Sid Luckman wasn’t just one of the best quarterbacks in Chicago Bears franchise history. He was also one of the game’s legendary innovators of the 1940s.
When Bears owner and head coach George Halas made Luckman the NFL’s first T-formation quarterback in 1939, football changed remarkably.
Behind Luckman’s rifle arm, Chicago won four NFL Championships from 1940 to 1946. Consequently, the Bears became the first modern pro football dynasty.
With the do-it-all Luckman under center, the Bears helped kick off the NFL’s modern era during the 1940s.
Luckman, a three-time Pro Bowler and the 1943 NFL MVP, also became the first NFL quarterback to throw seven touchdowns in a game.
There’s little wonder Sid Luckman, whom Halas considered the greatest all-around quarterback in history, is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.
Sidney “Sid” Luckman was born to parents Meyer and Ethel in Brooklyn, NY on November 21, 1916. Sid had two brothers, Leo and David, and a sister, Blanche.
Ethel Luckman was a political activist who fled Russia in 1905 according to R.D. Rosen’s 2019 book, Tough Luck: Sid Luckman, Murder, Inc. and the Rise of the Modern NFL.
When Blanche became a mother herself, she told her daughter Ronnie Suslow about a harrowing ordeal with her younger sister in 1915.
That child was the third in the brood of five. After their housekeeper left her unsupervised briefly on the ironing board, she fell off and suffered fatal injuries.
Ethel Luckman knew about her husband’s violent nature. If she had told him the housekeeper neglected her duties to their daughter, she knew he would kill her.
Instead, Ethel told Meyer their two-year-old daughter Blanche did it. Blanche spent the next seven decades wondering if she really killed her younger sister.
It wasn’t until a funeral sometime in the 1980s when Leo Luckman told Blanche she did not do it, per Rosen.
For his part, Sid found out how violent his father could become whenever he disobeyed him.
Meyer bought Sid a bicycle on the condition he never used it on the streets. When the father found out his son had defied that order, he took an ax and promptly destroyed his bicycle.
Introduction to Football
Despite Meyer Luckman’s violent side, he used football as a means to bond with Sid during his high school days.
Meyer brought Leo and Sid to New York Giants games at the Polo Ground in the 1920s. The two boys marveled at Giants tailback Benny Friedman’s play on the gridiron. Friedman had a similar Russian-Jewish heritage as the two youngsters.
No less than Chicago Bears founder George Halas sang Friedman’s praises as a gunslinging quarterback. Prior to Friedman’s arrival in 1929, NFL teams were reluctant to pass until they moved the sticks past the 50-yard line, per Rosen.
Suddenly, a light went off in Leo Luckman’s head. He asked his father Meyer to introduce Sid to Benny Friedman. Meyer obliged and introduced his son to the Giants tailback outside the locker room after one game in the fall of 1929.
Did You Know❓
First To Pass 400 Yards In A Game for the @ChicagoBears was Sid Luckman, 433 yards vs. the New York Giants in 1943! Luckman was born in Brooklyn and played his High School ball at Erasmus Hall!!#DidYouKnow #NFLtrivia #NYmade pic.twitter.com/IpyGXsFFUJ
— NY MADE FOOTBALL (@NYMadeFootball) February 15, 2022
Friedman went back to the locker room and got a football. He showed Sid how to grip a football properly. That gesture made a profound impression on 13-year-old Sid, who became one of the NFL’s best passing quarterbacks in the 1940s.
Multi-Sport Athlete in High School
Sid Luckman attended Erasmus Hall High School. He excelled on the baseball diamond and football field for the Erasmus Dutchmen.
Luckman had to sit out his freshman season after he fractured his hand when he smacked a boy who called him out during a touch football game.
The one-year hiatus did not slow Sid Luckman down. He had four touchdowns in Erasmus Hall’s 37-0 drubbing of Boys High with 15,000 in attendance at Ebbets Field in the fall of 1932.
Meyer Luckman told Erasmus Hall head football coach Paul Sullivan he wanted to sit on the Dutchmen’s bench beside Sid. That way, he could give his son feedback as the game went on.
Whenever Luckman’s passes lacked zip, Sullivan encouraged him to improve his footwork, per the former’s 1949 autobiography (via Rosen).
Drawing the Eyes of Several Colleges
Sid Luckman’s star grew considerably over the next few years. In fact, the Princeton Tigers, Michigan Wolverines, and the Navy Midshipmen already had him on their radars by the time his junior season kicked off in 1933.
