He was known for his clothesline tackles, his less than courteous activity underneath the pile, and for his unrelenting will to win. On this episode of “When Football Was Football,” we’ll take a look back at the remarkable career of defensive end Ed Sprinkle, a former member of the Chicago Bears, who is now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When we think of overpowering pass rushers, highly regarded names like Reggie White, Aaron Donald, Bruce Smith, and J.J. Watt pop up—big, quick, agile defenders who relied on both physical strength and keen intuition to trample over and around offensive blockers.
Sprinkle Was The Baddest Bear
But the fearful Ed Sprinkle was actually a minuscule presence on the field. At 6-0 and about 208 pounds, Sprinkle was certainly no behemoth for the Bears. In fact, he barely made the team when he showed up for a tryout as an undrafted rookie in 1944.
Yet through his sparkling 12-year career with the Bears that concluded with his selection for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020, Sprinkle was a very visible participant on NFL fields. And not always in a favorable light. For example, at least two opposing coaches wanted him kicked out of the league and Green Bay fans once voted him as the second “most hated” member of the Chicago Bears in history (behind the invincible Mike Ditka). One fan wrote:
“You want the name of the baddest Bear? It was Ed Sprinkle, the meanest, dirtiest, anything-goes end for the Bears. He was a head hunter, cheap-shot artist, and all-around hitman. Sprinkle was great at giving a head chop, or an extra knee. And many times, this occurred after a player was down or out of bounds.”
So how did such a description match this average-size husband, father, and a player that teammate George Connor once called “the quietest guy on the team”? Even rugged center Bulldog Turner of the Bears described Sprinkle as “a fine a gentleman you could meet.” Who really was this football version of Jekyll and Hyde?
Sprinkle was born in Bradshaw, Texas in 1923 and played just one season of the local version of six-man football (center, quarterback, two ends, two halfbacks) at nearby Tuscola High School and really wasn’t very dominant on the field. Without receiving an athletic scholarship, he then attended Hardin-Simmons University in Texas where he was named as an All-Border Conference tackle selection and helped the team to an undefeated regular season in 1942.
Due to the ongoing efforts during World War II, Hardin-Simmons dropped its football activities, and Sprinkle transferred to the US Naval Academy in 1943 where he earned a starting spot at tackle by the third game. Sprinkle’s presence sparked a strong Navy season as the team finished 8-1, dropping only a 33-6 contest to Notre Dame and finishing fourth in the national polls while capturing the Lambert Trophy, signifying it as the top club in the East.
Following his tenure at the Naval Academy, Sprinkle hoped to become a pilot in the Navy Air Corps Reserves, but never received a call. Instead, his old friend Bulldog Turner of the Bears, who also played at Hardin Simmons, encouraged the undrafted Sprinkle to try out for the Bears in the fall of 1944.
Of course, at barely 200 pounds, Sprinkle did not possess the physical attributes to be an interior lineman in the NFL even in the 1940s. Bears’ coach George Halas was not impressed with Sprinkle, in the beginning, based primarily on evaluating the size of Sprinkle’s body and not the size of his heart. Sprinkle later said: “I was not real big, but they knew they had to watch out for Ed Sprinkle.” Sprinkle claimed that it was actually Bulldog Turner who insisted to Halas that Sprinkle be part of the Bears’ roster.
I Really Rattled His Chops
Earning respect has never been easy in the NFL, so young Ed Sprinkle needed to first make his mark on the practice field with his new team. As Sprinkle remembered: “Coach Halas said that he didn’t need any 200-pound tackles, but gave me a try at guard.
One day in practice one of the halfbacks was running with the ball and I hit him pretty hard at full speed and knocked him about eight feet in the air. I really rattled his chops and after that, I earned some respect from my teammates!” Halas then gave Sprinkle a closer look and he found a roster spot as a guard on defense and an end on offense.
He eventually grabbed seven touchdown passes as a receiver for the Bears but was even more productive as a blocker. Years later, Sprinkle explained his preferred blocking method:
“I’d come across the field and hit a guy from the blindside. He’d have his eyes on the ball carrier—and I’d just clobber him. I was devastating on that block. They wouldn’t let me do it too much because I hit too many guys too hard.”
Sprinkle also remembered a play that perhaps turned him into the dangerous defender that he quickly became and provided him with the rationale that he carried as a defensive end: “I was playing guard on a pullout, and I went into the secondary. Bob Waterfield elbowed me and broke my jaw. Then, I thought that maybe I’ll get a vendetta against quarterbacks!”
After a couple of years, Halas moved Sprinkle over to defensive end almost exclusively and his “vendetta” became quite apparent. The Green Bay Press-Gazette once reported that Sprinkle said: “With a quarterback, the big thing is that he can beat you. So, the objective is to register them incapable of completing touchdown passes. If I got the chance, I would not miss an opportunity to lay it on somebody.”
He Perfected The Clothesline Tackle
The most feared weapon in Sprinkle’s defensive arsenal was his “clothesline” tackle which is now illegal. With this move, Sprinkle would simply stick out his strong arm at throat level and either stun the runner with that intrusion or reach around and toss the offensive player down by the neck.
