Great Legends of Sport
“When I grew up in Flatbush, 'we played football, stickball and baseball all the time, right out there on the city streets. Football was my favorite.”
—Sid Luckman, as quoted in The New York Times, July 6, 1998
“He was like a second father to me.”
—Sid Luckman, said of George Halas, Bears owner and coach
“He was like a second father to me.”
—Sid Luckman, said of George Halas, Bears owner and coach
“You had to be there to realize how great Sid was.”
—Jimmy Cannon, sportswriter
|Sid Luckman [1916-1998]: The 6-foot, 197-pound quarterback threw 137
touchdowns and completed 904 passes out of 1,744 attempts for 14,686
yards and an excellent 51.8% completion average.|
Bob Zuppke, the great Illinois coach, once said of Luckman, ''He was the smartest football player I ever saw, and that goes for college or pro.'' He was also a firm believer in loyalty, but more on that later.
In twelve seasons with the Chicago Bears (1939-50), Luckman led the team to four National Football League championships: in 1940, 1941, 1943 and 1946. He also made the All-Pro team five times, was most valuable player in 1943, and was the first quarterback to pass for 400 yards in one game.
The 6-foot, 197-pound quarterback threw 137 touchdowns and completed 904 passes out of 1,744 attempts for 14,686 yards for an excellent 51.8% completion average. Luckman, number 42 with the Bears, had a career touchdown rate (percentage of pass attempts that result in touchdowns) of 7.9% , the best in history. His passing average of 8.4 yards per attempt is second only to Otto Graham's 8.6 yards with the Cleveland Browns. (Luckman's complete professional football stats can be found here.)
Although he had many exceptional games throughout his twelve-year career, two stand out, both in 1943:
On November 14 in New York, it was "Sid Luckman Day" at the Polo Grounds as hundreds of Sid's Brooklyn fans turned out to honor him with gifts and speeches and presentations. Sid's mother was in the stands to watch him for the only third time in her life.
Sid himself applied the finest touches, however, with a seven-touchdown barrage that assured a 56-7 Bears victory and a place in the NFL record book. The rare feat has been matched four times in later years but never broken.
In the championship game with the Redskins that same year, Luckman put another outstanding aerial display to give the Bears their third NFL crown in four years. Sid threw five touchdown strikes as the Bears won by a 41-21 count. His touchdowns came on plays of 31, 36, 66, 29, and 16 yards. Altogether he had 15 completions in 27 attempts for 276 yards.Without a doubt, Sid Luckman made his parents, his fans and his community proud. In Yiddishkeit, there is a word to describe such an individual: a mensch, a person of integrity and honour. And Sid Luckman was indeed a mensch.
|Sid Luckman, no, 42 for the Chicago Bears. On
November 14, 1943, it was "Sid Luckman Day" at the Polo Grounds in New York, where the Chicago Bears were playing the New York Giants before 56,691 spectators, including his mother. For
the game, Luckman was 23 of 30 for 453 yards, shattering the previous record of 333, and threw a record 7 touchdown passes, still a record. (Luckman and four others hold the record) |
His Early Years
Sid Luckman was born to Meyer Luckman, owner of a small family trucking business, and Ethel Drukman, a homemaker; in Brooklyn, New York, on November 21, 1916. His parents were observant Jews originally from Germany. Soon after his birth, the family moved to a better house near Prospect Park, and when he was eight, his father bought him a football. The young Luckman began to throw the ball around at Prospect Park.
He played both baseball and football for Erasmus Hall High School, but Luckman preferred football. Although he attracted the attention of at least a dozen college football scouts, some with better football programs, Luckman chose Columbia University—even though he was not offered a scholarship that he badly needed. This point is brought home in an excellent book by Harold U Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow, Jews in American Sports:
As it happens, Sid was never offered a scholarship by Columbia. The university did offer him an opportunity to obtain jobs to pay his way through college, and he accepted that even though he had done so well in high school that plenty of other colleges and universities wanted him to join their school, and, of course, football team. At Columbia, Sid washed dishes, baby-sat and worked as a messenger around the campus. His father's trucking business had been wiped out in the Depression and Sid did not wish to be a burden to his parents; neither, it seems, did he want to go to any college but Columbia.Two reasons come to mind: a good education and proximity to his parents. It might have also been that Luckman was a man who valued personal relationships, and despite Columbia not having an impressive football program or team, he hit it off with its coach, Lou Little. Such is a point made on the website of Columbia:
He chose Columbia after meeting legendary Lion coach Lou Little at a Columbia-Navy game at Baker Field. Little used Luckman, who also played defence, as a passing tailback and as his punter. In 1938, his senior season, Luckman defeated Yale virtually single-handedly; he also led a thrilling comeback victory over Army, a game he would later recall as his favorite.A Reluctant Professional
In 24 collegiate contests, Luckman ran up impressive statistics: 180 pass completions in 376 attempts, for 2,413 yards passing and 20 touchdowns. Honored as a second-team All-American, Luckman finished third in balloting for the Heisman Trophy, despite Columbia having a losing season. After graduating from Columbia College, he was chosen second overall in the 1939 professional draft.
