The Biggest, Baddest Players in Chicago Bears History

Brett Solesky@@MidwayBearsBlogCorrespondent IAugust 24, 2012

The Biggest, Baddest Players in Chicago Bears History

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    The Chicago Bears are among the oldest franchises in NFL history, and they are also, perhaps, the most storied. The Bears also have the most players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

    Some of the players who have played for the Monsters of the Midway have taken on mythological reputations.

    I was asked to put together a list of the 20 biggest “baddest” Chicago Bears players in the history of the franchise. Talk about a hard choice to make on all fronts. The Bears are legendary for their long history of tough, badass football players who give the team its aforementioned nickname.

    Players from the steel mills and coal mines of Pennsylvania to right here in the city of broad shoulders are all represented on this list. 

    To be fair, I didn’t compile this list completely on my own. I reached out to a former Chicago Bears great who is as passionate about the Bears today as he was playing for Chicago during the ’60s and ’70s: Doug Buffone. 

    The former Bears linebacker contributed opinions during a recent phone interview. Without his stories and some recommendations, this list would not have been possible. It was a pleasure to talk to a former player who is as passionate about talking about the Chicago Bears as you are reading about the Bears and I am writing about this team. 

    A few great players were left off the list out of necessity, but at the end of the day, everything seems to fit. 

    Some stories I recalled from memory, and others I learned by digging into their careers. I hope you enjoy reading about these players as much as I enjoyed researching them.

No. 20 Steve McMichael

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    Steve “Mongo” McMichael was one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles of all time. That is probably the most overlooked aspect of McMichael’s career. He finished with the third-most sacks of all time behind Hall of Famer John Randle and soon-to-be Hall of Fame player Warren Sapp. 

    McMichael combined with Dan Hampton and Richard Dent, two Hall of Famers, to form one of the best defensive lines from the decade of the ’80s. 

    He was an intimidating force because he was so quick and strong and was most often overshadowed by Hampton and Dent. 

    Known as an even wilder player off the field, McMichael played acutely focused on destroying the offense. 

No. 19 Stan Jones

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    Stan Jones was a nasty offensive guard who was one of the first players in the history of the NFL to utilize weight training to get himself in shape for the season. Jones played 13 seasons for the Chicago Bears, first as a guard, and then, as a defensive tackle. 

    He was a nasty run blocker who was one of the most feared pulling guards of all time. Jones was fast and powerful and earned seven straight Pro Bowl honors during the 1950s. 

    After his successful stint as a guard, Jones was utilized as a defensive tackle and was a part of one of the best Bears’ defensive units in team history. That 1963 defensive unit led the Bears to an NFL title.

    He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1991.

No. 18 Doug Plank

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    Teamed with Gary Fencik to form a tandem of safeties known as “The Hitmen,” Plank only knew one speed, and that was 110 miles per hour with his hair on fire. 

    I spoke with Doug Buffone about Plank, whom he asked the coaching staff to take a look at for the starting safety spot during one of Buffone’s last seasons.

    “I said to the staff they should take a look at this kid as a starter, but because he was undrafted, the coaches weren’t so keen on the idea,” Buffone recalled. “As luck would have it, injuries piled up, and Plank got his chance and never relinquished it. 

    Buffone called Plank the missile, as he wasn’t one to try and make a lot of plays on the football, but would rather go for big hits. 

    Plank is known for an all-time great hit in the NFL where he ran through Earl Campbell. On that play, you could clearly see the intent was not to make the tackle, but to destroy Campbell. 

    Another story Buffone relayed to me was one about how he once tried to play racquetball with Plank, against his own intuit. 

    “He asked me to come play a round of racquetball with him, and I refused to do it,” Buffone said. 

    After some strong friendly persistence from Plank, Buffone finally relented. 

    “I said OK, but this is just a friendly game of racquet ball, nothing too crazy,” Buffone said. “So I hit this lob shot, and out of the corner of my eye, I see Doug coming at me full speed with this look in his eye and he takes the full swing at the ball, misses the ball and smashes the racquet against my face.

    I went down hard, I was out on the floor…mouth split wide open bleeding all over the place.  I wound up with like 20 stitches in my mouth after this and never played racquetball with him again.

