By Mark Jurgena
Name the captain of the Chicago Bears from 1937-1944.
Hall of Fame running back Bronko Nagurski? Nope.
Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman? Nope.
1929 Collinsville High graduate George Musso? Bingo!
“George was captain of the Bears his last eight or 10 years,” the legendary Red Grange told the Associated Press in 1982. “The players wouldn’t have anyone else. (Bears coach George) Halas let him give the pep talk to the players before the big games.”
When George Halas lets you talk to his team in their biggest moments, that says all you need to know about a player. Halas remains second on the all-time coaching wins list with 318, only Don Shula at 328 has more.
“Halas thought highly of Musso,” began NFL Films head researcher Chris Willis via a phone interview in August. “He was definitely a leader. He was somebody that Halas leaned on to show the younger guys. Halas brought in a lot of good talent. But Musso and guys like Nagurski and Luckman, especially Musso, they taught the younger guys what to do and how to be a Bear.”
But it took a bit of time for Musso to earn the captaincy of the “Monsters of the Midway.”
The future Pro Football Hall of Famer, who starred in four sports at Millikin University in Decatur, struggled in his first training camp with the Bears and was nearly cut from the squad before his rookie season in 1933.
In a March 1963 interview with Robert Morrison of the St.Louis Post-Dispatch, Musso recalled that rocky beginning.
“At camp, Halas told me he wished I would go to a Cincinnati farm team that first year,” he told Morrison. “But Curly Lambeau had called me and said that if I was cut he wanted me with his Green Bay team.
“Finally, Halas asked me to make a trip east at half salary and said that if I didn’t make it, he’d talk trade with Lambeau.”
That trip took the Bears to Boston and Brooklyn.
“On the train going east, Red Grange told me I could make the club if I just played up to my capability,” Musso told the Post-Dispatch. ”It was a shot in the arm to be befriended by him,”
Musso did so well on that trip he was given a full salary and a starting spot on both offense and defense for the next 12 years, an opportunity that led to football immortality.
During that time he was the initial NFL player to be named all-pro at two different positions. He was a 1st team tackle in 1935 and guard in 1937.
“I think the one thing that separated him was his size,” said Willis. “He was a very large guy around 6-2 but he weighed well over 270 lbs. He was a very large guy for his era, but was very competitive, was a very hard nosed guy obviously typical of that time when you were still playing both ways, offense and defense, in the early 30s and 40s.”
So goes the winding story of the former Kahok superstar.
At Collinsville High Musso was a four-sport legend in football, basketball, baseball and track. He won the state javelin championship for CHS his senior season after finishing in 4th place the year before.
He was part of three Southwestern Conference championship basketball teams with the Kahoks.
He originally committed to play football at Saint Louis University before learning he could play as immediately at Millikin.
He was sold.
In that freshman season he was a two-way starter on the line, blocked punts against Butler and Wabash and recovered a blocked punt against Eureka. He would go on to make the all-conference football team three times.
According to many accounts he won 15 letters at Millikin. In 1992 he was named to the Millikin Athletics Hall of Fame.
But it was in pro football where he made his biggest mark.
During that rookie season his Bears played the New York Giants in the first ever NFL Championship Game on December 17, 1933. Chicago won that contest 23-21 at Wrigley Field in front of 21,000 fans according to the Chicago Tribune.
Musso was also involved in the most lopsided game in NFL history, the 73-0 whipping the Bears put on Washington in the 1940 title contest.
That game was a reversal of a 7-3 Washington victory three weeks before.
“George Preston Marshall was the owner of the Washington team,” said Willis. “He said that the Bears were just a bunch of cry babies because they thought they should have won that game and they didn’t. So the owner calls out the team. Halas didn’t particularly care for that and it got his team motivated.”
For his part Musso threw a key downfield block on Bill Osmanski’s 68-yard TD run during the first minute of the game to begin the scoring onslaught.
From there Willis believed the game “snowballed” for the Washington team as the Bears scored eleven touchdowns by ten different players.
The Bears would also win titles in 1941 and 1943.
“Those teams in the 30s and the 40s, especially in the early 40s, those are one of the best teams ever in NFL history,” Willis said.
Even with that list of accomplishments he is mostly known for a couple of other reasons.
Musso also holds the distinction of being the only player to line up against two future United States presidents on the football field.
At Millikin he faced off against Eureka College lineman Ronald Reagan during a 45-6 victory in 1929.
“To begin with, because I was just too much weight, too strong for him,” Musso told Willis in a 1999 interview published online by Pro Football Journal. “I pushed him back. In fact we beat them 42-7 or something like that. He was quick. He was a good ball player, but he was no comparison with the size. I could push him whatever way I wanted to push him.”
In 1990 a motion to name the new athletic stadium at Collinsville after Musso received support from Reagan in the form of a handwritten letter. The ex-president’s words could not help garner enough votes to name the field for the football giant, but they do add to Musso’s immense legacy.
“Well I spent a long hard night playing against him in one of football’s first night games,” began Reagan, whose presidency ended in 1989. “He and I played opposite each other in the line. Eureka and Millikin U. were in the league called the ‘Little 19.’ Our conference was not one that attracted the attention of major league players. But George Musso was so outstanding that he couldn’t be overlooked and went on to the honors I’ve already listed.
“When talking about my own football career I invariably get around to stating I had played against George Musso. This always turns the conversation to his career, not mine. He is respected by all his associates in big time football. His character matched his football skill.”
Later he lined up against Gerald Ford of Michigan in the 1934 Chicago College All-Star game. That game pitted the superstar college seniors from the previous year against the NFL champions.
“Of course, we played a five-man front and I played right in front of him,” Musso told Willis in 1999. “He was pretty rugged. He was pretty tough. Trying to move him out of there. But he was a good ballplayer.”
In 1982 Musso received the ultimate accolade for a football player when he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. His enshrinement by the veterans committee came 37 years after he retired even though the Hall of Fame had asked for memorabilia from him some 20 years earlier.
“After all those years I thought they had forgotten about me.” Musso told the Associated Press in 1982.
For much of his NFL career he was a deputy for the Madison County sheriff’s department. Upon retiring from football he was the sheriff for the county on two separate occasions and also a three-term county treasurer.
He passed away on September 5, 2000 at the age of 90.