Tuesday, March 1, 2016

HIS MOMENT IN THE SUN: Rudy "The Rifle" Bukich

By T.J. Troup

The summer of 1966; John Sebastian is singing "Summer in the City" and the Sports Illustrated Pro Football Issue is out! On the cover is the photo of Rudy Bukich handing off to Gale Sayers ..."Chicago's Challenging Bears".  It was a great time to be a Bears fan.
Upon reflection, the only challenge for that 1966 Bear team was staying out of last place as they entered the final game of the year with a record of 4-7-2. This story is not about teams that failed to compete for a division title, it is about a man who endured before he finally had his moment in the sun.

Bukich was drafted the Rams in 1953 as Bill Wade was serving in the Navy, and Van Brocklin had to have a back-up and Bukich was it. Rudy later played sparingly for the Redskins, and Bears in the '50's. He then continues his sojourn in the Steel City as Bobby Layne's back-up.
Colorization by John Turney
Entering into the 1961 season he has attempted just 157 passes, and threw just 4 touchdown passes in the 39 games he has played in. When Layne is injured during the that season, Bukich is thrust into the starting role and performs adequately. He does display his strong arm as he connects with the first 1,000 yard receiver in Pittsburgh Steeler history-- Buddy Dial.

When Layne reclaims the starting job in the twilight of his career, Bukich is traded back to Chicago. Billy Wade is the starting quarterback and the goal for 1963 is to beat the Green & Gold juggernaut in Wisconsin. The Bears won three in a row on the road, but in the home opener against Baltimore Wade is simply terrible (5 of 21), and into the fray comes Bukich. He reads the coverage and expertly delivers an accurate pass to Ronnie Bull on a circle route. The young halfback scores on a 44 yard play as Mike Ditka makes one of the best open field blocks of the year. Don't believe me? Watch the film, or ask left corner Bobby Boyd. The Bears go on to win the NFL title and in the process beat Green Bay twice.

Billy Wade has had a couple strong games in 1964, but Bukich, down the stretch that year, shines as the starting quarterback. Is this finally his chance after being drafted 11 years ago? Chicago looks out of sync in the three losses to open the season in 1965, but the Bears begin to play the best football in the league the next few weeks. Super rookie Gale Sayers is literally a Kansas Comet each week, but what about the Chicago pass offense?

Since we now have a 16 game schedule, let's use that as the premise for what "The Rifle" accomplished over the course of the last 5 games of 1964, and the first 11 of 1965. Bukich completed 216 out of 356 passes, for 2,820 yards, with 30 going for touchdowns, and just 7 intercepted. The average league passer rating in that era was usually about 72.0. Rudy the Rifle you ask? He had an eye-popping 105.5! Aiding the production Johnny Morris had another fine year at flanker, and Ditka is always a viable option at tight end.

Alas, with the failure of the Bears in 1966, and the trade for Jack Concannon; Bukich ends his career in Chicago as a part time starter, and has injury problems. Bukich had put it all together, using the powerful arm (called by Gil Brandt "the hardest thrower I ever saw") and experience and for a brief moment in time the man was one of the best passers in a league that had Bart Starr, John Unitas, and Sonny Jurgensen in its midst.

 R.I. P. Rudy, I sure enjoyed watching you play for the Bears in the Coliseum.


  1. Thanks for that, Coach. I have always found Rudy's 1965 "out of the blue" passing championship to be a fascinating statistical blip. I have a radio recording of the 1953 Rose Bowl game. I'll have to give it another listen.