Luckman also wanted to attend New York University, a school that hired one of his former summer camp counselors and ex-Giants running back Ken Strong as an assistant.
Luckman wound up attending none of those aforementioned programs. Although he had no inkling to attend Columbia University in Manhattan, the Columbia Lions’ freshman football coach invited Sid and his brother Leo to watch their game against Navy in the fall of 1933.
The Lions eventually prevailed, 14-7. Navy athletic director Edgar “Rip” Miller introduced Sid to Lions head football coach Lou Little after the game.
Miller thought nothing much would come out of the meeting between Luckman and Little since Columbia University didn’t dangle athletic scholarships at the time.
Miller thought wrong. Little’s track record and impeccable fashion sense made a great first impression on Luckman, who eventually committed to Columbia.
“It was not really the university I chose, although I love it with all my heart,” Luckman said (via Rosen’s 2019 book). “It was the person, Lou Little, that I really chose. He reminded me very much of Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the pinch glasses.”
Sid fell for his pretty brunette classmate Estelle Margolin in the fall of 1934. Estelle encouraged him to run for class office. Before long, the two went to senior prom together and officially became a couple.
Trouble in the Family
Fans of the game and crime will love reading my long-time friend @rdrosen Richard Dean Rosen’s latest book Tough Luck, parallel stories of legendary NFL star, Bears quarterback Sid Luckman and his father, convicted murderer Meyer Luckman, connected to NYC’s notorious Murder, Inc. pic.twitter.com/mxnMm6CGLL
— Fred Siegman (@SerialConnector) September 14, 2019
As Sid Luckman’s high school football career wound down, his family made headlines for the wrong reasons.
According to Rosen, Sid’s father, Meyer Luckman, and two other suspects—Meyer’s nephew Harry and ex-convict Fred J. Hull—allegedly murdered Sid’s uncle, Sam Drukman, on March 3, 1935.
Brooklyn police found Drukman’s bloody remains in the Luckman Brothers Trucking Company Garage at 8:30 p.m.
The perpetrators tied Drukman around his throat, wrists, ankles, and back in such a way any attempt to extricate himself would tighten the noose around his neck and ultimately strangle him.
Authorities also found a broken, bloodstained pool cue the suspects used to strike Drukman’s skull repeatedly.
Meyer, a Russian-American, had long suspected Drukman of embezzling company funds. Drukman was an employee who collected payments from the company’s drivers. According to Rosen, Drukman had a gambling issue.
Meyer Luckman denied murdering Sam Drukman. Although Meyer admitted he was at the garage on the night of the murder, he claimed six other men were the perpetrators.
The controversial murder took its toll on Sid in school. Sid, who was arguably the best high school player in New York, could overhear other students whispering to each other to stay away from him, the son of an alleged murderer.
Sid Luckman remained undaunted and went on to revolutionize the passing game in the National Football League at the turn of the 1940s decade.
College Days with the Columbia Lions
Sid Luckman attended Columbia University in Manhattan, NYC from 1935 to 1938.
Luckman did not take the field as a true freshman in 1935. He concentrated on his studies at the New College for the Education of Teachers, an undergraduate program that was part of Columbia University’s Teachers College.
As the end of Sid’s freshman year drew near, a second grand jury eventually indicted his dad, Meyer, cousin Harry, and Fred Hull in the winter of 1936.
Sam Drukman’s dad, Sid’s grandfather, took the stand and accused Meyer Luckman in Yiddish of killing his son ten months earlier.
“Sid Luckman is watching this, and it’s hard to believe he wasn’t devastated,” author R.D. Rosen told WBUR’s Gary Waleik in November 2019.
Sid, his mom, Ethel, his brothers, Leo and David, and his sister, Blanche witnessed his grandfather’s testimony. The judge gave Meyer Luckman a sentence of 20 years to life at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
Luckman suited up for Columbia Lions head football coach Lou Little, the man who would later present him at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, in 1936.
An embattled Sid Luckman thought about dropping out of school after just one year. However, Little, the man who had made a profound impression on Luckman in high school, intervened and convinced him to stay.
Luckman made an immediate impact as the Lions’ starting quarterback that year. He had six touchdown passes in seven games.
Not only that, but Luckman was a Jack of all trades who also played defense and special teams for Little in his three years with the Lions.
