lipscomb in Detroit, Michigan. He never knew his father, who reportedly died in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp when Gene was very young; his mother was stabbed to death by a male acquaintance while she waited for a bus in Detroit in 1942. Gene was raised by his maternal grandfather, who, according to Lipscomb, “did the best he knew how. But for some reason it was always hard for us to talk together. Instead of telling me what I was doing wrong and how to correct it, my grandfather would holler and whip me.” As a youth, Lipscomb held a variety of odd jobs to support himself, including a midnight-to-eight shift at a steel mill in Detroit, which he worked before attending classes at Miller High School. He quit school at age sixteen and joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

At Camp Pendleton, California, Lipscomb began to develop his football talents. Having played only one season at Miller High, Lipscomb learned the fundamentals of the game at a relatively high level of play while in the marines. With 280 pounds filling out his 6′ 6″ frame and with unusual speed for a man his size, he soon made a reputation for himself in service football. He got his nickname, “Big Daddy,” in the marines because he could not remember his teammates’ names and called them all “little daddy.” The Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League signed Lipscomb for $4,800 in 1953. He was one of the first extremely large interior linemen with exceptional mobility. But, as an unseasoned lineman engulfed with personal problems, including marital discord and alcohol abuse, his play was inconsistent, and Los Angeles put him on waivers in 1955.

Sought by several teams, Lipscomb signed with the Baltimore Colts in 1956 as a defensive tackle and came under the tutelage of head coach Weeb Ewbank, who described him as a “project.” Under Ewbank’s guidance, Lipscomb learned how to better utilize his size and mobility in interior line play and became one of the outstanding defensive linemen in the NFL. Lipscomb was one of the first black linemen to be widely recognized and acclaimed by fans around the league. While with Baltimore from 1955 to 1960, he was named to the all-NFL team twice and played in two Pro Bowl games. In 1958 and 1959, Lipscomb helped lead the Colts to consecutive NFL championships while anchoring an impressive defensive line that included Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti, and Don Joyce. Baltimore traded Lipscomb to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1961. He continued to be one of the league’s outstanding linemen and played one of his best games in the 1963 Pro Bowl, his third. At the height of his career, Lipscomb earned over $15,000 per season. During the off-season, he earned considerably more money as a professional wrestler, a sideline he had begun while in the marines in California.

Although unusually large and aggressive in line play, Lipscomb went out of his way to cultivate an image as a gentle giant. After a tackle, for example, he would help a ball carrier to his feet. “I don’t want people or kids to think Big Daddy is a cruel man,” he explained. Lipscomb also had the reputation of being something of a homespun philosopher both on and off the field. One of the few NFL players who did not attend college, Lipscomb liked to tell teammates he had played at “Miller Tech,” and he once summarized his football technique by saying, “I just grab me an armful of men, pick them over until I find the one with the ball, then I throw them down.” On another occasion he remarked, “New York, New York. So big they had to say it twice.”

Despite his size, air of confidence, and genial manner, Lipscomb had a difficult personal life. “I’ve been scared most of my life,” he once said. “You wouldn’t think so to look at me.” In the wake of his dismal childhood, Lipscomb was divorced three times and by the 1950s had a serious drinking problem. He died in Baltimore of an acute reaction to an overdose of heroin. An autopsy showed that a nonintoxicating amount of liquor in his body also contributed to his death. Despite the discovery of a number of recent needle marks on his arms, some of his friends, including Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney, suspected foul play. They could not imagine Lipscomb being a drug abuser. Baltimore medical authorities ruled, however, that Lipscomb died of a self-administered overdose of heroin. Lipscomb was one of the first widely known defensive linemen in the NFL. He was also one of the first prominent professional athletes to be linked with drug addiction.

Go Bears!

Luckman, Sid (12 Nov. 1916-5 July 1998), football player and businessman, was born Sidney Luckman in Brooklyn, New York. Little information about his upbringing is available in the public record. In his autobiography, he refers to his parents as “Dad Luckman” and “Mom Luckman”; his mother’s given name was Ethel. His father, an immigrant of German-Jewish extraction, ran a trucking business and became an avid football fan. Although the family business had gone into decline, “Dad” Luckman bought his son, before he was eleven years old, an expensive professional-style football, and the parents quarreled about the risks of Sid’s playing an especially rough-and-tumble sport.

At Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn between 1931 and 1935, Sid Luckman came into his own as a tailback in the then-prevalent single-wing formation and led his team to a New York City championship. His prowess attracted thirty to forty offers of athletic scholarships from colleges nationwide, and Luckman was all but set to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, at the time a major football power. In his senior year at Erasmus Hall, however, he went to Manhattan to watch the college team of Columbia University practice and was introduced to the Lions’ coach, Lou Little, whom he immediately saw as a future mentor. Although Columbia College did not offer football scholarships, Luckman happily chose to go there and worked odd jobs to pay his room and board.

