The story of the 1963 Bears, Chicago's overlooked champions, begins at the end of the 1962 season.
That year, the Bears won four of their last five games, including a 3-0 season finale against the Lions that many of the players recall as one of the toughest games they ever played.
"After that game, and a handful of times in the offseason, Mike Ditka and I talked," Ed O'Bradovich recalled. "We said, 'We're good enough. We can win this thing.'"
They had an abundance of young players who were hitting the sweet spots of their careers — Ditka and O'Bradovich, running back Ronnie Bull, center Mike Pyle, guard Roger Davis and defensive backs Roosevelt Taylor and Bennie McRae were among them.
"We went to work in training camp," O'Bradovich said. "There was no fooling around. When a receiver would drop a ball, even in practice it was, 'Catch the damn ball!' We'd scream at them. We were dedicated because we knew that we could win."
During the 1962 season, coach George Halas made the difficult but necessary decision to take away the defensive coordinator responsibilities from 70-year-old Clark Shaughnessy and give them to George Allen, then a brilliant young assistant on his staff.
"It was like a breath of fresh air," defensive lineman Bob Kilcullen said. "It was one of the most important things that happened that year, George Allen simplifying the defense."
Fifty years later, the players still have so many great stories to tell. And that's what they will be doing Sept. 15 when the Bears gather the members of the team for a golden anniversary reunion.
Early in 2013.
Members of the 1963 Bears are approached with an offer. Each member would be paid $3,000 to travel to Chicago, sign 400 pieces and appear at an autograph show March 22-23 that would be billed as a reunion.
The deal is at least 18 players are needed to make it happen, and former fullback Ronnie Bull volunteers to help round up the gang. But he can get only 15 to commit and the event is canceled.
Of the 42 players on the roster that year, 16 have passed away, including Hall of Fame middle linebacker Bill George and outside linebacker Larry Morris, the most valuable player of the 1963 title game.
Of those who remain, many have serious health issues. A few are homebound. Some are in nursing homes.
One starter from the team declines to come because he can't concentrate enough to sign his name. A number of them are suffering from dementia, Alzheimer's or some sort of cognitive problem.
"It was the most depressing thing I've ever been through," Bull said.
The 1963 Bears defense turned out to be one of the most dominant in history.
Allen, who would wind up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, made many significant changes, deploying what he called a "Rub and Buzz" defense. Perhaps the most significant change was replacing George with cornerback J.C. Caroline on passing downs.
Allen's son Bruce Allen, the general manager of the Redskins, was a ball boy on the 1963 Bears. "Dad was the innovator of the nickel, and the '63 season was the first season of the nickel defense," he said. "That changed football."
The Bears held opponents to 9.6 points per game. Opponents threw only 353 times against them, yet the Bears had a league-leading 36 interceptions. They also limited opponents to a 34.8 passer rating (all NFL passers had a cumulative 68.4 passer rating that year) and a 46.5 completion percentage.
"The Packers defense was good in those days," Ditka said. "I saw a pretty good one in Dallas. I saw a pretty good one with us in '85. I have seen some of the so-called great ones since. But I never saw one better than the '63 team. Maybe some were as good. None better."
The coaching staff also changed the defensive signal caller that year, going from 13-year veteran George to outside linebacker Joe Fortunato.
"Bill George got in an argument with Halas, told him 'I'm not calling the signals anymore,' " O'Bradovich said. "It might have been about Bill favoring Shaughnessy's way of calling signals. So Halas gave it to Joe Fortunato."
There were other changes, too.
Taylor, who led the NFL with nine interceptions, was allowed to blitz for the first time. Defensive tackle John Johnson recalls dropping off in zone blitzes while linebackers Fortunato or Morris would go after the quarterback. He said no other team in the league was doing it.
O'Bradovich remembers aligning the defensive ends closer to the ball. Players were given more freedom through the use of defensive audibles.
"We were doing a lot of things that nobody had done before," Richie Petitbon said. "We caught the league napping on some things. The credit has to go to George Allen on that."
George and Fortunato were two of five All-Pros on that defense. The others were defensive end Doug Atkins, Petitbon and Taylor. The defense also featured three future Hall of Famers in George, Atkins and defensive tackle Stan Jones.
