Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Remembering George Halas (Happy Birthday)

By Chris Willis, NFL Films
George Halas with Bob Zuppke, former University of Illinois football coach

Today PFJ looks back at one of the NFL’s founders. On this date, we celebrate the birthday of George Halas. Nicknamed "Papa Bear" Halas's coaching philosophy was heavily influenced by his college coach at the University of Illinois, Bob Zuppke. 

In the fall of 1914 after a successful athletic career at Crane Tech in Chicago, George Halas enrolled at the University of Illinois and went out for the football team coached by Zuppke. Playing for Zup made a tremendous impression. “He was a careful teacher. He knew how to get the best out of young men.” Over time Halas would use much of Zuppke’s teachings, especially the use of the T-formation, in professional football with the Chicago Bears. 

As a sophomore Halas played end. His quarterback that year was George “Potsy” Clark who would go onto coach in the NFL for the Detroit Lions and Brooklyn Dodgers. During his junior year, Halas suffered a broken leg.

George Halas, 1917 Illinois Football, school yearbook

With the war raging in Europe Halas joined the Navy. The University of Illinois made arrangements for Halas to get his diploma while he served as an ensign. Halas reported to Great Lakes Naval Station near Waukegan, Illinois for officers’ training. While at Great Lakes Halas played on the football team that also featured future pro stars Paddy Driscoll and Jimmy Conzelman. That season Great Lakes earned an invitation to the 1919 Rose Bowl where Halas earned MVP honors by catching a touchdown pass and returning an interception 77-yards in a 17-0 win over the Mare Island Marines of California.

In March of 1919, Halas was given his military discharge. Shortly afterward he signed a major league baseball contract with the New York Yankees for $400 a month. According to Yankees manager Miller Huggins the right-handed-hitting Halas could hit a fastball - but not the curve. In spring training against the Dodgers Halas drilled a ball to deep left-center field, sprinting around the bases he slid into third base awkwardly. Soon after gathering himself Halas’s hip became very painful and bothered him the rest of the season. Playing right field Halas played in just 12 games going 2 for 22 at the plate. Soon the Yankees replaced him in right field with a converted pitcher they’d bought from the Boston Red Sox. His name was Babe Ruth. Although his baseball career was over Halas still wanted to play the game he truly loved.

Later that year Halas played pro football with the Hammond (IN) All-Stars, earning $100 per game from owner A.A. Young. While playing with Hammond Halas took a job working for $55 dollars a week as an engineer, designing bridges at Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (CB & Q). “I was really impressed by the $100,” admitted Halas, “that was almost twice as much money as I made in a week for the railroad.”

In 1920 Halas was recruited to work for the Staley Starch Company in Decatur, Illinois. It was here that he formed the Decatur Staleys- he was also player-coach. Over the next two years, he moved the team to Chicago and was given ownership of the team from Mr. Staley. In 1922 he renamed the team the Chicago Bears.

While in Chicago Halas never forgot what his coach the great Bob Zuppke said: “Why is it that just when you players are beginning to know something about football I lose you and you stop playing. It makes no sense. Football is the only sport that ends a man’s career just when it should be beginning.” He would remember this quote for the rest of his life.

He believed in pro football and the NFL. It would be his life’s work.

Bob Zuppke, George Halas, and Hunk Anderson (far left) look over plays, circa 1947. 

He also maintained his relationship with his former college coach. Halas and Zuppke routinely talk and corresponded with each other over the next few decades. Once in the summer of 1938 (June), the two exchanged letters. Halas wanted Zuppke to take a look at a few plays that he could use with his team at Illinois.

1938 George Halas letter to Bob Zuppke (Courtesy: Univ. Illinois Special Collections)

1938 Bob Zuppke letter to George Halas (Courtesy: Univ. of Illinois Special Collections)

.      Quick opening inside run inside the tackle or over the center (plays 1 and 2)

2.   Man-in-motion with fullback run inside of end or inside of tackle (plays 3 and 4)

Three George Halas diagrams to Bob Zuppke (Courtesy: Univ. of Illinois Special Collections) 

3. Forward pass that Halas wrote “I believe you will have fun with the forward pass as it has scored many a touchdown for us and still continue to be a successful play.”

Happy Birthday George Halas!! 


  1. ....the history of the NFL is so much richer because of GSH....and being a life long Bears fan, have learned that history. thank you Chris Willis for this informative, interesting article.

  2. With all the wins George Halas had, its hopefully doubtful,that he would pay or encourage his coaches to lose games for draft positions.

    Gambling and the NFL have always been bed partners but todays news doesnt surprise me at all. Games can be shaved or thrown for a number of reasons but when owners are accused by coaches, the integrity of the league has to be preserved at ALL COSTS ... We will see

  3. For those interested, "Papa Bear: The Life and Legacy of George Halas" by Jeff Davis is an excellent biography.