As the first official days of Summer start to pass by, Last Word on Pro Football is introducing our “All-Franchise” teams for each of the individual 32 teams. This installment breaks down the best players at each position in Chicago Bears franchise history. In this series the lineups of offense, defense, and special teams will be listed on a “first-team” basis, meaning that only “starter” positions will be listed.
Today, after much, much, MUCH deliberation, the all-time franchise team for the Bears will be presented.
Chicago Bears All-Franchise Team
Head Coach: George Halas (1933-42, 1946-55, 1958-67)
I attend the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and grew up around a family filled with fans of the legendary Bears. All this while living in the middle of prime Bears territory: central Illinois. Though Mike Ditka deserves consideration given he helped the franchise win its lone Super Bowl, only one man is most deserving of this honors. George Halas was the “Papa Bear” before the Bears organization even existed. He was founder and patriarch of the NFL, and will forever be known as one of the most important and influential coaches of all-time. Halas very much is the epitome of the Bears franchise. That’s made even more apparent considering the team’s jerseys carry his initals on the left shoulder. He was a no-brainer for the All-Time Head Coach.
Quarterback: Sid Luckman (1939-1950)
Until someone comes along (enter: Mitch Trubisky?) and breaks Sid Luckman’s Bears passing records, Luckman will continue to stay atop of the Bears franchise when it comes to quarterbacks. From 1939 to 1950, Luckman led the Bears at the position. Luckman played in 128 games as a quarterback and passed for almost 15,000 yards with 137 touchdowns.
Luckman’s great resume is bolstered by the fact that he played other positions during his time with the Bears. He also slotted in at running back and defensive back. Luckman led the Bears to four NFL championships and was hailed by some as the greatest long-range passer of his generation. He was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1943, was a three-time All-Star, and five-time first-team All-Pro.
Running Back: Walter Payton (1975-1987)
Walter Payton is right up there as one of the greatest football players in NFL history. He very much embodies the heart and soul of the Bears organization. He was an incredibly talented athlete, and lived up to it during his time in the NFL.
Payton excelled as a runner due to his rare, unparalleled combination of strength, balance, and grit. He wasn’t the fastest player in the league, but his field vision couldn’t be rivaled. His work ethic pushed him to be one of the greatest players ever.
Payton also was a receiving threat during his time in the league, a great blocker, and could fill in in a lot of other positions if needed. He slotted in at quarterback and punter at times during his career.
Over his 13 years and 190 games played, the kid from South Barrington racked up 16,726 rushing yards. He used 3,838 rushing attempts to run himself to the top of the Bears running back list.
I would also be letting myself down if I didn’t mention that Harold “Red” Grange, one of the earliest football “stars,” also donned a Bears jersey in his professional career.
There’s a disclosure that needs to be made before we get to this next section. Anyone who knows the Bears knows that the organization has always been a run-first offense. Admittedly, the earliest football organizations in America usually were. The Bears have had a lot of solid receivers over the years, but not as many superstars.
Wide Receiver: Harlon Hill (1954-1961)
Harlon Hill tops the list at wide receiver. The speedy Hill racked up 233 receptions and just over 4,700 yards. Perhaps his most known highlight (in the age before television was commonplace in the home) is the little-seen video of the speedy Hill evading his coverage, and catching a long deep ball, bobbling and then securing the touchdown while diving.
Hill was a two-time first-team All-Pro and a three-time Pro Bowl player. He was the rookie of the year in 1954, and became the league’s MVP just a year later in 1955.
Wide Receiver: Willie Gault (1983-1987)
Willie Gault contributed a lot to the successful season that brought the Bears to their NFL Championship in 1985. Gault caught a total of 184 passes, accumulating 3,895 yards, with 27 touchdowns.
Gault’s background in track and field aided him in his NFL career. He was a track runner at the University of Tennessee while playing football, and still holds numerous school kickoff return records there. He is also known for being a member of the U.S. Olympic team that boycotted the 1980 Olympics.
Wide Receiver – Ken Kavanaugh (1940-1941, 1945-1950)
The Bears selected Ken Kavanaugh in the second round of the 1940 NFL Draft. He caught 23 passes and scored nine touchdowns in 1940-41 and led the NFL with a 28.5-yards-per-catch average in ’41. He then left the Bears for a three-year tour of duty as a bomber pilot in Europe during World War II. Kavanaugh flew 30 missions over Germany, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with four Oak Clusters.
Kavanaugh set some Bears receiving records that still stand today. Though Walter Payton broke his total receptions record, Kavanaugh still holds the Bears franchise record for receiving touchdowns (50) and average gain, with 22.4 yards. In 10 years he caught 162 passes for 3,626 yards. He then went on to spend 45 years in the New York Giants organization.
