By Bill Simons
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the reality of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, football remains an American juggernaut. With the now venerable Tom Brady intent on burnishing his legacy, fans are once again debating who is the greatest quarterback of all-time. Back in the late 1980s, the television family drama “Our House” featured a vociferous argument over that very question between two cantankerous senior citizens, friends Gus Witherspoon and Joe Kaplan. Incessantly, like a broken record, Kaplan insisted, “Sid Luckman. Sid Luckman.” Exasperated, Witherspoon retorted that the only reason for Kaplan’s unrelenting stubbornness was that both his friend and Luckman were Jewish. Witherspoon was only partly correct. Jewish fans identify with Jewish athletes, but quarterback Sid Luckman was the real deal.
His gridiron heroics earned Luckman enshrinement in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. Only National Football League pioneer Benny Friedman rivals Luckman for the top spot in Jewish quarterbacks. At Erasmus Hall in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Luckman led his high school football team to two New York City championships. Crossing the bridge into Manhattan, the phenomenon earned All-American honors as field general for the Columbia University Lions. Twelve legendary seasons in the NFL make Luckman the consensus choice as the greatest quarterback in Chicago Bears history.
Luckman’s achievements came despite a tragedy that might well have broken most young men. During Luckman’s freshman year at Columbia, his Russian immigrant father, Meyer, was found guilty, along with two co-defendants, of the gruesome strangulation murder of Sam Drukman.
Allied with the Jewish mobster Louis Lepke, Meyer provided management acumen to the family business, Luckman Brothers Trucking Company, and Meyer believed that Drukman, a gambling addict, embezzled money from the company. Drukman was Meyer’s brother-in-law and Sid’s uncle. In attendance at the trial in a jammed courtroom, Sid heard his grandfather point at Meyer and cry out, “He killed my son! That man killed my son!” from the witness stand. Sid was emotionally devastated and nearly dropped out of college. Believing his father innocent, Sid visited him at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where Meyer died in 1944. In neither private nor public venues did Luckman discuss the family tragedy. Without textual explanation, the dedication to the quarterback’s autobiography reads, “To Dad Luckman, who played the hardest game of all.”
During the height of the family travail, the support of Columbia University Lions Coach Lou Little motivated Luckman to remain in college. As a working-class, outer-borough Jewish student at an elite school without athletic scholarships, Luckman held a number of jobs to finance his education, including dishwasher, message courier and painter. Although Columbia fielded mediocre football during these years, Luckman, a single-wing passing tailback, punter/placekicker and defensive safety, played spectacularly, finishing third in the 1938 Heisman Trophy balloting and earning All-American honors. On October 8, 1938, with an 85-yard kickoff touchdown return, two TD passes and an extra-point kick through the goalposts, Luckman led Columbia to a dramatic 20-18 comeback win over the favored Army squad at West Point’s Michie Stadium.
Luckman even made the cover of the October 24, 1938, issue of America’s most popular magazine, Life, a spot often reserved for world leaders and movie stars. Life gave the right-armed passer celebrity treatment: “A 22-year old Jewish boy, who once played tin-can football on the streets and back lots of Brooklyn… became the most talked about football player in the U.S.” Life juxtaposed a photograph of a well-dressed, clean-cut, studious, darkly-handsome Columbia “Football Hero” pouring over “Biology 153” books with a shot of Luckman “muddy and battered,” yet still looking rugged and determined, at the end of a two-hour practice.
Following graduation from Columbia, Luckman, 6’0”, 197 pounds, quarterbacked the NFL’s Chicago Bears over 12 campaigns (1939-1950), throwing 137 TDs and gaining 14,686 yards passing during the regular season. He and owner-coach “Papa Bear” George Halas made Chicago pro football’s dominant team, the “Monsters of the Midway.” Luckman’s Bears won five Western Division titles (1940, 1941, 1942, 1943 and 1946) and four NFL championships (1940, 1941, 1943 and 1946). Luckman topped the NFL three times, both in most touchdowns and most yards gained by passing in a season. Four times he led the league in most yards gained per game played.
Luckman’s Bears figured in some of the NFL’s most iconic passages. Chicago dominated an NFL Championship Game, as has no other team, deconstructing quarterback Sammy Baugh’s Washington Redskins 73-0 in 1940. With Luckman at the helm, the 1942 Bears were invincible during the regular season, going a perfect 11-0 and outscoring opponents 376-84 before stumbling in a championship game loss.
Even allowing for the weakened quality of competition due to the number of star players in World War II military service, Luckman’s 1943 season ranks as one of the greatest for a quarterback in NFL history. During the regular season, he led the Bears to another first-place finish in the Western Division, with eight wins against only one loss and a tie. Luckman’s 28 touchdown passes established an NFL record that stood until Johnny Unitas connected for 32 touchdowns in 1959, by which time the NFL schedule had expanded to 12 games.
Despite the celebrated exploits of future quarterbacks, Luckman’s 1943 marks for yards per attempt (10.9), yards per completion (19.9) and percentage of pass attempts thrown for touchdowns (13.9 percent) are still NFL single-season records. In 1943, Luckman also paced NFL quarterbacks in yards gained by passing, yards gained per game, quarterback rating and sundry other categories. On November 14, 1943, Luckman threw seven touchdown passes in a 56-7 blowout win against the New York Giants, setting a game record since equaled but never broken.
With Luckman connecting for five touchdown passes, including a third quarter 66-yard bomb, the Bears regained pride of place, defeating Baugh’s Redskins in the NFL Championship Game on December 26, 1943, at Wrigley Field, thus avenging the upset of the previous year. The United Press proclaimed, “In the greatest exhibition of his… professional career, Sid Luckman ran from scrimmage, intercepted passes, and threw five touchdown aerials to spark the Chicago Bears.” His historic campaign garnered Luckman the NFL’s 1943 Most Valuable Player Award.
Luckman’s statistical accolades are impressive and numerous, but not particularly instructive. Luckman’s era was that of the brutal “leatherheads”: equipment was primitive and few rules discouraged mayhem. Luckman’s football might have measured out at its present size, but it didn’t grip like the modern pigskin. Moreover, the running game still dominated in Luckman’s time; quarterbacks throw many more passes today. The modern quarterback plays more games per season, and World War II service in the Merchant Marines truncated Luckman’s 1944 football season. Unlike the modern quarterback who generally throws from a well-protected pocket, Luckman ran with the ball. Playing nearly the full 60 minutes of game time, Luckman – in addition to quarterbacking – kicked, received and defended the defensive secondary.
Luckman’s most important achievement is creating the template for the modern quarterback as the offensive motor. Before Luckman made the T-formation successful, the quarterback was a relatively peripheral figure in the single-wing system and the forward pass a limited weapon. Luckman, Halas and the Bears changed all of that.
In post-playing days, besides building a successful business career, Luckman tutored young quarterbacks. In addition to fund-raising for the Maccabiah Games, the Jewish Olympics, Luckman said of his Judaism, “I go the temple regularly, and I observe the High Holidays and I never go to bed at night without saying a little prayer.”
Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.