The last time a QB from a current #FCS school went #2?
Columbia's Sid Luckman drafted by the Bears in 1939! pic.twitter.com/4zrFsDvpsY
— NCAA FCS Football (@NCAA_FCS) April 29, 2016
Columbia had a respectable 5-3 win-loss record in Luckman’s sophomore season in 1936. Unfortunately, the Lions regressed in his final two seasons. They had a combined 5-13-2 record from 1937 to 1938.
Proving He Was Ready
Luckman served notice he was NFL quarterback material as a senior. He completed 10 of his 17 pass attempts in a 27-14 win over the Yale Elis in the 1938 NCAA season.
Luckman also had a 40-yard punting average and 103 rushing yards against Yale. He also scored all of the Lions’ field goals and extra points. Luckman went on to lead Columbia’s 20-18 victory over the Army Knights several weeks later.
He finished his college football career on a strong note. He had 1,921 passing yards and 14 touchdown passes from 1937 to 1938.
As Sid Luckman’s star rose in the late 1930s, he appeared on the cover of Life Magazine shortly after Columbia’s upset of Army.
The publication, which has an estimated readership of one million, described Sid as the “husky but shy son of a New York truck driver.”
It never mentioned Sid’s dad, Meyer Luckman, and the grisly murder of Sam Drukman.
On the bright side of things, Chicago Bears owner and head coach George Halas witnessed the Lions’ 13-12 loss to the Syracuse Orangemen in Luckman’s senior year. Luckman impressed the Bears’ founder to no end.
Halas, the same man who thought the world of Luckman’s mentor, Benny Friedman, was about to acquire one of the best quarterbacks in the Chicago Bears’ storied franchise history.
Pro Football Career
The Chicago Bears made Sid Luckman the second overall selection of the 1939 NFL Draft.
Bears owner and head coach George Halas pursued Luckman relentlessly. He traded two Bears players to the Pittsburgh Pirates (now known as the Pittsburgh Steelers) for one of theirs so he could take Luckman off the draft board.
Luckman did not sign with the Bears initially because he wanted to work for his family’s trucking business.
Halas, not one to be denied, flew to Luckman’s apartment in New York. Luckman recently married his high school sweetheart, the former Estelle Margolin.
Luckman agreed to sign a $5,500 rookie deal with the Bears. Halas, who never shelled out that much money for a rookie since Red Grange in 1925, kissed Estelle on the cheek and proposed a toast to the newlyweds.
“You and Jesus Christ are the only two people I’d ever pay that much money to,” Halas delcared (via The Chicago Tribune’s Will Larkin).
George Halas finally convinced Sid Luckman to wear Chicago Bears navy blue and orange in the summer of 1939.
In so doing, Luckman changed the course of National Football League history.
Luckman became the first big-name T-formation quarterback when he joined the NFL ranks in 1939.
However, it never seemed that way at first. Halas gave him a T-formation playbook during a scrimmage for the College All-Star Game that year.
The offensive scheme’s complexity confused Luckman, who had issues handing off to running backs. Worse, he fumbled the ball often.
Trying Something New
Halas took matters into his own hands. He assigned Luckman to the single-wing tailback position. For his part, Luckman tried learning the nuances of the T-formation again.
Luckman told Sports Illustrated‘s Paul Zimmerman in the spring of 1998 that he’d worked with former Bears quarterback Carl Brumbaugh on his T-formation mechanics for hours on end.
Brumbaugh helped shore up Luckman’s footwork and spinning abilities as a quarterback.
BOTD Sid Luckman
George Halas and Clark Shaughnessy come up with the T formation with a man in motion.
Preston Marshall had some words for the #Bears before the championship game#DaBears pic.twitter.com/WRbPqCR17x
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) November 22, 2021
Clark Shaughnessy was coaching the University of Chicago’s football team at the time. The school was about to drop its football program so Shaughnessy brought his gridiron expertise to the Bears.
Luckman told Zimmerman that he’d spent hours in Shaughnessy’s room in Bears training camp every night poring over every intricate detail of the t-formation.
Luckman was so locked in, Halas had to restrain him.
“We had an 11 o’clock curfew, and Halas would drop by around 1 a.m. and say, ‘That’s enough, Sid. Go to bed,'” Luckman told Sports Illustrated.
Luckman finally got his chance as the Bears’ T-formation quarterback on October 22, 1939.
