Monday, December 26, 2011

Doug Atkins: A Great Grizzly of a Bear

As we close out another Chicago Bears football season, we want to look back at another historic Bear who was a true "Monster of the Midway," Doug Atkins. Atkins is one of the greatest Chicago Bears in the long franchise history. In today's parlance, Atkins would be called a "freak"--his extreme physical size was coupled with superb athletic skills that are rarely associated with someone of his physical type. Atkins went to the University of Tennessee to play basketball, but he was so strong and so superb an athlete that he was recruited for football. Even at 6-8, he was limber enough to be a high jumper.

Atkins size and athletic skills served him well on the Tennessee football field and he was named All-America in 1952. The Tennessee Volunteers went 29-3-1 and were crowned national champions in 1951 with Atkins at defensive end.


After wreaking havoc on Tennessee opponents, Atkins went on to play professionally. Doug Atkins played in the NFL for 17 seasons. He is one of those athletes from the 50s-60s era who at 6-8, 257+ lbs. could play defensive end today. His play combined allusiveness, power, speed, and determination.

Atkins was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and played two season (1953-1954) under the legendary Coach Paul Brown who was known as a disciplinarian. During Atkins stay with the Browns, they won the division title in 1953 and the NFL Championship in 1954.

Atkins who was not easily disciplined, was traded to the Bears where George Halas managed to positively direct him. Atkins was a larger than life character who was rebellious of authority and ornery to opposing players. Playing for the Bears from 1955-1966, Atkins developed into what many believe was the finest defensive end to ever play the game. He could rush the passer with the strength of an Olympic weightlifter, jump over would-be blockers like a hurdler, and swat down passes like an NBA center. Opposing lineman called him mean and superhuman. He was known to have a few different gears and was said to use a low-speed one at practice that could annoy his coaches. When he was angered he played with a menacing intense style that was so punishing that opponents found themselves trying to calibrate their own game so that the big Number 81 never got too annoyed. Atkins himself would down play his dominance.

We live in an age of sports hyperbole, but one fact about Atkins cries out from football history in interviews of opposing players: No one who ever lined up against Atkins took him lightly. He was a presence in each and every game. When he was consistently double teamed, he found he would just knock one player out of the way and then the other to get to the quarterback.

Halas and Atkins

Perhaps more than any other coach, Halas, was a good foil for Doug Atkins. Halas had played against men who were bigger and stronger than himself for a decade. He had coached scores of men of all different stripes before Atkins. Halas had done it all in football. According to Halas's autobiography, Halas on Halas, late one night during a Bears training camp, the coach followed a tip that Atkins was whooping it up in a tavern. When the coach entered the establishment and approached the monstrous Atkins, the two men had a no-holds barred verbal altercation in the most colorful of language. George "Papa Bear" Halas who was known as an artisan of such debates, won. According to Halas, "Doug became a powerful Bear. We became good friends." Halas who was not liberal with his praise, called Atkins, "the greatest defensive end I ever saw."

Atkins's 12 seasons with the Bears included the league championship in 1963 that featured one of the most powerful of Bears defenses. A few years later, Atkins who was often at odds with Halas over salary, expressed an interest in moving on to another team and was traded to the Saints in 1967. Atkins continued to perform at a high level until his retirement from football.

Sacks by individual defensive players (as opposed to team records) were not kept until 1982 so it is difficult to evaluate historic defensive players objectively. Atkins is rated as the Number 9 pass rusher in NFL History by Highlight film on Atkins.

Atkins was elected and enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982. He is another colorful Bears great that fans should know and appreciate.

 Sporting Chance Press is the publisher of Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout, Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships, The 10 Commandments of Baseball: An Affectionate Look at Joe McCarthy's Principles for Success in Baseball (and Life), Maddie Takes the Ice, and Public Bonehead-Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball's Fred Merkle. Update: Sporting Chance Press's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey now available--March 2014!  Order your copies here  for immediate shipment.