    “But that was how he played (on the football field), 100 miles an hour every time. He didn’t know any other speed.”

No. 17 Doug Buffone

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    One of the longest-tenured Chicago Bears players of all time, Doug Buffone had the privilege of playing with players like Ditka, Butkus, O’Bradovich and Atkins. He also played with Payton, Hampton and Plank.  

    Buffone played middle linebacker in college at the University of Louisville, but with Dick Butkus manning the middle in Chicago, was moved over to the outside linebacker spot in Chicago. 

    Buffone didn’t disappoint, playing 15 seasons and finishing with the most career games of any player in Bears history. He is also the team’s single-season record holder for QB sacks with 18.

    In one famous football radio rant during the Chicago Bears’ post-game radio show on WSCR, Buffone stated, “I got my ass beat many times, but I tell ya, I always took somebody down with me.” 

    Buffone’s fierce attitude for the game of football nearly 30 years after he retired was evident in that radio soundbite. 

    You can tell in the clip on YouTube that lasts one minute, 18 seconds that if Buffone were still able, he would strap on a helmet and go head-hunting QBs the way he did during the span of two decades. 

    The passion that was exhibited just on the radio was even more evident during his days as a Chicago Bear, and it’s what makes Buffone one of the most underrated players in Chicago Bears history. That kind of love for the game makes him one of the biggest, baddest Bears to ever play for Chicago.

No. 16 George Connor

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    Connor was another hulk of a man in the years before weight training made just about everyone big and strong. Connor had a normal 48-inch chest and could expand to 53 inches.

    As noted sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote, “Connor was the closest thing to a Greek God since Apollo. At 6’3”, 240 lbs, Connor was All-Pro at three different positions—offensive tackle, defensive tackle and linebacker. 

    The Bears are famous for pioneering positions, and Connor was one of those big, fast linebacker pioneers. He was switched to linebacker to slow down a Philadelphia Eagles rushing attack led by Joe Muha. 

    The story goes that Halas and assistant Hunk Anderson were devising some desperate measures to slow the Philadelphia offense.

    Of particular concern was an end sweep that saw fullback Muha and the two guards lead bulldozing Steve Van Buren around the end. Van Buren was a terror even without interference, but with such an effective convoy out in front, he was virtually unstoppable.

    Finally, Anderson had a thought: "Why don't we put in a big man like Connor back as linebacker? They won't be able to run over him like they do the lighter guys. Besides, he's one of our most aggressive guys, and that's the best kind to play linebacker."

    Connor never took another snap at any other position and is yet another one of the Bears linebackers enshrined in Canton.

No. 15 George Musso

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    At 6’2”, 260 lbs, Musso was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, players of his era. Musso was a fearsome blocker on offense both as a pass-blocker and as a pulling guard. He was the team captain for nine years during the 1930s. 

    His skills as a blocker and defender made teams completely alter their game plans, which was not as commonplace in the NFL as it is today. 

    Musso is one of the Bears’ 27 players who have been enshrined in Canton. 

No. 14 Gary Fencik

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    Gary Fencik may be one of the most underrated Chicago Bears players of all time, and it was tough to put him this low on the list. Some could argue he deserves to be higher up. 

    Fencik was the Bears’ defensive captain throughout the 1980s, including the Super Bowl championship season. 

    Team captains are voted on by players, so that shows you the level of respect his Bears teammates had for him. 

    A wide receiver coming out of college, Fencik flipped to the other side of the ball and turned into a ball-hawking safety who could punish receivers and running backs. 

    Fencik was a two-time All-Pro selection, as well as a two-time Pro Bowl selection. 

    He retired as the Bears’ all-time leading tackler and the all-time leader in interceptions. 

No. 13 Walter Payton

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    Former NFL coach Jerry Glanville simply said this regarding Payton and the way he ran the football: “He was a linebacker carrying the football.” 

    Payton’s style of running was one of the most punishing styles in the history of the game.  Payton didn’t want to run around you; he wanted to run through you. 

    For 13 seasons, Payton played the most punishing position in the NFL, but doled out as much punishment as he absorbed. 

    Payton was not very big either for the way he ran the football. He was a mere 5’10”, 200 lbs, but it was all muscle. 