Halas told Luckman to check into the game against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. Chicago trailed 16-0 when Luckman took the field.
Luckman was a bundle of nerves when Halas called his number. The former threw a pick in his first series. Fortunately, Bears halfback Bob MacLeod took the ball away from the Giants defensive back and scored a touchdown.
Luckman got into a groove in his next series. He threw a swing pass to Bears running back Bob Swisher, who broke several tackles and scored on a 60-yard touchdown run.
Although Chicago lost, 16-13, Luckman slowly got the hang of playing the T-formation quarterback spot.
Luckman put in more work during the offseason. He told Sports Illustrated he helped his college football coach, Lou Little, implement the T-formation into his offensive schemes.
Behind Luckman’s resurgence at quarterback, the Bears won eight games and reached the NFL Championship Game in his second season in 1940.
Luckman did not have to do too much against the Washington Redskins in the title game. Because the Bears had built an insurmountable lead in the early going, Luckman played second fiddle the rest of the way.
Luckman completed four of six pass attempts for 102 yards and a touchdown in Chicago’s resounding 73-0 shutout win over Washington. With Luckman under center, the Bears won their fourth NFL Championship in 1940.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) November 21, 2021
Chicago was virtually unbeatable for the next two seasons. The Bears had a combined 21-1 win-loss record from 1941 to 1942.
The Bears won their second straight NFL title with a 37-9 rout of the New York Giants at Wrigley Field on December 21, 1941. Luckman completed nine of twelve pass attempts for 160 yards in the win.
Chicago breezed through the 1942 NFL season with an immaculate 11-0 win-loss record. Unfortunately, the Bears lost to the Giants in the 1942 NFL Championship Game, 14-6.
Luckman’s solid play at quarterback helped him earn three consecutive Pro Bowl selections from 1940 to 1942.
Luckman also earned four consecutive First-Team All-Pro selections from 1941 to 1944.
Two of the most memorable games in Sid Luckman’s legendary pro football career occurred during the 1943 NFL campaign.
Luckman fired on all cylinders on Sid Luckman Day at the Polo Grounds in New York.
He became the first NFL quarterback to throw seven touchdown passes in a single game in the Bears’ emphatic 56-7 rout of the New York Giants on November 14, 1943.
NFL quarterbacks who duplicated Luckman’s gaudy achievement in subsequent years include Adrian Burk, George Blanda, Y.A. Tittle, Joe Kapp, Peyton Manning, Nick Foles, and Drew Brees.
Luckman was at his absolute best in the 1943 NFL Championship Game against the Redskins on December 26, 1943. He had 276 passing yards and five touchdown passes as Chicago secured its third NFL title in four years with a 41-21 win.
Luckman and the Bears squared off against “Singin’ Sammy” Baugh and the Redskins three times in the NFL title game in the early 1940s.
The two eventually became friends in retirement. Although Halas thought Baugh was the better passer, he believed Luckman “was the greatest all-around quarterback.”
Luckman’s 2,194 passing yards and 28 touchdown passes led the National Football League in 1943. He went on to duplicate those feats in 1945 and 1946.
Sid Luckman also led the league in passer rating for the second time in his pro football career. His 107.5 passer rating—the best in his legendary career—topped all NFL signal callers in 1943.
December 26, 1943
The NFL Championship
The Sid Luckman led Chicago #Bears against Sammy Baugh and the Washington #Redskins
Sid Luckman goes 15-26-286-5TD’s and INT’s Sammy Baugh twice
Bronko Nagurski also rushes for a TD in this one.#Bears win their 6th Championship 41-21. pic.twitter.com/xHPqPOTy7b
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) February 12, 2019
To nobody’s surprise, Sid Luckman earned his first and only NFL Most Valuable Player award that year.
Relationship with His Father and Military Service
When Sid Luckman became a big-name signal caller in the NFL, he visited his disgraced father Meyer in prison.
According to Waleik, Sid visited Meyer in jail whenever he could. Since the former never discussed those visits, little is known about them.
Shortly before Sid Luckman earned his fourth straight First-Team All-Pro selection in 1944, he found out his dad had a cardiovascular condition. He tried to get him out of prison on the grounds of compassionate release.
Unfortunately, it never materialized. Meyer Luckman passed away at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in January 1944.
Before Meyer’s death, Sid Luckman never believed his father murdered his uncle almost five years earlier.
When Sid penned his autobiography in his eleventh NFL season in 1949, he barely mentioned his dad.
