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Column

Larkin tackles top 100 Bears in 100 days

Will Larkin
Will Larkin

The Chicago Bears kicked off their 100th season Thursday against their old adversaries from Green Bay.

The Bears were one of 13 charter members of the American Professional Football Association in 1920, which was renamed as the National Football League in 1922.

Did you know the Chicago Bears weren’t always the Chicago Bears?

The franchise originated as the Decatur Staleys in 1920, conceived by the A. E. Staley food starch company of Decatur. The team moved to Chicago in 1921, keeping the Staleys’ moniker for one year before switching to the Bears to coincide with baseball’s Chicago Cubs.

The Bears have won nine NFL championships, one in the Super Bowl era. Who could forget the Super Bowl Shuffle in 1985? The Bears are a true storied franchise with the most individuals enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

To celebrate the Bears’ 100th year, my old pal Will Larkin, formerly of Sauk Valley Media (2003-11), now with the Chicago Tribune, took on the monumental task of naming the top 100 players to have ever suited up for the Monsters of the Midway. He penned 100 articles in 100 days, which ran on the back page of the Tribune sports section.

Just think of all the greats of the game who have played for Da Bears in the past century. Players like Butkus, Dent, Ditka, Luckman, Grange, Nagurski, Payton, Sayers, Singletary and Urlacher, just to name a few.

Larkin, 38, said he had worked on a similar list of the top 100 basketball players in Illinois, which pretty well received, and just decided with the Bears’ 100th season coming up,
“It might be a cool idea to do something special.”

Larkin used Pro Football reference to make a list of anybody who warranted to be candidate and came up with an initial list of 236 players. He trimmed that list down to 150 and ranked them.

Larkin’s list was turned over to the Tribune’s Bears reporters and editors, who discussed who he had too high or too low. The final rankings were a group effort, he said.

The No. 1 pick was a really easy one for Larkin and fellow Bears fans would agree his choice was rather sweet when he selected ol’ Sweetness himself, Walter Payton.

“That’s one we didn’t get any argument,” said Larkin, who described Payton on Twitter as “ranked between Jesus and Superman on my list of heroes growing up.”

As the series evolved and the players became “bigger” down the list, the length of the stories and time put into them grew and grew. Where Larkin was writing two stories a day, he spent eight hours a day for players from 6-12 and up to 12 hours each on the top 5, he said.

“The last few yards to gain before the end zone got a lot tougher,” Larkin said.

Larkin, who always dreamed of writing for the Tribune or Sports Illustrated one day while growing up in tiny Towanda, Ill. outside of Bloomington, said as the series went from No. 12 down, it became especially exciting to work on.

“You’re not only talking Bears legends, but NFL legends, too,” he said.

The remaining top 10 behind Payton were No. 2 Dick Butkus (1965-73), No. 3 Bronko Nagurski, No. 4 Gale Sayers (1965-71), No. 5 Sid Luckman (1939-50), No. 6 Bill George (1952-65), No. 7 Bulldog Turner (1940-52), No. 8 Doug Atkins (1955-66), No. 9 Dan Hampton (1979-90) and No. 10 Brian Urlacher (2000-12).

Other notables included “Da Coach,” Mike Ditka at No. 11, Mike Singletary at No. 12, Richard Dent at No. 14, Red Grange at No. 20, player/coach/owner George Halas at No. 25, Doug Buffone at No. 48, current Bear Khalil Mack at No. 80 and William “Refrigerator” Perry at No. 99.

No. 100 was long-snapper Patrick Mannelly (1998-2013).

The players who probably drew the most reaction, good or bad, about their placement were Jay Cutler (No. 78), Grange (whose college career was much more prolific than his pro career), “Refrigerator” Perry and Mannelly.

Larkin said the feedback has been overwhelming positive.

“With anything you do like this, you’re going to get people voicing their negative opinion about this or that. But I’d say at least 9 of 10 reader responses have been positive,” he said.

While Larkin didn’t hear from any of the players themselves, he did hear from many family members who were thankful to learn more about their grandfathers and fathers.

Here’s a link to 100 Bears series: https://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/bears/history/.

The Tribune is turning the 100 Bears stories into a book with information available at store.tribune.com.

Kevin Hieronymus is the BCR Sports Editor. Contact him at khieronymus@bcrnews.com.

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