    He ended his career as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and is arguably the greatest all-around running back in the history of the NFL. 

No. 12 Rick Casaras

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    A hybrid sort of back, a cross between running back and fullback, Casaras was a nasty runner who Doug Buffone called “probably the toughest player pound-for-pound that ever played for the Chicago Bears,” 

    At 6’2”, 226 lbs, Casaras was a Golden Glove boxing champion and was offered a professional boxing contract at the age of 15. His mother forbade him to sign the pro contract, so he tookup high school sports back in Tampa. 

    Casaras led the Bears in rushing for five seasons, including one season in which he led the NFL with 1,126 yards. The following year, Caseras was second in the NFL in rushing behind the great Jim Brown. 

    Casaras’ Bears rushing records, set in the 1950s and part of the ’60s, lasted until they were shattered by Walter Payton in the 1980s. Caseras is still third all-time on the Bears’ rushing list behind Payton and Neal Anderson and just ahead of Hall of Fame runner Gale Sayers.

No. 11 Mike Singletary

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    Known as “The Samurai,” Singletary played all-out at all times during his 12 seasons with the Chicago Bears and was, pound-for-pound, one of the toughest linebackers of the decade.  Singletary wasn’t very big, but he played even bigger due to his fearlessness in the way he took on blockers and ball-carriers. 

    His knowledge of the game on defense was similar to the knowledge Peyton Manning had on offense. He brought passion, discipline and a hard-hitting style that was contagious on defense. 

    He was a major leader on defense for the 1985 Bears team and won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year during that Super Bowl championship season. At only 6’0”, 230 lbs, Singletary hit like players much bigger than him and was unafraid to make tackles without his helmet.

No. 10 Clyde "Bull Dog" Turner

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    Another nickname that says it all about the type of player Turner was. He played center on offense and a linebacker for the Bears in the ’40s. In addition to those duties, Turner played guard, tackle and eventually saw time at halfback for the Bears during the years they won multiple NFL championships. 

    Turner was fast, strong and a tenacious blocker and tackler. Going both ways, he earned his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and goes down as one of the toughest players the Bears have known. 

No. 9 Bill Hewitt

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    Any player who is known for his refusal to play football without a helmet deserves to be on the list of the biggest, baddest Chicago Bears players in history. 

    That is what Bill Hewitt was known for, playing football and refusing to wear a helmet until it became a league-mandated rule. 

    Helping his cause, Hewitt was one of the best two-way players of his era, playing end on both offense and defense and averaging 50 minutes of playing time per game. 

    Hewitt was such a force on defense that he was dubbed “The Offside Kid” for his uncanny explosion off the ball in which he was able to be in the backfield at the snap of the ball on nearly every play. 

    His quickness always seemed to make it seem as though he was offside on the play. Hewitt was All-NFL as a rookie and achieved that honor five more times in his career. 

No. 8 Bill George

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    No. 61 was an innovator, becoming the first player to ever play the middle linebacker full-time and excel at doing so. George started his career at the middle guard position, where, on passing downs, it was his job to hit the offensive center, and then, drop back into coverage. 

    That all changed in one game against the Eagles, when, rather than hitting the center, he dropped back into coverage and had one ball hit him in the stomach before he intercepted the next pass. 

    George went on to start at middle linebacker and earn enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. 

    The Bears, in fact, have three middle linebackers currently in the Hall of Fame, with Brian Urlacher surely on his way to the Hall of Fame five years after he retires. 

    George was the first and played the middle linebacker position like a nose guard because that’s the mentality George learned to play with first.

No. 7 Ed O'Bradovich

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    My father-in-law told me a story of O’Bradovich from when he was a season ticket holder during the Bears’ best years of the early 1960s.

    O’Bradovich, a defensive end, got in a fight during the game and was ejected from the game.  He was sent to the locker room, which, at the time, was beyond outfield at Wrigley Field.

    After the final gun went off, O’Bradovich charged out of the locker room and back onto the field. His intent was clear. He was going to beat up the guy he had been in a fight with a couple of hours earlier.

    That story is just a bit of what was big and bad about “OB.”  He played with a nasty demeanor that represented the city he grew up in and played football in his entire career. 

