Little Big Man: Joey Sternaman of the Chicago Bears

It is now common in the National Football League to have quarterbacks who are bigger in size than linemen were in days gone by. Consider guys like Big Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton who both stand 6-5 and weigh over 240 pounds.

A century ago, when the NFL was struggling to survive, it was rare to find a tackle who was as large as today’s signal-callers. Big, fast, mobile, and crafty—those are traits that are highly desirable among quarterbacks in the 21st century.

In this episode of “When Football Was Football,” we’ll look at the colorful career of quarterback Joey Sternaman of the Chicago Bears who certainly did not fit the mold when it came to big, powerful quarterbacks.

But Sternaman had all of the attributes just mentioned except for one: size. Joey stood just 5-6 and was listed as being 150 pounds, although many felt that he was likely just a shade over 135 during his playing days.

Born in Springfield, IL in the year 1900, Sternaman enjoyed sports growing up and eventually found his way to the University of Illinois.

Too Quick, Too Smart, Too Tough

But did his lack of size at 5-6 and maybe 135 hinder his football career? Never! His coach at Illinois, Robert Zuppke, once explained how Sternaman used his strength to dominate from his backfield position: “Sternaman can hit a line harder than most big fullbacks.

He is one of the strongest men I’ve ever seen!” Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice said: “139-pound Joe Sternaman could wreck any 200- or 250-pound man he ever saw in a rough and tumble. Bob Zuppke once told me that he was too quick, too smart, and too rough.” Another writer told the Chicago Tribune that Sternaman “combined the traits of a bantam rooster and pit bulldog.”

And that was the secret: Joey Sternaman was feisty and tough on the football field despite his size. Relentless, determined, and aggressive…that was Joey Sternaman. He would just as soon run through a tackler as he would run around him, and he could easily do both! During his nine-year professional career, Sternaman was one of the game’s leading scorers, was three times an All-Pro, and even secured ownership in a couple of teams along the way.

However, his route to NFL stardom, and indeed his time with the Chicago Bears, was both interesting and unusual. It is certainly a story worth sharing with you today. First, let’s discover why the man who was later named as one of the 100 greatest Bears of all time, initially joined the team. 

Some Tried To Disguise Themselves

Following the 1921 Illinois season, Joey participated in a semi-pro game on November 21 waged between two towns in Illinois from Taylorville and Carlinville. Most of the participants were college players, so their presence was certainly dangerous if any of them were caught and hoped to retain their future collegiate eligibility.

Some tried to disguise themselves, but most felt that there was little chance of being recognized on a small-town football field where the players were reportedly paid about $50 each. Sternaman was a member of the Taylorville club that knocked off Carlinville 9-0 as Joey scored all of the Taylorville points via three dropkicks in the second half. Joey’s future teammate on the Bears, Carl Brumbaugh recalled the unusual circumstances of the game:

“One team [Carlinville] was made up entirely of Notre Dame varsity players and the other was made up of Illinois varsity men. All of them were, of course, playing under assumed names. The betting on the game was fantastic.

People were putting houses and businesses on the line to back their favorite. Joey Sternaman won the game for the Illinois bunch with three dropkicks. He was the big hero, but even though he had his face covered with adhesive tape, he was recognized. His size gave him away. So, he was kicked off the Illinois team and from there he came to the Bears.”

We All Got Kicked Out

Sternaman’s recollection was similar, but a bit different: “A little while later, back at school one day, I got a call from George Huff [Illinois athletic director]. He wanted to see me. He said, “I understand you played down in that Taylorville game.” He knew it, and that was that. So, we all got kicked out of athletics at Illinois. So did the Notre Dame players.

It didn’t matter so much for most of them because they were seniors anyway, but I still had a year of eligibility left, and so it affected me a lot more. There’s always been the story going around that I wore paint on my face and adhesive bandages to disguise who I was, but that wasn’t really so. I don’t see why I would have. We didn’t think the schools would hear about it, and, hell, everybody at the game knew who we were, and where we came from. But I guess it made for a better story.“

Joey’s brother, Dutch Sternaman, was the co-owner and co-coach of the Bears when the team moved to Chicago from Decatur and convinced his partner George Halas that Joey would be a valuable addition to the club in 1922. His presence paid immediate dividends as Joey stated later in life:

Hell, They Were All Bigger Than Me!

“So, I went with the Bears when I couldn’t play at Illinois anymore—that was in 1922. Dutch talked me into it. It worked out well. I was able to beat out Pard Pearce for the starting job at quarterback, which he’d had since the Decatur days. I had myself a pretty good year—scored maybe four or five touchdowns, which was a good amount in those days.

The game was rougher than college football, I found out, but it didn’t bother me. The players were bigger—hell, they were all bigger than me. I was only 5’6” and about 150 pounds. But I wasn’t afraid of any of them.” 

Although records are sketchy from those early days of the NFL, it appears that the Sternaman brothers scored 73 of the 123 points compiled by the Bears in 1922. The team finished with a 9-3 record which was good for second place in the final NFL standings.

