Sunday, February 7, 2010

10,000 Yard Penalty, Repeat First Down

Super Bowl Sunday, might as well show up with a football story. Specifically, let's talk George Trafton.

Trafton won't be hard to find; he's got a bust in Canton for his days playing center for the Bears. He's also got a bust just about everywhere he played, because that's more or less what he did to players. He's known as the roughest player ever to grace the NFL. Rougher than Jack Tatum. Rougher than Bill Romanowski. Rougher than anyone you care to name. One specific day lives on in legend.

That day was October 17, 1920, in Rock Island, Illinois, when the Bears, then the Decatur Staleys, played the Rock Island Independents. Staleys owner George Halas had recieved word that the Independents had designs on neutralizing Trafton.

It didn't quite happen that way.

Within 12 plays, Trafton had knocked four Independents out of the game. Rock Island, seeing the trend forming, sent in a backup with the sole and only goal of taking out Trafton by any means necessary. That guy ended up being carried off on a stretcher. As the Football Hall of Shame tells it, "Trafton had left bloody cleat tracks from the man's forehead to his chin."

A career-ending injury at some point was near-inevitable, and Trafton dutifully oomplied in the fourth quarter by running star halfback Fred Chicken, who was initially pegged in pregame as the player most likely to knock out Trafton, out of the game. According to What a Game They Played: A Inside Look at the Golden Era of Pro Football, "'I tackled him right on the sideline,' Trafton said. 'There was a fence close to the field, and after I hit Chicken he spun up against a fence post and broke his leg. After that the fans were really on me.'"

Were they ever. After the game (the Staleys won 7-0), the fans threw rocks, bottles, anything handy. Trafton attempted to hide his jersey number with a sweatshirt. It didn't work. They followed him into the parking lot, drove him out of a taxi by shattering a window (with a rock), and chased him on foot until some unwitting driver stopped to give Trafton sanctuary and drive him to nearby Davenport, Iowa, where the team was staying.

Three weeks later, the Staleys returned to Rock Island for what would end in a scoreless tie. The fans had not forgotten. Halas still entrusted Trafton after the game with the Staleys' gate receipts for the day. (Accounts differ on whether these receipts amounted to $3,000 or $7,000.) Why? According to Halas, "I knew that if trouble came, I'd only be running for [the money]. Trafton would be running for his life."

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