O'Bradovich works full time for his company Bear Oil.
His part-time job is as a postgame analyst on WSCR-AM 670.
He sounds like an old friend after every Bears win or loss. Especially after every loss.
"I keep going, kid," he said. "I just keep going."
His voice still booms. His forearms still look like fire hydrants. And when he speaks, he pokes a thick, meaty finger into your arm to emphasize a point.
He has survived prostate cancer and a hip replacement. He really should have surgeries on both shoulders and both knees. But as long as he can golf, swim and run in a pool, he figures, what's the point?
O'Bradovich has no plans to retire. "Once you slow down, that's when it starts to fall apart," he said.
The offensive objective of the 1963 Bears was to control the ball rather than to run up the score. The Bears scored more points than only four teams.
In a 14-team league, quarterback Bill Wade ranked ninth in passing yards and 12th in yards per attempt. He was criticized for his conservative play. He was booed at Wrigley Field.
After the defense would make a big stop or come up with a takeaway, O'Bradovich typically would instruct the offense, "Hold 'em."
"The defense would always give us a hard time," right tackle Bob Wetoska said. "To be quite frank, our offense wasn't spectacular."
The phone rings at The Meadows in Nashville. It's Atkins, calling to talk to Wade.
They chat a little about the things old football players talk about.
Atkins asks Wade if he works out. Wade tells him he works out every day. He goes into detail describing a rigorous workout program.
One problem. Wade is in a wheelchair. And there is no such workout.
Wade suffers from dementia. He lost his eyesight as a result of glaucoma complications. And he has neuropathy.
He has been in a nursing home for about five years. But he really doesn't know he is there, according to his wife Mary Ellen Clinton. He has no sense of time, she said, but seems content.
When people talk about the 1963 season and his football career, Wade smiles. But he can't really add to the conversation.
"Unfortunately his football stories have gone from his memory," Clinton said.
Clinton said Wade once told her he used to have two calls ready on every play. The second call was "in case he had his bell rung and he was not mentally clear." She said she never asked him how many times he had to use the second call.
"He has some muscle wasting now," she said, "but if you look at him, you can tell this was a different kind of human. Big shoulders, long arms, long legs. In his diminished state, he still looks like the guy who played the game."
The Packers thought 1963 was supposed to belong to them.
Going into the season, they had won two straight championships and had beaten the Bears five straight times, including two games the previous year by a cumulative score of 87-7. Before the season, Halas declared that if the Bears were going to win it all, they needed to beat the Packers twice.
In the season opener in Green Bay, defensive back J.C. Caroline got things started on the opening kickoff by leveling returner Herb Adderley.
"I never saw a hit like it," Johnny Morris said. "The next day, the whole team watches special teams on film. When the film stopped, everybody in the room applauded him. I never saw players do that before or after."
Later in the game, teammates said Ditka sent middle linebacker Ray Nitschke, the leader of the Packers defense, to the showers with a vicious crack-back block.
"He had my attention because after one of the games my rookie year (1961) ... he said something," Ditka said. "He wanted to assert his authority and intimidate you. I was too stupid to be intimidated. We got in each other's face. Then in a preseason game in Milwaukee he knocked me out. So it didn't bother me one bit when he got hurt. It was a clean block, right around the hip."
The Bears intercepted Bart Starr four times and prevailed 10-3. Halas would call it "the greatest team effort in the history of the Bears."
"To get off to a start like that and beat the NFL champions in the opening game was a tremendous confidence builder," defensive back Larry Glueck said. "Wow, what a way to start the season."
After the opening day loss, the Packers won nine straight before traveling to Chicago. In a pregame interview, Packers coach Vince Lombardi said the rematch was the biggest thing that happened to Chicago "since Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over the lantern."
Starr would sit this one out with a broken hand, and the Bears would intercept his backups five times in a 26-7 victory. Jim Taylor, the NFL's reigning rushing champion, was held to 23 yards and the Bears offensive line of Herman Lee, Ted Karras, Pyle, Roger Davis and Wetoska dominated.
Pyle is carrying a glass of water and a book. He takes a step up from his deck to his house and loses his balance. He falls and breaks his femur.
