The Wit and Wisdom of Chet Bulger

Not many players can claim to be a member of their team’s worst all-time season, as well as its best. And have a great time doing both!

 

Tackle Chet Bulger of the Chicago Cardinals enjoyed an intriguing nine-year career in the NFL, being with the Cardinals from 1942 through 1949, and then finishing his lengthy tenure in the league with the Detroit Lions in 1950. Along the way, he was mentioned on three different All-Pro teams, helped coach a youth team with the legendary Hall of Famer Duke Slater, and earned the respect of both friends and foes alike.  See the full blog post below.

Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago.  Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.

Chet Bulger's Early Career

 

Born in Rumford, Maine in 1917, Bulger received a track scholarship to Auburn University and then quietly walked on to the football team. Although hampered by illness and injuries, Chet was an outstanding tackle and helped Auburn achieve a 6-4-1 record during his senior season in 1940. After a stint in the service, Bulger joined the Chicago Cardinals in 1942 and quickly made the starting lineup at tackle for Coach Jimmy Conzelman. Following the season opening 7-0 win over the Cleveland Rams, Conzelman praised the play of his rookie lineman: “When the Rams got close, we really smacked ‘em! Bulger did a great job at tackle.” A couple of weeks later, the Chicago Tribune described Bulger as a “scintillating freshman lineman.”

 

But then disaster struck as Bulger was seriously injured (with a fractured vertebra) against the Detroit Lions on October 18, 1942. His season—and perhaps his career—were over after just five games. Yet Bulger bounced back stronger than ever to start all ten games for the Cardinals in 1943 and even found time to help Duke Slater coach a youth team at 56th and South Park in Chicago. His efforts in 1943 earned Bulger All-Pro honors from the UPI before a strange situation occurred in 1944 that forced the Cardinals and the Steelers to merge together because of player shortages during World War II. The Card-Pitts lost all ten of their games, but Bulger’s efforts prompted Bears’ running back Jake Sweeny to term Bulger as “the toughest opponent he’s tangled with this season. He’s a fast charger, but a clean player,” said Sweeney in praise of Bulger.

Chet's Greatest Game

Then, early in 1945, Chet Bulger enjoyed one of his best days in the NFL. Perhaps we could call it a lineman’s dream! When the Cards opened the 1945 schedule against the Lions on September 23rd with a “home” game in West Allis, WI, the score reflected a tough 10-0 loss. But an observant scout told the Chicago Daily News that “If they scored this game on Bulger’s ‘offense,’ the Cards would be leading the league.”

Reporter Harry Sheer of the Daily News described Chet’s impressive activity for the afternoon, which, as we mentioned, came just three years after Bulger broke his back and was advised to give up football. Said Sheer:

Usually the morning after story is about some guy who passed for five touchdowns, ran for three more, and tackled a rival halfback inches short of a fourth-down touchdown. Imagine a Cardinal tackle getting all this notoriety! Because that’s what Chet Bulger is — a tackle–and yesterday he was the best man on the gridiron. Bulger saved the day. He played 60 minutes…he was in and out of the Detroit backfield all afternoon. With a steady rain streaking the mud all over him in the final period, he must have seemed like some prehistoric monster to the desperate Lions. Five times yesterday he shook off would-be Detroit blockers off his massive shoulders…and in those five smashes he smacked down would be Lion passers or runners for a total of 42 lost yards. Outside of Chet’s magnificent line play, the Cardinals at least showed some promise–something which couldn’t be said of them the last two seasons.

Chet Through The Years

That 1944 version of the Cardinals was clearly the worst team in franchise history and helped to contribute to an exceptional losing streak. But once again, Bulger was in the forefront of ending that string of losses. On October 15, 1945 Bulger and the Cardinals defeated the Bears 16-7 to snap a 29-game winless streak. Of course, just two years later, the Cardinals grabbed the 1947 NFL title–with Bulger leading the way! The 1947 edition of the Cardinals was the last Cards’ team to claim an NFL title, and is considered the best team in the history of the franchise. As such, it is ironic that Bulger went from worst to first with this club in a span of just three seasons…

So, while Bulger clearly demonstrated that he was a dominant two-way tackle on the field in the NFL, there is a reason that we are calling this episode “The Wit and Wisdom of Chet Bulger.” Long before guys like Art Donovan enthralled us with their humorous tales of life in the NFL on TV shows with Johnny Carson or David Letterman, Chet Bulger could easily entertain any audience with his wry sense of humor and his shrewd observations of the world at large. When I first began interviewing Mr. Bulger over 20 years ago, he quickly became a favorite “go-to” guy for the real “inside” stuff regarding the 1947 championship team and its bevy of talented players. Chet could turn any interview into a performance. He could make you laugh…make you cry…but most importantly, make you smile!

Joe's Favorite Chet Bulger Stories

Here are a few of my favorite Chet Bulger comments regarding NFL life in the 1940s. Now close your eyes and just imagine yourself sitting next to this wonderful former  tackle with a zest for football—and for life.

Here we go…Cardinals’ owner Charles Bidwill was widely known for his unique style of dress in the 1940s, including the color of shirt he preferred. As such, the nickname, “Blue Shirt Charlie” speaks for itself…Of course, Chet remembered the time that he and several of his Cardinals’ teammates were inspired to imitate their leader: Chet said:

Charlie Bidwill always wore dark blue shirts with orange or yellow ties. One time, we thought we’d all dress like him on a road trip. So, we all put on blue shirts and yellow ties. When he came on the train and saw us, Charlie raised hell with us. He was yelling, “What are you doing? You all look like a bunch of hoodlums!” So, we never made the mistake of wearing those blue shirts and yellow ties again!