It earned Sprinkle the nickname of “Claw” and former Chicago Tribune writer Don Pierson once said: “He perfected the clothesline tackle.” The Green Bay Press-Gazette recalled such an instance involving running back Hugh McElhenny of the San Francisco 49ers: “Sprinkle ran into McElhenny once with such force that McElhenny’s helmet was twisted around such that he was looking out of its earhole. Sprinkle said McElhenny then told former Chicago player Bill Bishop it was the hardest he had ever been hit.”
With many war veterans returning to the Bears at the conclusion of the war, the team was loaded with talent during the 1946 season, finishing 8-2-1 and then defeating the Giants 24-14 in the NFL championship game. Sprinkle’s bad-boy reputation continued to grow in that title contest. The Chicago Tribune stated: “During the title game, Sprinkle broke the noses of Giants quarterback Frank Filchock and running back Frank Reagan, and he separated running back George Franck’s shoulder.”
It was all in a day’s work for Mr. Sprinkle who also was not a fan favorite of the cross-town Chicago Cardinals. Sprinkle said: “I never had any particular dislike for the Cardinals, but I had some pretty good run-ins with some of their players. Charley Trippi and I had quite a thing going.
We went back and forth at each other all the time.” The most famous collision between the two came in a Cardinals’ upset win over the Bears in 1951. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote: “Sprinkle once broke Cardinals running back Charley Trippi’s jaw, and Trippi retaliated by sucker-punching Sprinkle the next opportunity he got [knocking out Sprinkle]. Trippi was fined for his action and paid willingly. ‘It was worth it,’ Trippi said.”
Coaches Were Livid
Then in 1949, Sprinkle earned the wrath of a pair of NFL coaches due to his rough and unruly play. The first confrontation occurred in the Bears’ 17-7 win over the Cardinals on October 3, 1949. Cards’ coach Buddy Parker was livid after the game as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“Following the game, the Cards coach Buddy Parker fairly fumed. He charged that Sprinkle ‘deliberately stomped’ on Elmer Angsman, his star right halfback. Angsman corroborated his coach’s complaint and offered evidence—five cleat marks on his chest!”
A couple of weeks later during the Bears-Eagles match, it took Sprinkle just one play to draw the ire of Philadelphia coach Greasy Neale as noted in the Inquirer: “On the first scrimmage play, Sprinkle crashed into Joe Muha, key linebacker in the Eagles’ revolving defense. Things were still revolving for Muha when he regained consciousness on the sidelines.
After the Eagles, minus Muha’s services, suffered their only 1949 defeat, coach Greasy Neale demanded action be taken against Sprinkle…for illegal use of arms…and threatened dire reprisal unless action was taken.” Sprinkle’s response to the ever-present wall of complaints about his rough play was always consistent: “They say that mainly because of my style of play. I was very aggressive. If I had an opportunity to belt somebody, I’d do it. It’s not a game for sissies, you know.”
Named The Meanest Man In Football
The crowning honor (so to speak) of Sprinkle’s career arrived in 1950 when Collier’s magazine unsparingly called him “the meanest man in football.” The name stuck and the reputation grew after that, much to the dismay of Sprinkle who said: “I was the most aggressive player on the football field with the Bears.
I was rough. If you call it ‘mean’, well, that’s where the article comes from.” Sprinkle never hit the reset button on the field and never went anything less than full speed. He continued to dispute the tagging of himself as a dirty player, even in retirement:
“Dirty is kicking a guy when he’s down or stepping on them. Or elbowing him in the face or slugging them. I did not do those things. I hit as hard as I could when I should.”
During his 12-year career with the Bears, Sprinkle was named to All-Pro teams six times and went to four Pro Bowls. He would have been selected more often had the Pro Bowl been played before 1951. Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Rosenbloom marveled about Sprinkle: “The guy was so mean, so feared, so scary—so good.” Bears coach George Halas defined Sprinkle, the former lightweight “walk-on” guard as the “toughest player in team history” as well as “the greatest pass rusher I’ve ever seen.”
Sprinkle’s career with the Bears ended in 1955, but even in retirement, Sprinkle’s reputation preceded him. In 1961, the Chicago Tribune tracked him down coaching his sons on their Pop Warner team in the Chicago suburb of Palos Park.
Sprinkle was known as a gentle, caring, and encouraging coach, although one of the league administrators admitted that he was aware of Sprinkle’s football reputation, which clearly was separate from Sprinkle, the coach and father:
“Bears fans should see him now as he roams around the bench and attends practices. When you see this big guy helping a kid that has the wind knocked out of him, or you see him pat a boy on the back, you know that it was all publicity.”
He Never Was Dirty, But......
As mentioned, his long wait for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame ended when he was selected in 2020. Sadly, Mr. Sprinkle passed away in 2014 at the age of 90 and did not live to enjoy this great honor.
So, was Ed Sprinkle mean, dirty, or merely aggressive and misunderstood? Maybe a little bit of all combined to create the fearful aura of Sprinkle.
Perhaps his friend and mentor Bulldog Turner described the playing style of Ed Sprinkle best when he said: “He never was dirty, but if you’re standing around and the whistle hadn’t blown yet, you better look out!”
We hope you enjoyed this episode of “When Football Was Football” and our look at the intriguing career of the “meanest man in football.” Please join us next time when we celebrate the NFL’s oldest rivalry before the upcoming game between the Bears and the Cardinals on December 5. We’ll also have a very special announcement that you won’t want to miss. Thank you!
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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