Tales From Forgotten NFL Training Camps (Chicago Bears and Cardinals)

With training camps around the National Football League opening up soon, we’d like to take you back to a different time and place when pre-season sessions looked much, much different. For this episode of “When Football Was Football,” we’ll sample some training camp tales from the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Cardinals going way, way back to the beginnings of the NFL. You’ll quickly notice two significant differences from then and now: the conditioning of the players and the more simple purpose of the camps.

With players in the early days forced to work other jobs in order to survive financially, they didn’t spend a great deal of time on conditioning. In fact, it was quite rare for an athlete to do anything at all to stay in shape during the off-season.

After all, that was what the training camps were for—to get the players in shape. Of course, nowadays, players never really get out of shape; there is too much riding on retaining their jobs to slough off at all. Everyone is bigger, stronger, and focused. The financial security offered by today’s contracts ensures that an NFL player can afford to work at his job year-round.

No One Worked Out In Off-Season

So here is a great example of how a player prepared for the season back in the 1940s from Chicago Cardinals lineman Chet Bulger:

In the afternoons, 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.

In 1944, the Chicago Bears were training far from the city in Rensselaer, Indiana. Hall of Famer Ed Sprinkle recalled his pre-season training regimen:

I never worked out in the off-season, nor did anybody else in those days. You had to have another job in the off-season. So, for about the first two weeks of training camp, you’d be so stiff and sore you didn’t want to do much of anything.

We worked out twice a day. Actually, the first couple of days I felt great, but then the stiffness and soreness would set in, and it would be a real drag to get out there and go through all the misery. I think I would have loved the situation, like the guys have it today, where you could work out and stay in shape for 12 months out of the year, and make enough money so you didn’t have to work in the off-season.

Training camp was never easy for the players in the 1940s because, as we mentioned, few worked out in the off-season. “It wasn’t in our regimen,” recalled lineman Vince Banonis of the Cardinals. Players in the 1940s rarely lifted weights and cardio monitoring and exercises were yet to be invented. Cards’ halfback Marshall Goldberg preferred to simply run:

We had no pre-season training requirements. Most players worked out on their own. I liked to run uphill. I’m from West Virginia so that’s how I got in shape, running up hills.

Staleys Hosted Dedicated Training Camp

Actually, one of the first training camps can be traced to the Chicago Bears back when the team originated as the Staleys in Decatur, IL. In 1920, George Halas coached the team, and his players were workers at the Staley manufacturing plant. Other early NFL teams would rarely practice as a team since players were working full-time jobs and football was strictly a part-time endeavor.

Halas changed all of that by providing full-time employment in one location and stipulating in his contract with the Staley Company that practice time be set aside for the football team. In 1920, the Staleys began football practice immediately after the final company baseball game on September 26, leaving only a week or so before the team’s first game against the Moline Tractors on October 3. But it was a dedicated week of practice by the entire team.

Cardinals First To Head Out Of Town

As the years went by, teams would hold pre-season camps where players would take leave of their full-time positions and move to their team’s home city for the season. The Cardinals changed that theory in 1929 when new team owner Dr. David Jones took the club to Coldwater, MI for its pre-season training. This was the first time that an NFL team went “out-of-town” for its training camp. Players were transported in a bus but were required to bring their own practice gear on the trip. The team returned to Michigan (in Sturgis) in 1930 and player Phil Handler recalled: 

At Sturgis, we lived in rooming houses all over town. Meals were in the back room of a downtown restaurant. Their specialty was gravy! The Cardinals practice was sort of hit or miss. Ernie Nevers was our coach, and we practiced as he felt like it. He felt like scrimmaging the first year we were there. I’ll say this for Ernie, tho. He went out there and scrimmaged with us.

The Bears first pre-season camp out-of-town was held at the University of Notre Dame in 1933. The Bears were the defending NFL champs and George Halas had just returned to coaching after a three-year absence. He once told the Chicago Tribune that over the course of his lengthy career with the Bears, he remembered “little things” like the training sessions in the early days:

“There are lots of nice things to remember, but I also remember little things, like the box lunches … in the early days when we practiced twice daily in Logan Square Park in Chicago. A milk wagon would come along and we’d buy milk for the players during practice, so we treated them well.”

In 1940, the Cardinals trained at Morgan Park Military Academy on the south side of Chicago, a boarding school that was largely empty in the summer. The Cardinals used the facilities from August 18-September 11, 1940. For the cost of $2.50 per person per day, the Cardinals entourage was provided with lodging, meals, and the use of the athletic fields.