Tight End – Mike Ditka (1961-1966)
Back to the no-brainers here.
Before he went on to become “Da Coach,” Mike Ditka became the first to fully establish the tight end position as a receiving option. Ditka was drafted fifth overall in the 1961 NFL Draft, and his presence was immediately felt. In his first season, Ditka scored 12 receiving touchdowns, a Bears rookie record. He was named Rookie of the Year, and played five more seasons for the bears, being named to the Pro Bowl each season. Ditka is one of the top yardage tight ends in Bears Franchise history. He ranks first among tight ends and fourth overall with 4,503 yards and 316 receptions, 34 of which were touchdown completions.
“Papa Bear” George Halas later hired Ditka as the head coach of the organization, where he went on to win the Bears only Super Bowl in 1986. Ditka was named Coach of the Year by the Associated Press in 1985. Ditka posted 121 wins in his coaching career with Chicago and then New Orleans. He had many top finishes, reaching the playoffs seven times.
Left Tackle – Jimbo Covert (1983-1991)
Jimbo Covert was drafted by the Bears in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft. He was immediately in the starter position at left tackle for the organization, making the league’s All-Rookie team in 2983. The team’s offensive line went from 18th in rushing in 1982, to leading the league for four seasons from 1983-86. The Bears continuously finished at the top of the league in rushing during Covert’s career. He accumulated two Pro Bowl selections, two All-Pro selections, a Super Bowl Championship, and was named to the NFL 1980’s All-Decade Team. He played in 111 games, starting all but one in his career.
Guard – Stan Jones (1954-1965)
Stan Jones was drafted in the fifth round out of the University of Maryland, where he was a unanimous All-American selection in 1953. Here, he played with some of the most successful Maryland football teams of all-time. He was awarded the Knute Rockne Memorial Trophy as the nation’s outstanding lineman. In 1955, Jones switched from tackle to guard for the Bears. Over the next eight years he became a fixture at the position, and one of the NFL’s most highly respected guards. He later switched to defensive tackle. He was an NFL Champion in 1963, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, and three-time All-Pro.
….just for a fun fact, he was also nicknamed “Superman” due to his strength. He was one of the first football players to add weightlifting to his workout regimen.
Center – Jay Hilgenberg (1981-1991)
When discussing the great Bears offensive lines, it’s hard to not bring up historic players like Clyde “Bulldog” Turner, and Olin Kreutz. Those two were historically dominant centers that were, without a doubt, two of the meanest linemen in the league, all the while being great team leaders. That being said, one can’t ignore the sheer impact that star center Jay Hilgenberg had on the Bears of his years.
Hilgenberg was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Bears in 1981. He earned a spot due to his determined play in the center position. Hilgenberg fought his way to being selected to both the All-Pro team and the Pro Bowl seven times each. He blocked for the Bears for 10 years, including some of Walter Payton’s best seasons donning a Bears jersey. This also includes the 1985 Super Bowl championship season.
Guard – Mark Bortz (1983-1994)
Mark Bortz was drafted by the Bears in the 1983 NFL draft in the eighth round. He was a part of the Bears’ 1983 draft class that is regarded as one of the best of all-time. Bortz played in 155 games for the organization until his retirement in 1994 and was a stalwart on the line. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl winner. To this day, he holds the record for most playoff appearances by a Chicago Bear with 13 games. Bortz was another prime example of offensive linemen paving the way for Bears running backs and winning games. This identity hasn’t died for almost a whole century.
Tackle – Keith Van Horne (1981-1993)
Keith Van Horne starred on the Bears offensive line during his time with the organization from 1981-1993. Van Horne won the 1978 National Championship with the USC Trojans and was chosen with the 11th pick of the 1981 NFL Draft. He played in 186 games for the Bears, started 169 of them, and was also a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl team. His large physical size, even for an offensive lineman, allowed him to quietly dominate at his position. He was never selected to the Pro Bowl, or named an All-Pro, but he was a rock on the Bears line and brought home every football player’s biggest goal: a Super Bowl ring.
Defense (based in a 4-3 alignment)
Defensive End: Richard Dent (1983-1993)
In a defensive tradition that is nearly unmatched by any other franchise, the tradition of strong defensive end play is hugely evident. In an ideal article, I could give you the entire roster I’d select for the rotation of defensive ends. It’s almost difficult to imagine watching a rotation of Doug Atkins, Richard Dent (both Hall of Famers), and Julius Peppers shut down opposing offenses. That’s scary.
Dent was drafted by the Bears in the eighth round of the 1983 NFL Draft, and played in Chicago from 1983 to 1993, and then again in 1995. At 6’5”, 265 pounds, Dent was a phenomenal pass rusher who often just ran by offensive tackles with his speed. He was one of the most prominent members of the legendary “Monsters of the Midway” defenses of the 1980s. Dent starred on the defensive line, recorded 34.5 sacks between the 1984-85 seasons while recording a team record 17.5 sacks in 1984.
