In The Beginning: An Interview With Joseph T. Sternaman

And, you may ask, who is Joseph T. Sternaman?

Sternaman was more commonly known as Joey Sternaman during his professional football playing days from 1922 through 1930. As such, Joey was actually the very first quarterback of the Bears when the team was incorporated in Chicago in 1922.

He was also the head coach of the Duluth Kelleys in 1923 as well as the player/owner/coach of the short-lived Chicago Bulls in 1926 when that team was a member of the original American Football League. And, for a short time, he was also a part-owner of the Chicago Bears!


Could Wreck Any 250 LB. Man!

More importantly, Sternaman was a trail-blazer during the early years of the NFL, wreaking havoc on opposition defenses with his running, passing and kicking skills. He was named to All-Pro teams after four different seasons and is included in the honored list of the “100 Greatest Bears” of all-time as compiled by the Chicago Tribune.

All of this was accomplished by a player who stood just 5-6 and weighed in at around 135 pounds for most of his career. His inspirational performances, and Sternaman’s fearless attitude on the field, prompted legendary writer Grantland Rice to state: “139 pound Joe Sternaman could wreck any 200 or 250-pound man he ever saw in a rough-and-tumble.”

While we have covered Joey Sternaman before on “When Football Was Football,” a document shared recently by Sternaman’s daughter Joyce has provided us with the opportunity to “interview” Sternaman with responses in his own words from over 40 years ago. The Sternaman family provides us with a direct link from the very beginning of the NFL to the present day.

The basis for this podcast on the Sports History Network was a speech delivered by Joseph T. Sternaman before the Kiwanis Club of Elgin, IL on April 8, 1980. We thank Joyce for her assistance in keeping the history of pro football alive and well! So, sit back and enjoy this journey into football’s enjoyable past from one who was there!

Joey Sternaman
Photo courtesy Joe Ziemba's private collection of Joey Sternaman

First Quarterback of the Chicago Bears

Before we begin, we asked Joey for any initial thoughts regarding his career:

Thank you, and as you may know, I was the Chicago Bear’s first quarterback. I hope my first-hand memories of the early days will be of interest to you.

When did your career begin with the Chicago Bears?

My start with the Bears began on May 2, 1922 when my brother Ed Sternaman, called “Dutch,” and George Halas signed the incorporation papers for the Chicago Bears. Prior to that time, they were the managers of the Staleys, which began in Decatur, IL. I never played with the Staleys, but was quarterback for the Bears right from their beginning, and played until 1930.

What was the attitude of fans, college coaches, and others regarding professional football in the 1920s?

Well, you may not remember that when professional football started, it wasn’t looked on with favor by many people. For instance, the great coach at Chicago University, Alonzo Stagg, was vehemently opposed to it. He believed it should be reserved for schools and colleges.

The very idea of having professional teams was not to be tolerated. I guess Bob Zuppke, the coach at Illinois, felt much the same way, because when Red Grange decided to join the Chicago Bears in 1925, Zup did everything he could think of to talk Red out of it. Lots of people then seemed to think it was okay for baseball players to be professional, but not football players.

When did you begin playing sports, specifically football, and was your older brother Dutch an influence?

Ever since I can remember, I was involved in athletics, one kind or another, in my home town of Springfield, IL. I got interested in bicycle racing, tennis, and wrestling. But eventually I concentrated on football. My brother, who was five years older than I, was captain of the Springfield High School football team and he used to tell me things he learned from the coach while I was still in grammar school.

Practiced Drop Kicking In Back Yard

You became an excellent kicker at Springfield High School. How did you perfect that particular skill?

I used to practice drop kicking in our back yard until I really had it down pat. I remember how my drop kicking came in handy even when I was a freshman in high school in a game against Carlinville in particular.

As a freshman, you were not eligible to be on the first team, so I was on the second team. In that game we made yardage against them, but were stopped short of making a touchdown, so I would drop kick. I made three successful drop kicks that day and that was the only score in the game. My practicing had paid off!

When you look back at your career, what are some of the biggest changes that you have witnessed in the game of football itself?

It is interesting to look back and note the changes that have taken place in football since I was a kid. One of the differences in football at that time was that we had three downs to make ten yards, not four as it is today.

Another difference is that there was no passing. It was a running game. When passing started, you had to be five yards behind the line of scrimmage before you were permitted to make a pass. As you know, today passing is the name of the game, so to speak.

Tried to Compensate For Lack of Size

And then you were off to the University of Illinois. Was your lack of size an issue for you at the collegiate level?

I only weighed 135 pounds when I played at the University of Illinois so I learned a few tricks to compensate for the difference in my size compared to some of the other fellows.

When playing safety on defense, for instance, I would stand sideways, and as I caught the ball, I’d take a step sideways, then turn completely around before starting to run. I’d roll off the shoulder of the tackler most of the time and keep on running. This twirling kept me from getting hurt.