All-Pro Marshall Goldberg remembered the dreary camp: “We stayed at the school for three weeks, but it wasn’t much of a camp compared to today. We had one trainer, three coaches, and not enough footballs to go around.” Fullback Mario Tonelli added: “We worked out twice each day. We started at 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning and went until lunch. Then we came back out about 1:00 and practiced until 4:00 or 5:00. After dinner, we had a pep talk from Coach Jimmy Conzelman and then went over film or specific plays. At night we were just plain tired!” 

What the players did have, however, in 1940 was each other. Billy Dewell, one of the top-flight receivers of the forties, joined the Cardinals late in the 1940 training camp after spending the summer winning nineteen games as a minor league pitcher in Muskogee, Oklahoma. For Dewell the first training camp was a memorable one as the lanky end went up against one of the best in the business with the return of Gaynell “Gus” Tinsley. “Gus took me under his wing,” recalled Dewell, “and taught me more moves in twenty minutes that I continued to use for the rest of my time in football.”

Heat of Summer Camp

Chet Bulger joined the Cardinals in 1942 and distinctly remembered his first training camp at Carroll College in Waukesha, WI:

I remember the field at Carroll College because it was so hot because of the sun’s reflection off of the limestone around the field. They fed us 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 it the next year and it was about 20 feet higher!

Bulger also had fond memories of Coach Conzelman from those training camps:

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 these 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!

The pieces were beginning to fall in place for the Cardinals in 1946. Conzelman opened training camp in early August once again at Carroll College. The coach plotted a rigid training encampment, with no thrills or luxuries to distract the players. He immediately installed curfew rules, with the day beginning promptly at 8:00 A.M. for breakfast. Football would then consume the day until lights were out at 11:00 P.M. Conzelman’s focus was clear; he had finally been given the players with the potential to contend in the NFL. Conzelman stated:

We drill twice a day, a total of four hours, and between and after practice, we have study periods and skull sessions where we study plays, make explanations, and work on assignments. I’m getting a tremendous thrill out of the way our men are working and I know the rest of the staff is, too.

    Halas Looks For Spies In Cornfield!

    Don Kindt was a halfback for the Bears from 1947-1955, and the team still trained in Rensselaer, which it did for over 30 years:

    I was at nine summer training camps down at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer. I spent so much time there that I thought I was going to be ordained! We were out in the middle of the cornfields, the middle of nowhere, but Coach Halas, who was a very suspicious sort, always thought the Packers or the Cardinals or somebody had scouts out there spying on us. He’d have people combing the cornfields around the training camp. He’d say something like, “They’re spying on us, so we’re going to camouflage this play.”

    There was a story about huge 6-8 defensive end Doug Atkins of the Bears. After a tough practice in Rensselaer, Atkins was looking for some quiet time in his unairconditioned dorm room at St. Joseph’s College. The rookies were housed on the second floor and one of them was playing a radio loudly above Atkins’ first-floor room.

    The big guy couldn’t sleep. So, Doug pounded on the ceiling and demanded that the radio volume be turned down. His polite request was ignored, so Atkins took out a gun and shot it through the ceiling. The radio was never played again!

    Lineman George Connor described training camp in Indiana as follows:

    Rensselaer was the garden spot of America. There was one bowling alley and I think one saloon. Every once in a while we’d get out to the one golf course. And that was about it. There was no place else to go. Quarterback Sid Luckman had a new convertible and one day we decided to go out for a drive. Sid sat in the back seat—in those days Sid loved to get tan, he tanned beautifully. And so he put his oil on, sitting there in the back seat, and then he said, “Slow down to 55 ½ miles an hour; that’s where I get my most even tan.”

    Big Abe's Cookout

    There were some fun times for the Bears in the early 1970s under coach Abe Gibron. Gibron was a large man who loved to eat recalled Doug Buffone:

     Abe Gibron was a true player’s coach, the kind of guy you love. In Rensselaer under Abe, we had Wednesday night cookouts. It was the greatest time in the world! He’d come up and say: “Wednesday night guys, this is it. Everybody out into the woods. We’d build a bonfire, bring in two kegs of beer, two lambs, and put them on a spit. They’d get corn from the nearby farms. We would eat corn, lamb, drink beer, and sit around until 11:00 at night. I saw Abe polish off 20 some ears of corn one night. Abe loved to eat.

    While the Bears feasted on lamb and corn, the Chicago Daily News reported in 1943 that Chet Bulger of the Cardinals had a much different menu idea: “As the drills were halted, Big Chet ambled off the green, calmly picked up two 200-pound rookies under his arms and announced loudly to the dining room staff: “Okay, over there; here’s that beef for our meal today!”

    Thank you for joining us on our trip back to a time without air conditioning or Gatorade when “Football Was Football.” Please join us for our next episode when we will explore the events behind the Chicago Bears participating in the very first College All-Star football game in 1934.

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    Author and Host - Joe Ziemba

    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.

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