Chicago Bears and Fighting Illini Football Share Storied History
Nestled in the middle of the University of Illinois campus in Champaign, Illinois lies a historic structure, an iconic architectural masterpiece of masonry and columns. The structure is Memorial Stadium, home of the University of Illinois football team since 1923.
Only a short two-hour drive north on Interstate 57 lies Soldier Field, its colossal stone counterpart housing the Chicago Bears of the NFL.
Both stadiums were built as a tribute to fallen soldiers in the early 1920s and designed by the renowned architectural firm of Holabird and Roche of Chicago.
However, the stadiums are far from being the only common bond between the two teams. In fact, even the uniforms share the same heritage.
The uniforms of the Chicago Bears were the product of founder George Stanley Halas, an alumni and former player at the University of Illinois. Halas is credited with bringing the NFL into prominence as well as founding the Chicago Bears (who began as the Decatur Staleys). Halas earned a B.S. degree from the University of Illinois and played football, basketball and baseball for the Illini. He later went on to found the Chicago Bears, coaching them to six championships in 40 years as head coach.
Besides George Halas's ties to both organizations, two other legendary icons went on to take their place in Chicago Bears history after outstanding careers at the University of Illinois. Recently, both names were immortalized on the facade of the Memorial Stadium press box.
Dick Butkus is arguably the greatest linebacker in the history of the game. Butkus was a two-time All-American at the University of Illinois and went on to a phenomenal career as a Chicago Bear. He was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
Directly next to Butkus's name on the press box painted in blue reads "Grange," a tribute to legendary Illinois running back Harold "Red" Grange. Grange holds multiple records for the Fighting Illini and is enshrined by a bronze statue outside of Memorial Stadium's west side.
The Illini and the Bears have even shared a home at times. While Soldier Field was being renovated, the Bears called Memorial Stadium their home for the 2002 season.
Meanwhile, Soldier Field has only hosted the Fighting Illini once in a 10-9 loss to the University of Washington State in 1994. However, the Illini defeated Northwestern at Wrigley Field in 2010. Wrigley Field was home to the Chicago Bears from 1921-70.
Oddly enough, both teams have experience controversy over some of their more recognizable symbols. For years, the Chicago Honey Bears cheerleading squad entertained fans on the sidelines of Bears games. However, the team was discontinued after Super Bowl XX. Team owner Virginia Halas, the daughter of George Halas saw the girls as a "sex symbol" and degrading to women.
Likewise, the Fighting Illini also saw the loss of their symbol due to political correctness. Although much more controversial than the Honey Bears, the Fighting Illini were forced to discontinue use of Chief Illiniwek, the university's symbol since 1926. It is believed that the symbol was suggested by Robert Zuppke, who was the head football coach at Illinois coach from 1913-41. The chief was discontinued at the university in 2007 after years of controversy over whether or not the chief was offensive.
This Saturday, the Illini and the Chicago Bears will again renew their familiar bond when Soldier Field hosts the Fighting Illini. The Illini will take on No. 19 Washington at 6 p.m. ET.
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