This Day in Jewish History / The Reluctant Quarterback Who Changed Football Forever Is Born

Never meaning to play football at all, Sid Luckman advanced from the lackluster Lions to the Chicago Bears. His records still stand.

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Sid Luckman was the most successful Jewish football player in NFL history.
Sid Luckman was the most successful Jewish football player in NFL history.

November 21, 1916, is the birthdate of Sid Luckman, the New York-born college football star who reluctantly accepted a position as quarterback with the Chicago Bears in 1939. In so doing, he played a key role in transforming both that position and football in general into the far more complex and intricate game it is today.

Sidney Luckman was the fourth of five children born to Meyer and Ethel Luckman, both Jewish immigrants from Germany. He grew up in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, near Prospect Park, where he played with the leather football his father, a truck driver, game him when he was eight or nine.

Sid’s mother and father argued over whether the boy should be allowed to play the game, a conflict in which Meyer Luckman prevailed: As the quarterback of the Erasmus Hall High School team, Sid led his teammates to two all-city championships.

Although Luckman was offered scholarships to more than 30 colleges that recruited him for his athletic prowess, he decided to attend a school that didn’t offer sports scholarships: The New College for the Education of Teachers, a short-lived division of Columbia University’s Teachers College. That enabled him to play for the university’s mediocre football team, the Lions. But in fact, during his first year, 1935-36, Luckman forsook football entirely and concentrated on his studies.

Although the Lions had losing seasons for two of the three years that Luckman did play for them, he became recognized nationally for his skill, in an era when quarterbacks didn’t just throw passes but also ran, punted and played defense. Though he came in third in the competition for the Heisman Trophy, given to the best college player nationally, in his senior year Life magazine featured Luckman on its cover with the headline, “Best passer.”

Luckman joined Columbia’s branch of Zeta Beta Tau, the country’s first Jewish fraternity, and supported himself through his studies with such odd jobs as dishwasher, baby sitter and messenger boy. He also played starting shortstop for the college baseball team.

Back then, $5,500 meant something

He fully intended to put football behind him upon graduation, and planned to join his brothers in the family trucking business. But when George Halas, the founder, owner and coach of the Chicago Bears, came to New York and wangled himself an invitation for dinner at the small apartment Luckman shared with his young wife, Estelle Morgolin, and proceeded to offer him $5,500 a year to play for the Bears, the most money anyone had ever earned playing pro ball - Luckman didn’t refuse.

Halas was the only pro coach in America who had moved from a single-wing offensive formation to the “T formation,” which moved the quarterback into the backfield and created new positions for him to pass or throw to, allowing for far more sophisticated plays, and making the game more interesting.

In short time, every team in the country adopted the T formation, but only after Sid Luckman had mastered the newly defined position of QB – which took him a full year.

He himself described the development, which he went around the country teaching to college teams, as the “biggest revolutionary change in the history of any sport.”

Under Halas and Luckman, the Bears became known as the “Monsters of the Midway” (a nickname originally applied to the University of Chicago Maroons), winning the 1940 NFL championship by beating the Washington Redskins 73-0. That was one of four championships they won during Luckman’s 12 seasons with the team, during two of which, between 1943 and 1945, he was serving simultaneously in the Merchant Marine.

A number of Luckman’s records with the Bears, including for career yards and touchdowns, still stand, more than six decades after his retirement, in 1950.

After retiring, Luckman worked as an executive for the food-packaging company Cellu-Craft, eventually becoming its president. Before it was bought out, Cellu-Craft had become the largest independent food packager in the U.S.

Sid Luckman died on July 5, 1998, in Aventura, Florida, at the age of 81.

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