 

Speaking of a dress code, the NFL—and the Cardinals–were quite strict about the appearance of the players back then. As Chet complained:

 

On one road trip I forgot my razor and needed a shave. There was a small gift shop in the lobby of the hotel but I remembered that the team had this rule that you needed to wear a coat and tie in public when on the road. But I figured, who’s going to be up at 6:00 am to see me in the lobby, so I went down there in my sweats and bought the razor. Of course, someone saw me without a tie, and I was fined. It was silly, but I broke the rules and I paid my fine. I’m probably the only guy in the history of the NFL who was fined for wanting to shave!

 

The Cardinals’ training camps under Coach Jimmy Conzelman were very tough. In 1942, the team trained at Carroll College in Waukesha, WI. We’ll let Chet tell the story:

I remember the field at Carroll College because it was so hot because of the sun’s reflection off the limestone around the field. They fed us so well and you could eat all you wanted. But then they started to run us and run us and run us. You learned not to eat too much at lunch. There was one lone tree beside the practice field, and everyone used it for support and to throw up on it during practice. I checked on the tree the next year and it grew about 20-feet!

 

As for himself, Chet recalled that Conzelman wanted him to gain weight prior to the start of the next season, that he needed to increase his weight from 225 lbs. “So, I asked him,” said Chet, “Coach, how do you want me to do that?” and Jimmy told me, “Drink lots of beer and eat plenty of steak. Of course, I followed the coach’s orders and gained the weight. It was the best summer of training I ever had!”

 

When you think of today’s rather high-priced players, one would be stunned to discover what the lack of pay prompted some of the players to do in 1943. Here is what Chet mentioned while discussing his respected Coach Conzelman:

Jimmy was a game psychologist. He could get you so motivated and he was such a character with his mane of white hair, covered with dust from the chalkboard and his habit of continually smoking a cigarette. He wore those baggy pants and he kept his cigarettes deep down in the pockets. He’d search for his cigarettes, light one while continuing to talk, and then forget and put the pack down. That’s when the leeches would take over. We didn’t get paid in training camp and we received just $2 per day in meal money, so that’s why they were stealing Conzelman’s cigarettes. They couldn’t afford to buy their own.”

Later, Bulger remembered another trait of Conzelman’s: “He would inhale a cigarette, with smoke coming out of his nose and mouth at the same time. We don’t know if it ever came out of his ears!”

 

Vowing to be in better shape for future training camps. Bulger revealed his routine for getting in shape prior to the 1946 campaign: “In the afternoon, I’d go over to Jackson Park in Chicago. I‘d tee up a football, kick it off, run after it, and then walk back. Conditioning back then was for breathing and your lungs. But when you got to training camp, it was like you never ran before! It was brutal!”

 

During one pre-season camp at Carroll College, veteran running back Marshall Goldberg parked his new car close to the players’ dormitory–as close as possible–in order to afford the vehicle some slight protection from the elements during training camp. Yet, he later scratched his head and pondered how this nifty auto could have absorbed some small, irregular dents on the hood. It clearly remained a mystery.

But only to Goldberg…

Bulger explained: “Marshall would park his car real close to the building by the fire escape, and the guys would sneak into town for some beers by jumping off the fire escape and onto Marshall’s car. No one ever told him!”

 

Back in the 1940s, teams traveled by train and could spend three or four days enroute to Los Angeles to play the Rams. Chet revealed how the team management attempted to keep the players in shape on the lengthy trip:

One year, they tried to put big blocking dummies in the baggage car. We were supposed to go down there and hit the dummies. That didn’t go over too well because there were no showers on the train. We did that once or twice and smelled like a bunch of goats! The other passengers weren’t too happy with us!

Chet left the NFL following his lone season with Detroit in 1950. He served a couple of years as the head coach of St. Mary’s in Minnesota where he never lost his optimism or faith in his team. After a tough 28-0 loss to Concordia in 1954 with his very inexperienced team, Bulger was both elated and proud when talking about his players: “I’m mighty proud of these kids. It was just a couple of fundamental mistakes that boosted the score. Now, we have a really good football team!”

                     Bulger eventually returned to Chicago and joined the staff at De LaSalle High School on the near south side of Chicago. He was a teacher, coach, and the athletic director at the school until 1982, but continued to work in development and fund-raising until the 1990s. In 2007, De La Salle honored Bulger’s long-time contributions by naming the football field after him. We lost Chet on February 18, 2009 (at the age of 91) right after the Cardinals made their first—and only—appearance in the Super Bowl.  Shortly before the Super Bowl, the Associated Press interviewed Chet and he proudly proclaimed that: “I’m still a Cardinal, and always will be a Cardinal. I can’t see too well anymore, but I’m going to get up real close to the TV to watch that game. Maybe we’ll win that Super Bowl. Wouldn’t that be something?”

                     Although the Cardinals lost that game, Bulger could perhaps smile when remembering his key role in the team’s last NFL title in 1947. And maybe he had time for one more story…one more recollection from the glory days of old.

We’ll leave you with our favorite Chet Bulger story. Back in 1942, the Cards traveled to Washington by train for a game with the Redskins. “At that time, we received $2 a day for meal money,” remembered Bulger. “So my roommate Bob Morrow and I went to a local place and bought a dozen sliders and a bottle of butter milk for dinner. We brought the stuff back up to our room, put our feet up on the windowsill, looked out at the sights and ate our hamburgers. Then Bob looked over at me, smiled and said, ‘It don’t get any better than this!’”

Join us next time as we travel back to a time “When Football Was Football” as we take a look at the Cardinals in the 1948 College All-Star game…

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