Luckman, Sid : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Luckman, Sid

Sidney Luckman

Luckman is considered the greatest long-range passer of his time. Following a brilliant career as a halfback at Columbia (class of 1939), Luckman played quarterback and became the "Master of the T-Formation" with George Halas and the Chicago Bears. He led the "Monsters of the Midway" to four championships in a seven-year span.

Although he was a five-time All-NFL quarterback who also played defensive back, at first it seemed that Sid would not play in the NFL. After he was drafted by the Bears in 1939, Sid told the team, "I have no intention of playing professional football. In fact, I have been advised against it. My plans are to enter the trucking business with my brothers." Luckily for both Luckman and the NFL, he changed his mind and joined the Bears.

Birth and Death Dates:
b. November 21, 1916 - d. July 5, 1998

Career Highlights:
An excellent high school athlete, Sid chose to go to Columbia. Although Columbia was a weak team in the late 1930s, Sid was hardly to blame for its mediocrity. In 1937, he returned a kickoff 82 yards and completed 18 of 34 passes for 202 yards in a 21-18 loss against Army. That year, Sid also kicked a 72-yard punt against Syracuse, and threw a 60-yard pass against Penn. He was named AP All-America third team, Grantland Rice All-America honorable mention, and AP All-East first team.

In 1938, Luckman almost single-handedly defeated Army; he threw the winning pass in a 20-18 come-from-behind victory and called the game the greatest in his college career. That season, Luckman was named to the Illustrated Football Annual All-America first team, AP All-America second team, Grantland Rice All-America honorable mention, and AP All-East first team.

Sid was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1960. Columbia coach Lou Little said, "We would have had a very ordinary team, or less than that, without him." Official Red Friesell said of Luckman's college days, "I worked behind Sid in six of his college games. In each of those games, he threw at least 30 passes, and on every single one of them he was knocked nearly out of his britches by some fast charging opponent...Never once did I see him throw in fright or see him wince when he got his lumps. I never heard a word in protest about the beating he was taking. That brand of courage, coupled with his uncanny knack of hitting his target, put Luckman down in my book as the greatest forward passer I ever saw in college ranks."

Sportwriter Jimmy Cannon said, "You had to be there to realize how great Sid was because the statistics didn't measure his true worth to a team that didn't help him much. The defenders were in on him most of the time but he got most of his passes away as he ran from his tacklers in a hurried ballet of evasion." Despite the accolades, few people realized how good Luckman was until he turned professional.

In 1939, Sid was approached by Chicago Bears owner/coach George Halas. Halas had followed Sid's career since high school and wanted to convert him from a halfback to a T-formation quarterback. Although he originally did not intend to play professional football, Sid was convinced to try the new offense. Halas made a deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted before the Bears, to pick Luckman and then trade him to Chicago. Sid was drafted as the second overall pick, and he lived up to expectations. Luckman rememembered that when he signed a contract for $5,000, "Halas said, "You and Jesus Christ are the only two people I would ever pay this to.'"I said, 'Thank you coach. You put me in great company.' "

During his rookie year, Sid initially found Halas's revolutionary offense a bit daunting. he fumbled the ball often and had trouble with quick handoffs. Halas temporarily abandoned the offense and moved Sid to halfback. Towards the end of the season, however, Sid returned to quarterback and threw the winning touchdown pass in a 30-27 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

In 1940, Luckman and the T-formation arrived. In the NFL Championship Game against the Washington Redskins, the Bears (8-3-0) brought football in to the modern era by destroying their opponents 73-0. The Bears were so dominant that Sid had to throw only six passes -- he completed four for 102 yards -- and did not play in the second half. By the next season, the T-formation was being copied by other teams and offensive systems were no longer relying solely on running the ball and the single wing attack.