Pyle was diagnosed with diabetes in 1962. He would take insulin shots at halftime throughout his playing career. Now, as a result of the diabetes, he has no feeling from his knees to his feet. So walking isn't easy.
It's made worse by the fact that he may suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to his wife Candy. His compromised brain is trying to communicate with compromised legs.
Pyle, who did broadcast work for about 20 years in Chicago after retiring as a player, began to show symptoms of dementia about five years ago.
As a player, the Yale grad and former president of the NFL Players Association was defined by intelligence and toughness.
It has been a difficult few years.
Pyle seems happy. He watches television and enjoys his grandchildren. He has a caregiver when his wife is not home.
His memory is spotty. He confuses the 1963 Bears and the 1960 undefeated Yale team he played on.
Asked about 1963, he chuckled and said, "I was the captain of the team, 50."
Pyle, who had at least three concussions as a player, has committed to donate his brain to be studied by Boston University after he dies. He is on the list of plaintiffs for the concussion lawsuit against the NFL.
On Nov. 22, the Bears were coming off the practice field when equipment manager Bill Martell delivered shocking news.
President John Kennedy had been shot.
No one knew if the Bears would be playing the Steelers in Pittsburgh in two days. Eventually, the decision was made by commissioner Pete Rozelle to play the game. But it would not be broadcast on television or radio. And it would be far from a normal game experience.
"I remember vividly going to the game," Wetoska said. "Somebody had a portable radio up on the rack in the bus. We were just approaching the stadium to get off. They were giving a narrative of transferring Lee Harvey Oswald out of the jail he was in. All of a sudden, the guy says, 'Oh my God, he's been shot! He's been shot!" That was when Jack Ruby shot Oswald. Then the old man (Halas) went crazy. He said, 'You guys are supposed to be concentrating on the game!' He took the radio and smashed it on the floor. I remember it like it was yesterday."
It was a somber atmosphere at Forbes Field. The usual rowdiness was missing. But it was emotional, highly emotional.
"I was young," Johnny Morris said. "I really hadn't had anyone close to me who had passed away up to that point in my life. The killing of Kennedy affected me like it was a relative. I remember that. Mine was a heavy heart. I really didn't want to play, but you had to play."
It was even more emotional for Ditka. It was his first time playing in Pittsburgh, near his hometown of Aliquippa. Many relatives had come to see him, some for the first time.
The Bears could not afford to lose with the Packers only a half-game behind them in the standings.
The Bears trailed 17-14 with five minutes left, and faced a second-and-36 after a tackle for a loss and a penalty. In the huddle, Wade told Ditka to run a corner route. Ditka, out of gas from the stress of the day and from catching six passes, begged off, telling Wade he would run a hook.
Wade threw a short pass to Ditka. Steeler John Reger dove and missed. Then Myron Pottios, Glenn Glass and Clendon Thomas hit him at once and only Ditka emerged from the pile. He ran another 30 yards where Thomas finally caught up with him. Ditka dragged him another five yards to the 15-yard line.
At the end of the 63-yard gain, Ditka lay on the field for several seconds face up and spread eagle.
"Greatest run I ever saw," fullback Rick Casares said. "You had to kill him to get him down."
"I had a great high school coach who said the joy in catching a pass is what you do afterward," Ditka said. "That was one of the first things I ever learned. I loved to run after a catch. They must have been bad tacklers. At the end of it, I was just exhausted. It all got to me."
Three plays later, Roger Leclerc's field goal tied the score, and the game ended 17-17. If not for Ditka's run, the Bears would have likely lost and finished the regular season 1/2 a game behind the Packers — and out of the playoffs.
On Dec. 29, the sun was shining in Chicago for the NFL championship game, and the temperatures were in the single digits. Some of the old Bears said it was the coldest game they ever played in.
Wrigley Field was dressed up in red, white and blue bunting. The field was icy in spots even though hot air had been blown on the grass all week.
The Giants came to town with six future Hall of Famers, including 1963 NFL MVP Y.A. Tittle. The quarterback had the finest season of his career, throwing 36 touchdown passes and leading the Giants to 32 points per game.