    O’Bradovich went to high school, college and played professionally all in the state of Illinois. 

No. 6 Dan Hampton

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    Mike Singletary has the biggest reputation on the 1985 Bears defense, but by far, the most feared and tenacious player on that team was the “Danimal.” Dan Hampton went through 10 knee surgeries (five on each knee) in his career and never missed more than four games. 

    Doug Buffone’s last year was Hampton’s first year in the NFL, and he was impressed with the rookie his first year in the league. 

    “I could tell I was there for Walter’s first year,” Buffone said. “Super human being...same thing...Hampton first he had size and ability; he kept coming and he played hard.  They got a lot of smaller, feisty-type players, but they don’t have the meat behind them; he had the meat behind him. Big strong fast...quick strong Hampton is right up there with the best of them.”

    Hampton was drafted in 1979 and was an immediate starter, starting 48 straight games. He totaled 25 sacks in his first three seasons before undergoing his first knee operation. 

    More than that, though, Hampton was the cornerstone of the greatest defense in NFL history. Combined with a team record-setting offense and an NFL record-setting defense, the Bears destroyed teams on their way to a title in Super Bowl XX. 

    In three playoff games, the Bears allowed a total of 10 points, posting shutouts in their first two games, and then, allowing only 10 points in the Super Bowl. Even those 10 points weren’t really the fault of the defense, with the Bears offense turning the ball over and putting the defense in a hole. 

    Hampton was the most intimidating force on the most intimidating defense in the history of the NFL. The Bears defense was full of badass players, three of which are in the Hall of Fame, led by Hampton, Mike Singletary and Richard Dent. 

No. 5 Ed Sprinkle

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    Ed Sprinkle was known as “The Claw.”

    Sprinkle’s nickname came from an arm rip he used to discard blockers, ball-carriers or QBs. Sprinkle was known by many as “the meanest man in pro football.” 

    Doug Buffone didn’t disagree.

    “Ed Sprinkle has to be on that list,” Buffone said. “I didn’t play with him, but you heard about him as a player when you came into the league and played for the Bears. He RUINED people.” 

    He was a member of the 1940s All-Decade team as a defensive end and is in the Bears’ Ring of Honor. 

    George Halas said of Sprinkle, “the greatest pass-rusher I've ever seen" and "a rough, tough ballplayer, but not a dirty one.”

No. 4 Doug Atkins

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    The legend of big badass defensive ends started long before Julius Peppers and about a decade before Deacon Jones. “The Big Guy” Doug Atkins stood 6’8” and weighed in at 275 lbs. Atkins was a monster of a man and played with that same demeanor. 

    Atkins was fast enough to rush the edge, but usually preferred to go through opposing blockers on his way to the QB. 

    Former NFL player Bill Curry told a story of Atkins from his rookie year when he was a center with the Green Bay Packers.

    “Look, here’s some things I want you to remember,” Skornoski said.  “Number 81 is Doug Atkins, he’s 6’9” and he weighs 265 pounds. He said DON’T CUT HIM, and if he falls down, help him up and say nice play, Mr. Atkins.”

    “Well, I (Curry) started to laugh,” Curry said. 

    “Kid, this is not a joke, and I’m not kidding you now, because if you cut him, on his knees, the first thing he’s going to do is kill you, and then, he’s going to kill me.”

    Atkins played defensive end in the NFL for 17 seasons and destroyed offensive linemen and quarterbacks in the process. 

    There are stories that have Atkins picking up and throwing opposing blockers at quarterbacks, rumors that he would body press players over his head and slam them to the ground rather than tackle them. 

    Atkins is one of the biggest players in the Hall of Fame and is probably one of the strongest who ever played the game. 

No. 3 Mike Ditka

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    You can honestly make a case for the final three spots that they are all grouped together as some of the toughest players in the history of the NFL. There’s very little that separates these three in the way they played the game.

    Their competitive streak was legendary, and the way they went and sought out contact puts them all in a category of their own. 

    Mike Ditka was a fiery competitor, both as a coach and as a player. It didn’t matter who Ditka was playing against; he always wanted to hurt you. 

    In a phone interview with Bleacher Report, former Bears linebacker Doug Buffone raved about Ditka’s talent.