“The closest he comes to mentioning his father’s name is the dedication,” Rosen told WBUR in 2019. “‘To Dad Luckman, who played the hardest game of all.’ That’s it.”
Sid Luckman served his country in World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Merchant Marines and returned to The Windy City in 1946 to lead the Bears to their fourth NFL title since he took over the reins at quarterback in 1939.
Luckman, whose rifle arm had earned a stellar reputation, relied on his legs and scrambling abilities to propel the Bears to victory in the 1946 NFL Championship Game.
Luckman scampered for 19 yards on the Bears’ “Bingo Keep It” play to break a 14-all deadlock and secure Chicago’s 21-14 win over the New York Giants.
A Successful Businessman
Halas did not want Luckman to run much during the regular season. He wanted him to save his legs for last. That’s precisely what Luckman did in the 1946 NFL title game.
December 15, 1946 — Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants 24-14 at the Polo Grounds for the NFL championship. A record crowd of 58,326 attend the game. Sid Luckman’s 19-yard touchdown run in the fourth puts the Bears ahead 21-14. Credit AP. pic.twitter.com/X7NYGPjALo
— PFRA (@FootballHistory) December 15, 2020
Luckman’s mother Ethel attended that game at the Polo Grounds in New York. She was so terrified of her son getting pummeled, she implored him to hand off the football to his teammates, per the Chicago Tribune.
The most Luckman earned during his pro football career was $20,000. It all began when Halas found out Redskins owner George Preston Marshall paid his quarterback, Sammy Baugh, the same amount.
Halas never wanted another quarterback to earn more than Luckman so he matched Baugh’s salary.
Luckman’s loyalty remained with Halas and the Bears. Although the All-American Football League offered a bigger paycheck in 1947, he declared his loyalty to the man known as “Papa Bear.”
Sid Luckman became a successful businessman as his pro football career wound down.
According to Larkin, Luckman purchased a half-interest in Cellucraft, a business that produced cellophane wraps for Sara Lee, Quaker Oats, and Kraft Foods, in 1946.
Luckman played behind starter Johnny Lujack in the final two years of his legendary NFL career in 1949 and 1950.
The Bears won an average of nine games per season during that two-year stretch. They never made it past the Divisional Round.
Sid Luckman, one of the greatest innovators at the quarterback position, retired at the end of the 1950 NFL season.
He had 14,686 passing yards, 137 passing touchdowns, and 132 interceptions with the Chicago Bears from 1939 to 1950.
“Luckman was Mr. Quarterback,” Bears founder and icon George Halas wrote on the Chicago Tribune in February 1967. “The finest in the history of the game, in my estimation.”
Post-Football Life and Death
Sid Luckman became the Chicago Bears’ vice president after he retired from the National Football League in February 1951. He already had several businesses—including a car agency—in the Chicago area at the time.
Luckman became the Bears’ quarterbacks coach three years later. He remained in that capacity well into the 1960s.
Shortly after Sid Luckman hung up his cleats, he helped integrate the T-formation into the playbooks of Holy Cross, Pitt, Army, and Notre Dame.
Luckman entered the College Football Hall of Fame in 1960.
Sid Luckman became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965. Columbia Lions head football coach Lou Little was his presenter.
Part of Luckman’s enshrinement speech reads:
“This is certainly one of the truly great honors of my life and one that I’ll never forget. I also want to thank Coach George Halas and the Chicago Bears for all they have meant to me and what they have done for me and my family.”
When George Halas’s wife, Min, passed away in 1966, Sid Luckman was one of her pallbearers. He kissed George Halas on the forehead at his funeral in the fall of 1983, per the Chicago Tribune.
The End of a Life Well Lived
Sadly, Sid Luckman died at Aventura Hospital and Medical Center on July 5, 1998. He was 81 years old.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Luckman succumbed to a heart attack.
Luckman spent the previous seventeen years in Aventura, FL after his wife of forty-two years, Estelle, passed away due to cancer in 1981. Luckman had triple heart bypass surgery in 1982.
The Columbia University Athletics Hall of Fame inducted Sid Luckman in 2006. He is also a member of the NFL 1940s All-Decade Team.
Luckman’s retired No. 42 jersey hangs high in the rafters of Soldier Field in Chicago, IL.
Sid Luckman is survived by his son, Bob, daughters Gale and Ellen, several grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren.