A Bear for all seasons

Ed Sprinkle played for 1946 NFL champs

By Tara McManus

Ed Sprinkle, one of the oldest living Chicago Bears football players, celebrated his 89th birthday on Monday in Palos Heights.

Sprinkle had a birthday dinner at his daughter Sue and son-in-law David Withers’ house, where he lives. Two of his grandchildren and three of his great-grandchildren came for the celebration.

At 89 years old, Sprinkle is the third oldest living Chicago Bears player, behind John W. Siegal, 94, and Frank Maznicki, 92. He is the last living member of the 1946 NFL Championship team. He wears his ring every day.

“I feel pretty good for an old guy,” Sprinkle said. “Knees bother me a little from all the running.”

Sprinkle played as a right defensive end for the Bears from 1944 to 1955, earning the nickname “The Claw” for his ability to use his strong left arm against blockers and quarterbacks. He was named All-Pro seven times and played in four Pro Bowls — in 1951, 1952, 1953 and 1955.

Sprinkle was born in the rural small town of Tuscola, Texas. His father was a farmer, while his mother was a former schoolteacher. His senior class had 13 students, but only two boys.

“She wanted to make sure I went to college. It was a good thing for me, otherwise I’d have ended up working on a farm,” Sprinkle said of his mother.

His senior year of high school, Sprinkle started in six-man football, which had only three linemen and allowed all six players to act as receivers. There were no guards or tackles. He attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, where he tried out for football with only one year of experience.

“I hadn’t even seen a college team play,” Sprinkle said. “They said to line up at tackle. I said, ‘Where’s the tackle line up?’”

Despite his lack of experience, Sprinkle made the team as a tackle. He played from 1941 to 1943 and was a member of the undefeated team in 1942, which played in the Sun Bowl on Jan. 1, 1943. He earned three letters in football and two in basketball while at Hardin-Simmons University.

Sprinkle then attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis for a year, where he was named to the all-East football team in 1943. He decided not to join the Naval Air Corps after Clyde “Bulldog” Turner, Chicago Bears center and Hardins-Simmons grad, recommended him to Chicago Bears owner and coach George Halas.

“Turner helped a lot at spring training at Hardins-Simmons. I liked him, he liked me, so he asked if I wanted to go to the Bears,” said Sprinkle.

Sprinkle signed a contract for $200 a game as a tackle. He played 12 games his first year.

“When I signed the contract I thought I was on the Bears. I didn’t know you had to make the team,” Sprinkle said. “I scrimmaged and I was pretty good so luckily I made the team.”

Sprinkle was nearly released when Halas said the team didn’t need a tackle, but Bulldog Turner convinced Halas to keep Sprinkle.

“Turner said, ‘You release Sprinkle, you’re releasing the best player on this team. If you release him, I’m going with.’ They asked if I could play guard,” Sprinkle said.

Sprinkle made the team at the guard position, as well. He played offense and defense in his early years on the team, catching 32 passes for 451 yards and seven touchdowns, according to The Coffin Corner, the official magazine of the Professional Football Researchers Association.

“I never caught a whole lot of passes. I was never a gazelle,” Sprinkle said. “I was basically defense. I liked it. I could handle the defensive end [position] as good as anyone who ever played.”

Sprinkle was also known as “The Meanest Man in Pro Football,” as some opponents claimed he was a dirty player.

“I don’t know where it started. I hit guys. I never stood around. Sometimes they interpreted that as being mean instead of being tough,” Sprinkle said. “Halas tried to defend me. He said I wasn’t a dirty player. I was mean as everyone out there.”

Others who knew him, especially those on the team, insisted he was a “gentleman,” even today.

“His name is legendary. I’ve heard all the stories of the Monsters of the Midway, but I knew him as such a nice guy, such a gentleman. Hard to equate the legend with the man I know,” said Brian McCaskey, senior director of business development of the Chicago Bears and son of owner Virginia McCaskey.

Sprinkle does admit to some run-ins with other players, including future Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula.

“I came around and hit him pretty good. He said something, so I said, ‘If you want to stand around and watch the game why don’t you buy a ticket and sit in the stands?’”

Sprinkle has lived with his daughter and son-in-law for 10 years, and David Withers has enjoyed it.

“No foul language ever. Just a classy guy,” David said. “He’s like my dad. Ten years and never a cross word.”

Withers knows many of Sprinkle’s football stories, including when Sprinkle and some of the other players were caught playing gin on the team train, breaking Halas’ rules against gambling.

“Halas knocked down the door. ‘You’re fined. You’re fined. I know you’re in the bathroom, you’re fined double,” Withers said.

After he retired from football, Sprinkle started a tile and carpet business and was part owner in a bowling alley. He lived in South Chicago before moving out to a house on 83rd Court. He later built a house on 86th Avenue. He had two sons and a daughter.

“I never insisted that they play football; I let them do what they want. They played when they were young. My oldest son was a good golfer. We won a father-son tournament in Midlothian. My other son was more into mechanics,” Sprinkle said.

Sprinkle was named to the 75th Anniversary All-Sun Bowl Team in 2008 and the Hardin-Simmons Athletic Hall of Fame in 1990. He was also named to the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame. He visits Bears training camp every year to show his respect, David said.

“I really enjoyed playing football. Missed it quite a bit at the beginning; I went to every game for a while,” said Sprinkle. “We kept in touch. I made lots of good friends, on other teams too. We’d beat one another up on the field and then come in and have a cocktail. Kept in touch all the way through.”

Sprinkle’s best friend was George Blanda, quarterback and kicker for the Bears, Withers noted. Later he was the quarterback and kicker for the Houston Oilers and kicker for the Oakland Raiders.

“I asked Ed if he ever played against George. He said ‘No, lucky for him,’” Withers said.

Sprinkle spends most of his day around the house. He goes to Lumes Pancake House every day for breakfast.

“He likes his wine at five. Can’t hear well, can’t see well, but he knows when it’s five,” Withers said. “I came in from cutting the grass one day at a little past five, and he asked me if he needed to buy me a clock.”

Sprinkle likes to talk about his days as a player, but he doesn’t spend all his time watching the game.

“So many games now, you could get tired of football if you watched all that. Three games on Sunday, that’s a lot of football,” Sprinkle said.

He still watches the Bears when they’re on.