In 1980, Chicago Tribune columnist Jeff Lyon described the importance of Joey Sternaman’s role with the Bears in the 1920s: “The quarterback was the undisputed field general, the boss, the brains, the man who called the plays. In Sternaman’s case, he was also a runner, blocker, and drop kicker par excellence.” In other words, despite his size, Sternaman could do it all for the Bears

Lyon also credited Sternaman with creating both the quarterback option play as well as the bootleg stating: “He would run eight yards to the side and if he spotted a receiver, he’d throw; if not, he’d just keep going until someone got his hands on him. He also originated the bootleg play, faking to the halfback who ran one way, then hiding the ball behind his leg as he ran the other.”

    We Made Maybe $150 A Game

    In his later years, Joey reflected on his early years in the NFL: “As I think back on it, it sure was a lot different in those days, not just in the fact that we made maybe $150 a game.

    Take the quarterback, for example, because he sure is different today than when I played. I’d call each play, set the signals. We’d talk in the huddle. Somebody would tell me who was pulling out on defense or who might be hurt a little bit.

    We’d talk things over, and often I’d just call a play like ‘left halfback around right end.’ No numbers, no code, just that, and everybody had the sense to know what to do. Today the quarterback is just there, hands the ball off, and that’s it. Sure, he’s a good passer. But somebody runs out onto the field and tells him what play to call.

    And they’ve got coaches in the press box and radios and headsets and a dozen coaches on the sideline. Hell, our coaches, guys like Halas and Dutch, were on the field playing in the game, in the huddle with us. Today the quarterback wouldn’t think of blocking somebody. And today a team loses 10 percent of its interference because a quarterback doesn’t block. That was natural to me; one of the best parts of the game, running interference.”

    In 1923, Joey left the Bears to take over as coach of the new Duluth Kelleys. Duluth finished 4-3, but never scored more than ten points in any game. Joey topped the team in scoring by collecting 17 of the Kelleys’ 35 points for the season.

    1924 Chicago Bears team photo
    Team photo of the 1924 Chicago Bears (World Champions of the NFL). Brothers Dutch and Joey Sternaman in this photo. Credit: (File Pulled From WikiMedia Commons) Photo is in the public domain. Source - Private collection of Michal Moran.

    He was back with the Bears for the 1924 schedule and was with the Bears when Red Grange arrived in 1925, prompting the Bears to take on a pair of tours to showcase the talented Grange. Sternaman enjoyed being a part of the festivities on the second tour which began in Florida and then ended up on the west coast. Sternaman recalled:

    “From Los Angeles, we went down to San Diego and then up to San Francisco, Portland, and finally Seattle. This second tour lasted five weeks—a lot easier than the first one of two weeks. I think through it all I got $200 a game. Red, of course, got much more—thousands, I believe—but he was the drawing card.

    It was quite something, and we all enjoyed it—the second tour, that is. We saw all the nightlife of New Orleans and a lot of the stars in Hollywood, and there was always something going on. I had my first airplane ride while I was on it.

    Up in Portland, Oregon, there was this fellow, Oakley Kelley, I believe his name was, and he took me up in an open-cockpit plane. I was sitting on a parachute while we flew over the city. That was really something in 1925.”

    There Was Never A Better Quarterback Than Joey

    Then in 1926, Joey accepted an offer to both play and coach for the new Chicago Bulls of the American Football League. He was also one of the owners of the club. This circuit was the brainchild of C.C. Pyle, the personal manager of Red Grange, and featured Grange and Sternaman as two of the most prominent players in the league.

    George Halas was not pleased to lose his quarterback saying: “I was most sorry to see him go. He had been our biggest scorer and our most popular player, apart from Red Grange.” At the time of his departure, Joey was also a part-owner of the Bears.

    The American Football League lasted just one season, and Joey rejoined the Bears in time for the 1927 campaign, the third time that he became a member of the Bears! Eventually, Grange recovered from a knee injury and drifted back to the Bears in 1929 where he was reunited with Sternaman and remembered:

    “The Bears had a wonderful team at the time I joined them. Little Joey Sternaman was the quarterback, and there was never a better one than him. He could run with the ball, he was smart, he could pass, he could kick.”

    Sternaman decided to retire from the Bears after the 1930 season and later explained his decision: “I quit after the 1930 season. I was over thirty and some new people had come along. It wasn’t the way it had been anymore, and I knew it was time to get out. But it was great to be there then, to play the game like it was in those days. What a game it was!”

    In retirement, he became the owner of the Sternaman Cast Iron Smoke Pipe Company, before passing away on March 10, 1988, in Oak Park, IL at the age of 88.

    Oak Park, of course, was the home of author Ernest Hemingway, leaving that town with two giants in their respective industries. And for little Joe Sternaman, who was called that by Red Grange, the idea of being larger than life on the football field would suit him just fine!

    Thank you for joining us for this episode of “When Football Was Football.” We hope that you will return for the next program just prior to the Super Bowl when we’ll take a closer look at the last NFL championship won by the Cardinals.

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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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