The weather outside is terrible and cold and I don’t need to tell you that this is a dreary time of year. This is especially true for local sports fans; Some appear to be trying to vent their ongoing frustration with our local professional teams by booing former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause’s wife at the United Center. over the weekend.
I am happy to give you two books that will warm you up on these winter days so that you can relieve seasonal sports fatigue.
One travels back in time. Charles Billington’s “1963 Chicago Bears: George Halas and the Road to the NFL Championship” takes us back to a simpler time in sports, before Super Bowls, big money and towering egos. That year’s Bears team was a colorful bunch and included running back Rick Casares, who Billington tells us was “one of the highest-paid players in the NFL at $20,000 a year”; halfback and return specialist Ollie Matson; “smart, patient” quarterback Bill Wade; linebacker Doug Atkins (“the NFL’s most feared player”) and those “youngsters” Johnny Morris, Mike Ditka and Ed O’Bradovich.
But the focus is on the team’s owner and coach, George Halas.
The 1963 victory was eclipsed by the 1986 Super Bowl win, and even you or those of tender age will understand why that happened and why it’s a shame.
As Billington states in his foreword, “The mission of this book is to help readers remember and better understand a unique year in NFL history. Young Bears followers fail to appreciate how influential the Bears franchise was during this critical NFL era.”
Billington is a tireless researcher, a talent he first demonstrated a decade ago in “Wrigley Field’s Last World Series: The Wartime Cubs and the Pennant of 1945.” Here he is also a good writer and brings us vividly to games played at Wrigley Field, then home of the Bears. As he recalled and wrote, “The idea of going to the Cubs’ park in the cold was an event in itself, but sitting so close to the field for a professional football game left a deep impression.”
As good as Billington is at writing about games, he is equally adept at presenting historical and social perspectives. It’s hard not to get carried away by his details about Abe Samuels and Ray Edward, “several well-known people in Chicago gambling circles.” You will learn how Edward got the nickname “Zsa Zsa Yitcovich” and how gambling cast a serious shadow over the game at that time.
Halas is impressively tackled by Billington. It describes how the aging coach orchestrated not only this winning season, but also how he made next year’s notable draft picks by drafting and signing several future Halls, with the “signing war between the NFL and AFL reaching a boiling point.” Celebrities named Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus (also the ill-fated Brian Piccolo).
But he was never able to lead those players to the title, and there is something sad about Halas’ desire to hang on. We learn the details when Billington offers this final observation: “One might think that the 1963 championship would have been reason enough for Halas to end his legendary career in a blaze of glory… (But) blind jealousy seemed to overcome Halas’ rational thinking, and for more than a decade “His beloved team would pay the price for this during the time.”
George Ofman gives us some football in the form of Gary Fencik, Dan Hampton and others, and offers a very different book in his book “Tell Me a Story I Don’t Know: Conversations with Chicago Sports Legends.” But it is no less satisfying and passionate.
Ofman, if his name sticks out in your mind, is a longtime sportscaster who has been in front of microphones for more than half a century, covering many of the heartbreaks and lesser triumphs in the local and national sports landscape.
His roots in this career date back to his undergraduate days at Southern Illinois University, where he became one of the original voices of WSCR 670-AM, where he worked from 1992 to 2009, before moving to WBBM 780-AM as a sports anchor. and the reporter of the next decade.
There have been other jobs in sports media and Ofman remains full of energy; has been swimming in the increasingly crowded waters of podcasting lately. His “Tell Me a Story I Don’t Know” podcast has become a rewarding, lively and often enlightening oasis. Like this book, it’s based on 50 of the 100 or so people he interviews on his podcast. They include former players and coaches from baseball, football, basketball and hockey, as well as journalists and media personalities, classifying several as “In a Class By Their Own.” In this second group is the respected and knowledgeable Bob Costas, who says Ofman runs “a podcast where depth, context and nuance are appreciated and encouraged.”
The book’s introduction was written by ESPN’s Mike Greenberg, who briefly became a fixture in the local sports scene, and he’s right when he talks about the “sincerity” of Ofman’s work.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is some kind of “best of” from his podcast. Much more. Each of the short chapters features profiles of the various people Ofman interviews, bringing to each his own well-researched background, a fan’s love, and innate curiosity.
Some of his subjects are well known, but not all. It’s nice to see so many women represented. You’ll learn that sports reporter Peggy Kusinski is “spunky, energetic, foodie, and wine aficionado,” and Cheryl Raye-Stout tells the story behind her breaking one of the biggest stories in our history — in fact, our nation’s. sports landscape. Hint: There was a character named Jordan.