In 1941, Sid and the Bears returned to the NFL Championship Game with a record of 10-1-0, this time defeating the New York Giants, 34-9. In 1942, they again played for the championship, entering the game with a perfect 11-0-0 record, but they lost to the Redskins, 14-6. In 1943, Sid had his best season as he was named league MVP and threw for a record 28 touchdowns in 10 games, a statistic that would stand until 1959, when the great Johnny Unitas threw 32 touchdowns in 12 games.

Sid had two of the greatest games in NFL history in 1943. On November 14, he completed 23 of 30 passes for an amazing 443 years and a record 7 touchdowns to defeat the New York Giants, 56-7 on "Sid Luckman Day" at the Polo Grounds. In the 1943 title game, he threw for 286 yards and five touchdowns in a 41-21 victory over Washington.

After two seasons away from the championship (1945 was the only season during Sid's career that did not see Chicago finish in first or second place), the Bears returned in 1946. Against the New York Giants, the game was tied, 14-14, when Luckman called a bootleg and scored untouched on a 19-yard run; it was his first run of the season. The Bears won the game, 24-14, achieving their fourth championship in only seven years

That same year, the Chicago Rockets of the newly-formed All-American Football Conference offered Sid a contract of $25,000 to serve as player/coach. Although the money was "too good to turn down," Sid did just that. The loyalty between Luckman and Halas, who had stood by his quarterback when he was struggling to learn the intricate new offense, ran deep. Sid later said, "How could I possibly have taken it? How could I quit a club that has done so much for me?" Sid played another four seasons and the Bears finished in second place all four years. He retired following the 1950 season, having played in 128 career NFL games. His 14,683 passing yards and 137 passing touchdowns are still franchise records.

Looking back, one marvels at the greatness of Sid's career. He led the NFL in yards per attempt in 1939, 1940, 1941, and 1943, and in passing yards in 1943, 1946, and 1947. He was named All-NFL five times (1940-44, 1947) and was league MVP in 1943. But the statistics and accolades do not do justice to his greatness and importance in bringing football into the modern age. His understanding and grasp of the complex T-formation was unparalleled.

In 1956, George Halas said, "Sid made himself a great quarterback. No one else did it for him. He worked hard, stayed up nights studying and really learned the T. Sid wasn't built for quarterback. He was stocky (5'11", 190-pounds), not fast and not a great passer in the old tradition. But he was smart and he was dedicated." Luckman also received praise from Bob Zuppke, who led the University of Illinois to four national championships. Zuppke said of Luckman, "He was the smartest football player I ever saw and that goes for college or pro."

In 1965, Luckman was honored by being only the second quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. In 1988, Sid received the Walter Camp Distinguished American of the Year Award.

Brooklyn, New York

Career Dates:
Sid played halfback at Columbia University from 1936-1938. He then played quarterback, halfback, and defensive back in the NFL with the Chicago Bears from 1939-1950.

Physical description:
5'11", 190 pounds

Career Statistics:
In the NFL:
Games: 128

Passes completed: 904
Passes attempted: 1744
Passing percentage: 51.8
Passing yards: 14,686
Touchdowns thrown: 137
Interceptions thrown: 132

Rushes: 204
Rushing yards: -239
Rushing average: -1.2
Rushing touchdowns: 4

Receptions: 1
Receiving yards: 15

Interceptions: 17
Interceptions returned for touchdowns: 2

Punts: 230
Punting yards: 8872
Punting average: 38.6

Punt returns: 11
Punt return yards: 107 yards
Punt return average: 9.7

Kick returns: 5
Kick return yards: 67
Kick return average: 13.4

At Columbia:
Passes completed: 180
Passes attempted: 376
Passing yards: 2,413
Touchdowns thrown: 20

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Also, read a chapter from The Jew in American Sports by Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow

encyclopedia of JEWS in sports by Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1965)
Great Jews in Sports by Robert Slater (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 2000)
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Football edited by David L. Porter (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987)
The Encyclopedia of Football, by Roger Treat (New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1976 -- 14th Edition)
Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League, edited by Bob Carroll, Michael Gershman, David Neft, and John Thorn (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999)