By Zach Shields –
Decatur resident Joyce Sternaman Howe attended the University of Illinois in the 1940s. Even then people frequently introduced her as “Joe Sternaman’s daughter,” readily recalling her Dad’s playing days two decades earlier.
Joe’s name still carried weight — a link to football’s early Golden Age. That public stature grew further following his memorable collegiate career, when Joe assumed duties as the very first quarterback of the Chicago Bears.
In 1919, A.E. Staley asked his friend George Halas to help him put together a ball club. That desire to field a team became a proud part of Decatur’s history. But what happened soon after became much bigger than that, fueling the birth of a sport that would eclipse baseball, boxing, and horse racing as the pastime most embraced by Americans.
Halas called on former University of Illinois player Edward “Dutch” Sternaman to assemble their first Decatur roster. Upon arrival, each newly recruited Staley Bear was employed within the company.
At first it was a weekend diversion to promote business, engaging similarly composed industrial teams from companies in other cities. Game programs carried advertisements and local stories, such as one piece describing the dam building and creation of Lake Decatur. However, the Staley Bears quickly outgrew this modest beginning. Within two years, the hobby venture proved too costly to maintain. Recognizing this, Staley sponsored a migration to Chicago.
That big city relocation defined the team’s fortune forever. College football held sway in the public consciousness. Accordingly, Halas and Dutch actively pursued U. of I. players whose names were already familiar to readers of the sports page. In 1924, they enlisted Joe, Dutch’s younger brother and Illini teammate of the immortal Red Grange.
“Without Decatur and A.E. Staley, the Bears wouldn’t exist. Without that move to Chicago and the tour with Red Grange, professional football would never have become so popular so fast.”
Agent C.C. (“Cash and Carry”) Pyle ensured a reunion by securing Grange’s signature immediately after the player’s final game at Ohio State. Less than a week later, the halfback took the field for the first time as a professional. Chicagoans turned out in droves to see him tote the football.
Grange’s backfield partner was no slouch, either, though modern observers might have thought Joe more suited to riding racehorses than handing off to the Galloping Ghost. At 5′ 6” and 135 pounds (150 in pads), he was bantam-weight even in an era when offensive linemen might only go 210. Yet Illinois coach Bob Zuppke felt that Joe hit the line harder than most big fullbacks.
Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice called Joe, “the strongest little man I ever met.” Others shared this opinion. The Chicago Tribune noted as much 50 years later, relaying that the quarterback’s grip was, “still strong enough to crack walnuts.”
Before offensive maneuvers were relayed from the sidelines, the quarterback was, as described by columnist Jeff Lyon, “the undisputed field general, the boss, the brains, the man who called the plays.
Joe essentially invented the quarterback option and originated the bootleg play, faking a handoff then tucking the hidden ball to pop a run the other direction. Play put a premium on drop-kicking, an essential element given the rounded pigskin somewhere between a flattened pumpkin and our modern derivation. Kicking duties, plus touchdowns, ranked Joe among the decade’s scoring leaders; he accounted for 73 of the 123 points the Bears tallied that first season.
He later provided a first-hand opinion of his more famous teammate.
“When he was loose, he was gone. I’ll tell you, (Walter) Payton is great, but Grange was better.” Joe paid special testament to Grange’s mental and physical toughness, especially when used as a frequent decoy to draw defensive swarms. “Poor Red. They used to kill him. But he said he’d rather win the game than gain ground.”
This unselfish mindset mirrored the spirit of the sport itself — born with a military influence, demanding that each man depend on the one beside him to advance up a field of battle.
The game proved custom-made for the rough and tumble American ethos. Guts and grit were the required ingredients. Teams were permitted only one forward pass per set of downs, placing a premium on men who could give — and take — a beating. Most of the 16 players on the roster logged close to all 60 minutes.
C.C. Pyle was a pioneer sports agent, blending equal parts player representative and P.T. Barnum: some called him a huckster; others a marketing genius. In 1925, he sensed a business opportunity and seized the moment. The Bears embarked on a 12,000-mile “barnstorming” tour across the country. Their train took them from Tampa to Los Angeles, introducing the country to professional football. Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, and Ford Frick (future commissioner of major league baseball) rode the train as part of a traveling press corps.
Joyce says her Dad’s fondest career recollections tied to that expedition. She has always been proud of Joe’s place in pro football’s history, and is an avid follower of the sport. Her husband Brad is equally enthusiastic. The couple retired here after careers in Arkansas, choosing Decatur for its easy proximity to relatives in Champaign, Bloomington, Mahomet, and Oswego. Our town’s ties to the Bears’ early days added a nostalgic plus.
Brad appreciated his father-in-law’s colorful stories, and heard hundreds of them. He concurs that the train trip was the centerpiece.
“At that time people had to be convinced (the professional football) was a big deal,” Brad says. “College ball was it. But you might go to see former players if you knew them already.”
“What hits me is there’s an order to it,” Joyce says. “I see it as a Johnny Appleseed idea. Without Decatur and A.E. Staley, the Bears wouldn’t exist. Without that move to Chicago and the tour with Red Grange, professional football would never have become so popular so fast. My Dad always talked about that tour. They were all getting a pretty good chunk of gate sales. Red drew the crowds.”
When people annoyed Joe later in life, Brad recalls the former quarterback saying, “You don’t bother me. I’ve been booed by 80,000 fans.”
More often he was cheered, as when the crowd in L.A.’s Coliseum adopted the diminutive field general as their own. West coast sports scribes did the same. One headline read, “J. Sternaman Hailed Star of Stars by Fans on Coast.”
The tour’s promotional seeds sprang and flourished. Of the 17 cities where they stopped, 15 still have NFL teams today.
After the trip, Red and Joe ran their own two teams — the former the New York Yankees, and the latter the Chicago Bulls, who played in Wrigley Field. Only a season later, Joe returned to his roster spot with the Bears. In all, he spent eight years with the team. After retiring his shoulder pads, he coached the Duluth Eskimoes for a year, the historical inspiration for George Clooney’s 2008 film “Leatherheads.”
Tangible links to that period are increasingly rare Joyce says. And without her uncle’s carefully preserved artifacts, football historians would have far less to draw on when researching the origins of the game they love.
“My uncle was a meticulous record-keeper,” Joyce says. “My father wasn’t. Dutch had a sense of the importance of keeping things. It’s amazing how well preserved his newspaper clippings were. Mine fell apart when we took them out of a box after some years in storage.”
Joe’s eldest daughter oversaw the packing and careful transport of Dutch’s vast memorabilia warehouse. Ticket stubs, programs, photographs, newspaper pieces, correspondence, contracts, equipment, Joe’s square-toed kicking shoes with wooden peg cleats (for which Dutch owned a patent), even hundreds of complex plays diagrammed on restaurant napkins or tablecloths. All of it is now housed in The Dutch Sternaman Collection at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
As documented there, the league would be nurtured and expanded in the 1940s by figures like Cleveland’s Paul Brown.
But its popularity was established by one famous road trip that began in Decatur.
True story: Contributor Zach Shields wound up in Decatur because of a funny story he wrote in 1998 about a Bears training camp in Platteville, Wisconsin. Ask our publisher.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of Decatur Magazine. It may not be reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part without the publisher’s consent.
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