George “Papa Bear” Halas
American football wouldn’t be the sport it is today if it wasn’t for George Halas. His vision and hard work helped transform it from a pastime into a major entertainment industry. What’s more, he also founded not only the National Football League (NFL) itself, but he also set up one of its biggest and best-loved teams, the Chicago Bears, earning him the nickname “Papa Bear”. So, the sporting landscape would have looked a lot different had a 20-year-old Halas been a bit more organised and made it onto a leisure boat on Lake Michigan in the summer of 1915.
At the time, Halas was just a student. Away from his studies, he held down a summer job at Western Electric in the city of Cicero, Illinois. As was the custom for big companies at the time, the bosses would lay on an annual day out for their workers, and 1915 was no exception. Halas and his colleagues were invited on a cruise along Lake Michigan, from Michigan City to downtown Chicago. The name of the boat that would take them on their summer picnic cruise? The Eastland.
Halas tells the story best: He was running late, rushing to the docks to join his co-workers. “When I came to the river where the Eastland was docked, an appalling site awaited,” he recalled in his 1979 autobiography. “The Eastland had turned on its side. Only a few passengers had escaped.” The top-heavy boat, filled with more than 2,000 passengers as well as dozens of lifeboats – a precaution introduced after the sinking of the Titanic – simply toppled over. In all, 844 passengers and four crew members died that day, making it by far the deadliest maritime disaster on the Great Lakes.
Since he had a ticket for the sailing, the media reported that Halas had been on the Eastland and had perished. Members of his university fraternity went to their buddy’s family home to pay their respects, only to find out Halas had in fact survived. He would go on to enjoy a long, colourful career., helping establish the NFL in 1920 and even turning out as a professional baseball player for a short while. As for the Eastland, she too enjoyed a second life. The boat was raised was pressed into military service. In the First World War, it patrolled the Great Lakes, and in the Second World War, it had the honor of transporting the President and his chief military advisors. The infamous boat was finally scrapped in 1947.