Despite the high praise by being drafted second, Luckman initially declined any further interest in pro football. ''I'd taken a lot of punishment and I knew how rough the pro game could be,'' he said then. He had just married Estelle Morgolin, his high school sweetheart, and planned to join his brother in the family trucking business.
George Halas had other plans, seeing in Luckman the engineer of his plans to change the game of American football. Before the 1939 season began, Halas gained an invitation to Luckman's tiny apartment for a dinner, which Luckman's wife Estelle prepared, Halas produced a contract for $5,500 which Luckman immediately signed.
At college, Luckman played halfback. At the pro level, Luckman became synonymous with revolutionizing the game of professional football in America, which include backfields in motion and moving the ball by passing. Previous to this innovation, the quarterback rarely touched the ball; he was another blocking back. American football was mostly a hard-fought running game with little passing.
Under Halas' tutelage and Luckman's abilities, however, the quarterback became the leader in offense, the field general so to speak, said Michael Feldberg in an article for the American Jewish Historical Society: "In the T-formation, which the pros had just developed, the quarterback, standing immediately behind the center, calls the plays, receives every snap, and has the option of running, passing or handing off the ball. In sum, he is central to the action and his team’s success depends on his resourcefulness."
Luckman was a thinking quarterback. So drastic was the change that in one of the most one-sided games in professional sports, Luckman led the Chicago Bears to a 73–0 victory against Sammy Baugh and the Washington Redskins in the 1940 championship game. In The New York Times, they wrote of his performance: "No field general ever called plays more artistically. He was letter perfect."
After that shellacking, the T-formation became the norm for professional football.
Service and Loyalty
In 1943, as soon as the season had ended, Luckman volunteered as an ensign with the U.S. Merchant Marines during the Second World War. Luckman entered the Maritime Service on January 3, 1944, curtailing his activities in professional football for the 1944 and 1945 seasons. He was stationed stateside and while he could not practice with the team, he did receive permission to play for the Bears when the tanker he was stationed on was docked. He returned to the Bears, full-time, in 1946, when he led the team to a fifth NFL championship.
In 1946, the Chicago Rockets of the All-America Football Conference offered him a $25,000 contract to serve as player-coach. It was an exceptional offer, and most players would have taken the money and run. Except Sid Luckman, who said: "How could I ever possibly have taken it?" he asked. "How could I quit a club that has done so much for me."
After 12 seasons with the Bears, Luckman retired in 1950 but remained close to the Bears and Halas. Once again, his loyalties shown through. “Everything I have I owe to my two coaches, Lou Little at Columbia and George Halas with the Bears,” Luckman said.
Luckman had earlier launched a successful business career in Chicago. He had a long association with the packaging industry and a firm called Cellu-Craft Products, which he later headed. Luckman believed in loyalty in all aspects of his life. He was married to Estelle Morgolin, his childhood sweetheart, until her death of cancer in 1981.
When Luckman was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965, an excerpt of his September 12, 1965, speech speaks volumes:
Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you coach Little (presenter Lou Little) for the very kind and fine words you spoke about in talking about me. Words can't express my sincere and deep appreciation to your coming here and giving of your valuable time. This is certainly one of the truly great honors of my life and one that I'll never forget. I also want to take this opportunity to thank Coach George Halas and the Chicago Bears for all they have meant to me and what they have done for me and my family. Thank you very, very much and God bless each and every one of you. Thank you.The boy from Brooklyn did good. ''He was the best all-around football player that New York City ever developed,'' said the former track star and sports broadcaster, Marty Glickman in a New York Times article.
Sid Luckman died in Aventura, Florida, on July 5, 1998. He was eighty-one. Sid Luckman was intered in Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie, Illinois. He is survived by a son, Bob, and two daughters, Gale and Ellen.