Dent won the Super Bowl with the Bears in 1985, picking up the Super Bowl MVP award for that game, as well. He then went on to win another Super Bowl with the 49ers. He was also was voted to the Pro Bowl four times, as well as being voted First-Team All-Pro four times. Injuries plagued Dent towards the end of his career, including his return with the Bears in 1995, and he retired with 137.5 sacks, eight interceptions, and two touchdowns in his career. He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the 2011 class.
Defensive Tackle – Dan Hampton (1979-1990)
When we talk about the incredibly dominating Bears defenses over the years, it has to be mentioned that some of the best players came in the form of interior defenders, shutting down the run game. Dan Hampton was drafted in first round of the 1979 NFL Draft by the Bears. The former Arkansas defensive linemen lived up to the high selection, spending his whole 11-year career in Chicago.
He was selected to four Pro Bowls and was a key defensive member of the Bears’ Super Bowl win in Super Bowl XX. Hampton won either first or second-team All-Pro in 1980, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1988. It is incredibly likely that, if he wasn’t so versatile and didn’t shift positions so often, he would have found himself the recipient of even more postseason awards.
He was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1982, and also won the George S. Halas Courage Award in 1990. He retired in 1990 with his final total being 57 sacks in 157 games for the Bears organization.
Defensive Tackle – Fred Williams (1952-1963)
Fred Williams is widely considered the best defensive tackle of all-time for the Bears. He played in 168 games for the organization, and was noted to be one of the best pass rushers and run stoppers of his era. Williams was drafted in the fifth round of the 1952 NFL Draft and won an NFL Championship with Chicago in 1963. He was elected to the Pro Bowl four times. No other defensive tackle in franchise history has ever made the Pro Bowl that often. They didn’t count sacks back when Williams played, but he was known for being one of the most prolific pass rushers in the NFL.
Defensive End – Doug Atkins (1955-1966)
Doug Atkins was drafted by the Cleveland Browns with the 11th pick of the 1953 NFL Draft but played for the Bears from 1955 to 1966. Atkins was known for using his large size (6’ 8”, 257 lb) to his advantage. He used his unusual speed to get into opposing backfields. He often batted down passes at the line of scrimmage, in addition to using his skills as a champion high jumper to leapfrog blockers and hit the quarterback. A sheer athlete with an impressive physique, Atkins represented a mismatch for almost every opponent he faced.
Atkins helped revolutionize the defensive end position and was one of the best defensive linemen the game had seen prior to the start of his career. He was a first-team All-Pro selection in 1958, 1960, 1961, and 1963, and started in the Pro Bowl in eight of his last nine years with Chicago. Atkins ended his career playing with the New Orleans Saints, sacking quarterback Dick Shiner in his final play, winning the 1969 season finale for the Saints.
Outside Linebacker – Otis Wilson (1980-1987)
Otis Wilson was selected 19th overall in the 1980 NFL Draft by the Bears, and went on to a nine-year career in the NFL, playing for the team from 1980-1987. Wilson was a vital part of one of the most dominating defenses in football history, playing in the linebacking trio with Mike Singletary and Wilber Marshall which led the Bears to the Super Bowl championship in 1985. While Singletary called plays and ran the defense in that lineup, Wilson was probably the most-feared pass rusher on the team in the 46 defense. He was the main blitzer and accumulated 10.5 sacks in 1985 along with an unprecedented amount of quarterback hurries. He was a two-time All-Pro, a one-time Pro Bowler, and will forever be remembered for the way he struck fear into the NFL backfields of the 1980s.
Interior Linebacker – Dick Butkus (1965-1973)
Well, were you expecting someone else?
Because if you were, and you have either Brian Urlacher or Mike Singletary in mind, you probably have a point.
But that being said, in a lineup that is made up of only starters, Dick Butkus clearly gets the call-up. Butkus was an EIGHT-TIME Pro Bowl selection and took home first-team All-Pro accolades five times. He recorded 22 interceptions. Even though they didn’t record sacks during his time in the NFL, this total would be gigantic as well. Butkus was the epitome of a tough-guy football player. He was mean, strong, and took no prisoners during his time in the linebacking corps. He was feared by every NFL lineup and will go down as one of the best linebackers of all time, perhaps just ahead of the two guys mentioned above. Not surprisingly, his number was retired by the organization.