During your career at Illinois, can you recall any major changes in the game that took place during that time?

One thing that an old timer would not recognize is the huddle. I was the quarterback at Illinois when we played the University of Chicago in 1921. Our coach, Bob Zuppke, introduced the huddle in that game.

He made football history in many ways, but it seems odd that nobody thought of the huddle before Zup. After he used it, it was taken up all over the country. By having a huddle, any player on the team could make suggestions regarding any weakness of the defense. In those days you could not send in plays with a substitute.

What else has changed about football since your career began?

A few more differences I have noted through the years are that they didn’t used to have official’s signals. No little red flags. Spectators could hardly tell what was going on. There was no nice electric score board to give details, tell what quarter it was, or whether there was a penalty and how much time was left to play.

Also, before 1919, players didn’t wear numbers on their backs. Going back even farther, few head gears were used. There were no tees to hold the ball. I made mounds out of mud for kicking off. Remember, there was no TV and certainly no instant replays.

I Could Play In Sunday Clothes!

If I remember correctly, even though you were the quarterback for the Bears, you still played both ways during a game without a substitute. How did that work?

One of the most striking changes, in my opinion, has been the way football now resembles a chess game with coaches directing the play. It used to be that there was no coaching from the sidelines. The quarterback was the general. He had full charge about how the game was played.

It used to be a team of eleven players, with the quarterback running the game and few substitutions. Today, as you know, substitutes are sent in to make one play. We played the whole game, defense and offense. When the Bears started we couldn’t afford to hire a bunch of guys to sit on the bench. (I never enjoyed sitting on the bench anyhow.)

Those of us who played every minute of the game were nicknamed 60-minute men. Golly, I could go in the game in my Sunday clothes if all I had to do was kick for the point after touchdown!

Eight Games In Eleven Days

One of the most important things that occurred during your career was the arrival of Red Grange in 1925, and the ensuing two tours that the Bears scheduled to both showcase Grange, as well as raise some funds for the franchise. What was that first Grange tour like?

For the first tour through the Midwest and the East, we played eight games in eleven days right after Red Grange joined us in 1925. I’ve often talked about this because no football team had ever attempted anything like it before, or since either. We played in Cubs Park against the Cardinals on Thanksgiving Day, which was Thursday.

Then we played in St. Louis on Saturday, New York on Sunday, where 73,000 fans crowded into the Polo Grounds which only seated 65,000. There was standing room only. On the following Tuesday we played in Washington, D.C., then Wednesday in Boston, and Thursday in Pittsburgh.

We finished with a Saturday game in Detroit, and finally on Sunday back home in Cubs Park, for the eighth game in eleven days. I played sixty minutes of every one of those games except the one in Pittsburgh. It was no picnic, you may be sure. 

We Had Our Own Pullman Car and Porter!

How did the second tour differ from the initial tour?

After resting our battered and bruised bodies for a week or so, we took off on another tour beginning in January of 1926. This one was more leisurely and luxurious than the first tour, not such an ordeal. We had our own Pullman car and personal porter. Our first game was in Memphis. From there we went Jacksonville, Florda, then Tampa. A week later we played in Miami.

The following Sunday we played in New Orleans and took in all the sights long the way. Our next game was on Saturday in Los Angeles, where about 85,000 people attended. The following day, Sunday, we played in San Diego. A week later, we played in San Francisco. The next week we played in Portland and following week in Seattle. That last game was on February 1, 1926. This tour was enjoyable.

We had time for sightseeing. William Wrigley had a big estate on Catalina Island, and as the Bears played in Wrigley Field in Chicago, we were honored guests at his mansion on Catalina Island.

Did you enjoy any other specific experiences during the tour?

I was treated to an airplane ride over Portland, Oregon in an open cockpit plane, sitting on a parachute. The pilot was Lt. Oakley Kelley, the first man to fly across the U.S. from dawn to dusk. So, as you can see, this was a long time ago when flying across the country was a big deal!

We also met some of the most famous movie stars of that era—Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd and many others. Altogether, it was a great experience.

Flipped A Coin To Own Chicago Bears

One final question. During the 1920s, your brother Dutch Sternaman and George Halas were the co-owners of the Chicago Bears. How did they decide who would eventually buy the other one out?

In those dark days of the depression—1930 and 31—professional football was having financial difficulties along with everyone else. Ed and George decided to toss a coin to see who would buy the other out. Believe it or not, my brother won the toss, so George had to buy him out. Just think, if Dutch had only lost, he could have been Papa Bear. With things so tough then, it wasn’t easy for George to scrape up the necessary cash, but he managed, and the rest is history.

Thank you for joining us for this episode of “When Football Was Football” on the Sports History Network. It was enjoyable “talking” with the legendary Joey Sternaman, and once again our gratitude is extended to his daughter Joyce for sharing this unique piece of pro football history!


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.

Joe Ziemba

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