As the pivotal player for Columbia, Luckman was a passer, runner, and receiver and also kicked extra points, punted, and played defense, a not-unusual degree of versatility in the days of one-platoon football. Luckman, though, was genuinely exceptional, despite the inability of Little’s well-coached teams to achieve winning seasons. Luckman began his senior season by leading Columbia to upsets over Yale and Army, prompting Life magazine to put him on the cover of its 24 October 1938 issue with the tagline “Best Passer.” Columbia nevertheless ended the season with only one more win, and Luckman’s chance of earning the Heisman Trophy as player of the year faltered.

When he graduated, Luckman was wary of the punishing nature of National Football League play. He planned to join his brother in the family’s trucking business, instead, and married his sweetheart from Erasmus Hall, Estelle Morgolin (with whom he was to have three children). To his surprise, the coach of the professional Chicago Bears, George Halas, asked to have dinner at the Luckmans’ cramped apartment and offered him a contract. As Luckman was to recall, “Halas told me, ‘You and Jesus Christ are the only two I would ever pay $5,000.’ That was pretty big money then, and so I went”.

Halas believed that Luckman had the superior mental tenacity needed to implement a revolutionary change in professional football. With the assistance of the ex-University of Chicago coach Clark Shaughnessy, Halas trained Luckman in the complexities of the T-formation, in which the quarterback would take the snap directly behind the center and serve as the field general in command of play-making. (By contrast, in the traditional single-wing formation, a quarterback in the modern sense was not used, and the ball might go first to any one of the backs.) In his initial professional season, however, Luckman was more a halfback than a quarterback and had limited success with the new system of offensive play.

But during the 1940 NFL campaign the Chicago Bears became a power to be reckoned with under the leadership of their now-confident quarterback, who had mastered a playbook of 350 offensive patterns. In the championship game of the season, the Bears met the Washington Redskins, to whom they had lost earlier in the season. The result was the greatest rout in an NFL final, with the Bears winning 73-0. So dominant were the Bears that Luckman stayed on the bench for the second half. The “Monsters of the Midway” had been born.

In the following two seasons, Luckman established himself as one of the two premier passers in the NFL, the other being Sammy Baugh of the Redskins. His finest season came in 1943, when he was named Most Valuable Player of the Year. In October 1943, on “Sid Luckman Day” at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, he engineered a crushing victory over the New York Giants with more than 400 yards in passing, a record at the time, and seven touchdown passes, a record since equaled but not surpassed. In the championship game that year, again against Washington, the Bears won handily, thanks to Luckman’s five touchdown passes. (The Bears had also won the championship in 1941.)

Until then exempted from military service in World War II as a married man with children, Luckman enlisted in the Merchant Marine as an ensign stationed at Sheepshead Bay, New York. To the annoyance of some, he was released from duty every Sunday during the football season so that he could play with the Bears. He did, however, go on seven overseas voyages.

During the remainder of his career, the Bears won another championship, in 1946, and placed second in the NFL from 1947 to 1950, the year he retired. In his prime, Luckman was six feet tall and weighed 190 pounds. He had a lifetime passing percentage of 51.8 with 904 completions covering 14,683 yards; he passed for 137 touchdowns and 131 interceptions. He punted 156 times, rushed 204 times, kicked one extra point, returned 11 punts and three kickoffs, and, as a defensive back, had 14 interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. (At a time when face-guards were not yet part of the equipment, he broke his nose perhaps a dozen times, too.) Named all-NFL quarterback in five of his twelve seasons, he was inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 1960 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965. In 1994 Erasmus Hall named its football field for him, an honor he particularly cherished.

While he played for the Bears, Luckman coached at spring practice at Columbia, Notre Dame, Army, and elsewhere to help collegiate quarterbacks learn the T-formation. He also developed a business career at an auto dealership in Chicago. After retirement, he continued to serve the Bears as a part-time coach and gave of his time gratis to Columbia as a quarterback coach. He enjoyed financial success during the latter part of his life as an executive with Cellu-Craft Products, a Chicago-based food-packaging company. At the end of his life he resided in Aventura (North Miami Beach), Florida, where he died. Funeral services were held at a synagogue in Chicago, and he was buried in Skokie, Illinois.

Historians of football agree with George Halas’s assessment of Luckman’s impact on the game: “With Sid, we created a new type of football player–the T quarterback. Newspapers switched their attention from the star runner to the quarterback. It marked a new era for the game. Colleges used Luckman as their model for molding quarterbacks. In Sid’s 12 years with the Bears, football was completely revolutionized”. Those who knew him emphasize that he was not only remarkably bright but also uncommonly thoughtful. He never ceased to express gratitude to those who helped him, especially Lou Little and Halas. More than one sportswriter has been moved to write that Luckman led the NFL in “class.”

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