Outside Linebacker – Wilber Marshall (1984-1987)
Wilber Marshall gets the call to play in one of the starting roles in our 4-3 system. Marshall was a two-time consensus first-team All-American in 1982 and 1983. He was named the National Defensive Player of the Year by ABC Sports in 1983. The Bears took Marshall in the first round of the 1984 draft. He was an important part of the Super Bowl-winning Bears in 1985. He also won a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins in 1991.
Marshall was another member of one of the most celebrated defenses of the 1985 Bears defense, and delivered a famous blow to then-Detroit Lions quarterback Joe Ferguson. The hit knocked him out during a game in Week 16. Known for his speed, Marshall had a great ability to get into the backfield and to the opposing quarterback. He and his partner Otis Wilson terrorized opposing backfields. Wilson’s solid performances and Super Bowl championships secure his spot on the Bears all-time team.
Cornerback – Charles Tillman (2003-2014)
When thinking about Bears corners, Charles Tillman is consistently the first to come to mind. Cornerback is another area of the Bears franchise that has often had very strong talent. However, it has never too much star power when put against other NFL franchises. Tillman has been one of the few true star cornerbacks for the Monsters of the Midway.
The Bears took him 35th overall in the 2003 draft, going early in the second round. A Chicago-native, Tillman played for the Bears from 2003 to 2014. He was a part of Lovie Smith’s 2007 team that went to Super Bowl XLI. Tillman was a lock-down cornerback known for his skills in coverage. He was best known for his ability to force fumbles by his “Peanut punch” tactic, forcing the ball away from players with impeccable timing.
Tillman ended his career in 2015 with the Carolina Panthers, reaching Super Bowl 50. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro in 2012. Peanut received the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award in 2013. He also won the Brian Piccolo Award winner for being a leader in the Bears organization three times.
Another cool fact, Tillman now works for the FBI!
Cornerback – Bennie McRae (1962-1970)
Though someone who perhaps isn’t as much of a household name as Tillman, Bennie McRae was a critical piece of the 1963 championship team. This combined with his impressive abilities cemented his spot on this all-franchise list.
McRae was drafted by the Bears in the second round of the 1962 NFL Draft. He went on to play nine seasons for the Bears from 1962 to 1970. McRae had 27 interceptions in his time with the organization, including six in its 1963 Championship campaign. The Bears later traded McRae to the New York Giants as part of a package for the first overall pick.
Safety – Gary Fencik (1976-1987)
Another obvious choice and someone who has a great case to be in the NFL Hall of Fame, Gary Fencik was born in Barrington, Illinois and went to college at Yale. He was known for hitting out of his weight class. The 6’1”, 190-pound safety often took down players much bigger than he was, and delivered a multitude of punishing hits. He racked up 38 interceptions and 448 interception yards in his career. He also recorded two sacks and recovered 14 fumbles.
Fencik was a two-time Pro Bowler, and was named to the AP First-Team All-Pro team in 1981. He was a key part of the Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl team. He retired in 1987 after playing 11 seasons with the Bears organization.
Safety – Richie Petitbon (1959-1968)
Richie Petitbon was drafted in the second round of the 1959 NFL Draft and signed to play with the Bears that year. Petitbon would play for another eight seasons with the Bears, before playing two more after that in the NFL.
Petitbon was known for ability to see the field of play. He was also known as a brutal tackler, to go along with his football I.Q. and helped bring the 1963 NFL Championship to Chicago. Petitbon also went on to win three Super Bowls as an assistant with the Redskins in addition to his NFL Championship. Petitbon totaled 50 interceptions in his time in the NFL.
Kicker – Kevin Butler (1985-1995)
Kevin Butler was the first ever kicker inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He played 11 seasons for the Bears. He was the team’s all-time leading scorer with 1,116 points. Butler’s record was eventually broken by Robbie Gould in 2015.
Butler was a part of the 1985 Super Bowl team. He set a rookie scoring record with 144 points during the season. Butler also kicked three field goals in the Super Bowl. He also held the record for most points scored by player during their rookie season. Butler set this record making 31 field goals and 51 extra point attempts. He had a career field goal percentage of 73.4 percent, with his longest being a 55-yard field goal attempt.
Punter – Bobby Joe Green (1962-1973)
Bobby Joe Green was a Bear from 1962 to 1973. He played in the NFL for 14 seasons, and had a longest punt of 74 yards, with an average distance of 42.6. Green was a durable and consistent punter, and was elected to a Pro Bowl in 1970.
Return Man – Devin Hester (2006-2013)
Was there ever a doubt? If there was, you might want to brush up on your Bears history. The simple fact is, Devin Hester is the best return man of all time. He was originally a wide receiver at the University of Miami, but then transitioned to cornerback in the NFL. In addition, he was a four-time Pro Bowler, and three-time first-team All-Pro. Hester is also a member of the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. He also holds the NFL record for career-most total return touchdowns, and most punt returns touchdowns.