NFL: The 5 Greatest Chicago Bears of All Time
The Chicago Bears represent one of the most iconic franchises in football history. Dating back to 1920, the Bears have come to embody the characteristics of a blue-collar town; they embrace defense, mental toughness, bitter cold, and the will to win. Beyond this foundation, the classic Chicago/Green Bay rivalry formed the nucleus of the Black and Blue Division and ushered the game of football into the modern era. In all, the Chicago Bears have 27 players enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame — including some of the game’s all-time Greats — and have claimed nine total championships (eight NFL titles and one Super Bowl).
The top five Chicago Bears of all-time will be forever synonymous with the team, but we would be remiss to ignore Red Grange bursting to the outside, Sid Luckman running the T formation, and Devin Hester for taking kicks back to the house. Consider them the Honorable Mentions.
1. Gayle Sayers
2. Dick Butkus
In 1965, the Bears hit the jackpot, after selecting Dick Butkus (left) and Gale Sayers (right) as the respective third and fourth overall picks. Sayers went on to immediately take the League by storm, in racking up a then rookie record 2,272 all-purpose yards and 22 touchdowns, over the course of 14 games. That year, he scored six touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers at a muddied Wrigley Field. For this 61-20 blowout, he hit the end zone on four runs, one pass reception, and one punt return, in what football historians have billed as the greatest individual performance of all time.
The Kansas Comet won the NFL rushing title in 1966 and 1969 with respective 1,231 and 1,032-yard performances on the ground. In all, Sayers averaged 5 yards-per-carry through his seven-year career, walking away at 28 after enduring two severe knee injuries. Butkus, meanwhile, was named to the Pro Bowl for eight consecutive seasons, between 1965 and 1972. Like Sayers, Butkus’s career was cut short by injuries. NFL commentators have made claims that Butkus played out his final games as a Bear on “no knees,” but the man with the crew cut and a permanently affixed scowl would be lauded as “the most feared tackler” of all time before he hung up his helmet.
3. Mike Ditka
Michael Dyczko, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, was the perfect embodiment of Bear football. Before arriving in Chicago, Dyczko changed his name to Ditka, while he rose through the ranks as a schoolboy legend out of hardscrabble Western Pennsylvania.
In the NFL, Iron Mike ran roughshod over the competition between 1961 and 1966. At tight end, Ditka was too fast for linebacker single coverage, and yet too physical for defensive backs to contain. As a rookie, Ditka hauled in 56 catches for 1,076 yards (19.2 YPC) and 12 touchdowns. He racked up 316 receptions for 4,503 yards and 34 touchdowns through six seasons as a Bear.
In 1982, George Halas handpicked Ditka to coach the Bears, his final act as team owner. In Ditka’s fourth season as head coach, the 1985 Bears went 15-1 en route to dominating the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. The ’85 Bears are often referenced as the greatest defense of all-time, as this unit held opponents to a meager average of 12.4 points per game.
4. Walter Payton
Out of Jackson State, Walter Payton apparently lacked the pedigree and raw athleticism set for NFL stardom. Instead, Sweetness picked up chunks of yardage through sheer will power, vision, and body control. Never one to duck out of bounds, Payton would finish off his runs by lowering the boom at the point of attack and fighting for every last yard. As a lunch pail worker, Payton only missed one game over the course of his 13-year career as a Chicago Bear.
In all, Sweetness racked up 16,726 rushing yards, 125 total touchdowns, and one Lombardi Trophy as the ringleader for the 1985 Bears Super Bowl Shuffle. Fans will always remember Payton alongside the likes of Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and Emmitt Smith in any “greatest running back of all-time” conversation.
Vintage Payton would make one sharp cut before hitting the hole hard at the line of scrimmage. From there, Payton would drop his pads low and fight through arm tackles, before bouncing the football to the outside. Out on the edge, it would be off to the races, where Sweetness would shift into an extra gear and plunge into the end zone for six.
5. George Halas
George S. Halas was the architect behind it all. Over the course of his life, “Mr. Everything” bought, owned, played for, coached, and managed Bears business operations. In 1920, the storybook legend began in Decatur, IL, where Halas was hired as the recreational director of Staley Starch Works and tasked with assembling a football team. That year, Halas also held court to organize the American Football Association, which was the predecessor to the NFL.
By 1922, the Decatur Staleys had run into financial troubles, and Halas assumed full control of the young club. Halas promptly moved the franchise to Chicago, negotiated a lease to play games at Wrigley Field, and rechristened the team as the Bears, out of respect for the North Side Cubs. In 1925, Papa Bear signed Red Grange out of the University of Illinois and led a barnstorming tour across the country. With Grange as the main draw, the Chicago Bears began entertaining crowds that would rival baseball as America’s pastime. Today, NFL Football is by far and away the most popular sport in the country, largely due in part to George Halas.
Statistics courtesy of ESPN and Pro-Football-Reference.