The Bears would give Tittle the beating of his life.
Larry Morris hit him in his knee twice, the second time knocking him out of the game. When Morris came to the sidelines, Halas hugged him, prompting an assistant to remark that was the first time he had seen Halas hug anyone.
"We beat the crap out of that bald-headed (guy), but we couldn't put him away," O'Bradovich said.
"Tittle came back for the last seven or eight minutes of the game," Johnson said. "It was the longest seven or eight minutes of my life."
The Bears intercepted Tittle five times, with two of the interceptions setting up 1-yard touchdowns on quarterback sneaks.
After Petitbon's interception in the end zone with 10 seconds left iced the 14-10 victory, Halas was near tears.
"No game has meant this much to me since we beat Washington 73-0," Halas said at the time. "I've waited a long time."
"Lombardi had become big time," Johnny Morris said. "To beat Lombardi in that '63 season and win the championship, that meant a lot to Halas. I think he felt Lombardi was stealing his thunder, and he got him back."
Some of 1963 Bears say the 1965 Bears were more talented. Others thought the talent on the '56 Bears was superior.
But the 1963 Bears were remarkable for the way they came together.
They were a team for reasons that went well beyond the logos on their helmets.
"If you compared football seasons to wars, that year was like World War II for us," Johnny Morris said. "The whole country was behind it, we had purpose. In subsequent wars, some people were for it, some were against it. We had no controversy about what we were doing. We were a team, together."
A group of the players and their families lived in The New Lawrence Hotel on Lawrence and Kenmore in Uptown. Kay Morris, widow of Larry Morris, described it as "horrible hotel apartments in a sketchy, run-down neighborhood."
But she said it was all the players could afford, and they made the best of it by sticking together. She said it was kind of like living in a fraternity or sorority house.
It was common for a large group of teammates to gather up to four nights a week for chicken, ribs, steak and cold beer at The Cottage, a neighborhood restaurant on Clark Street not far from Wrigley Field.
They were taken care of there. They would come in to find two long tables set up for them. Bull said he once threatened to stop going there if the owner didn't let him pay for a meal.
"You were a Bear, you were a king," Casares said.
Asked about his recollections of The Cottage, Karras said he didn't used to go there.
His wife Anna interjected: "That's where we met in October of 1963."
Karras has moderate to severe Alzheimer's. He has taken medication for the disease for the last seven years. After one particularly violent hit back in the day, Karras ran to the wrong sideline.
He also has a history of the disease in his family. His brother Alex, the former Lions great, died of the disease.
Karras can't tell you how old he is. He doesn't know that his grandson Teddy Karras plays football at the University of Illinois. Anna does not leave him unattended.
But Karras dreams about football. Some days, he wakes up and thinks he needs to put his helmet on and get to practice.
The memories of 1963 are distant and blurry.
"My head got rattled," Karras said. "My mind got screwed up and I can't remember so many things. Oh yes, it's coming back to me. Bill Wade, he was a good player."
But Karras remembers one thing clearly about that year.
"It was the biggest thrill of my life," he said.
There was no parade.
Their championship rings were sent to them in the mail.
Mayor Richard J. Daley designated a city council session to honor the team at which the paperweights were supposed to be presented. But somehow not all of the players found out about it, and only a handful showed up.
"That day in Chicago, probably half the city didn't even know we won the championship," Ditka said. "The world didn't stop."
"That was a football team," O'Bradovich said. He paused and bit his lip. "The sad thing is nobody knows about us. We were the forgotten team. I understand. It was what it is."
When Kilcullen received his invitation to attend the golden anniversary celebration of the '63 Bears, he was pumped.
"What a glorious year that was," he said. "It should have told all of us we could accomplish incredible things in life."
They are old men now, hunched over with thinning hair. They walk slowly, gingerly. When they look back on the 1963 season though, they stand a little taller.
"It was the biggest thing that ever happened to a lot of us," Bull said. "I never won another championship at any level in my life. And the thing about it is they never can take that away. I'll always be part of the team that won everything."
For these men, the 1963 season was a brand for life.
"When people say I played on a Super Bowl team, I say, 'No, it was bigger than that,'" Glueck said. "We were world champions."