    “If Ditka played in today’s game, he would catch 100 balls a season easily; he was that type of talent,” Buffone said. “In that era, you destroyed the tight end as he came off the line, absolutely destroyed him.  There was none of this free release stuff you see now.” 

    Ditka was another revolutionary as a tight end in an era when most TEs blocked. Ditka became the pass-catching threat that is now associated with the modern TE. As a result, he was named to the Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in revolutionizing the game of football. 

    Above all that, though, Ditka was one of the nastiest, meanest tight ends in the history of the NFL. 

No. 2 Bronko Nagurski

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    Yet another Bears player of legendary status is Bronko Nagurski.  His name points to the type of player he was, a one-man bull who wrecked his way into the Hall of Fame from his fullback position.  

    Nagurski was the ultimate power back in an era of much smaller players. Nagurski played in the leather helmet era and often led with his head, his shoulder or a forearm. 

    At 6’2”, 235 lbs, he was thick, muscular and strong during an era not known for weightlifting. 

    One legendary story (via The New York Times) attached to Nagurski has him “on a touchdown gallop against the Redskins, he is said to have knocked two linebackers in opposite directions, stomped over a defensive halfback and crushed an interferring (sic) safety man before caroming off the goalposts and finally crashing into the stadium's brick walls.”

    Upon returning to the huddle for the extra-point try, he reportedly said: "That last guy hit me awfully hard."

    He played on both offense and defense, and after one injury, was placed at offensive tackle, where he was named All-Pro at three non-kicking positions, the first player in the history of the NFL to achieve such an honor. 

    In Nagurski’s final season, he came back to the Bears after a stint on the pro wrestling circuit. With the Bears short on players in 1943 due to the soldiers leaving to fight in the war, Nagurski was asked to play. He played most of the game at tackle, but on the game’s final drive, was put back at his familiar fullback position. 

    With the game winding down, Nagurski took handoff after handoff, bowling through the line time and again for positive yards. Finally, he scored the game-winning touchdown, which sent the Bears into the NFL title game that year. 

    Nagurski was an NFL pioneer, the first of his kind as a power runner and would have been formidable in any era. 

    Therefore, he earns the second overall spot in our countdown. 

Dick Butkus

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    You'll notice there is no number associated with Dick Butkus' slide. That's because there is no need to put a number next to his name; his name stands alone.

    There really isn’t a question about who the biggest, baddest Chicago Bears player is in the history of the franchise. 

    And there really isn’t a debate about who the biggest, baddest player in the history of the NFL is either. It’s Dick Butkus. 

    Butkus is the personification of what football is—a man’s game where the linebackers are meant to be feared.

    Butkus’ reputation in the NFL is legendary among even some of the toughest players in the league. 

    With Butkus, you don’t need to rattle off his stats because the stories connected to him as a player suffice. Butkus was the most intimidating force in the history of the NFL by a large margin, so stats aren’t necessary.

    Deacon Jones famously said in an NFL Films documentary, “…every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.” 

    Any time there's footage of Butkus, it’s only fitting that the great John Facenda narrates the action, because only that voice can do justice to how Butkus played. 

    Tom Jackson of ESPN spoke from Butkus’ biography Flesh and Blood in the ESPN Sports Century feature on Butkus that “he would pick out somebody on the other sideline and imagine that that person had done something to his family done something to his mom, so that he could really start to hate them when the game started.” 

    There are times when you watch highlight videos of Butkus that you could argue he’s trying to rip the head off the ball-carrier. Clearly, you can see Butkus with his arms wrapped around the head, neck and shoulders jerking the defender to the ground with a twisting motion. 

    Perhaps, fate intervenes and keeps the head from twisting off, but it seems Butkus’ intent on the football field was clear. 

    To sum him up, I can only present one of the best quotes I’ve heard regarding Butkus, via an NFL Films transcript, because I cannot write enough to do justice to the meanest, toughest, most intimidating player in the history of the NFL:

    “He was Moby Dick in a gold fish bowl.  His nine-year career stands apart as the single most sustained work of devastation EVER committed on a football field by anyone anywhere any time.  To talk about him is to drain the vocabulary of superlatives.”