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Museum Musings

9.19.17: Remembering Football Great Sid Luckman

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This month, football fans celebrated the kickoff of the NFL’s 98th season. And 78 years ago, an up-and-coming Jewish football star was gearing up for his first season as a professional player.

It was not the path Sid Luckman thought he would take, but this Chicago Bears quarterback made history—being named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player was just one highlight of Luckman’s illustrious athletic career.

Sid Luckman FootballSid Luckman (1916-1998) was born in Brooklyn to German-Jewish immigrants. As a kid growing up in Flatbush, he always had either a baseball or football in hand, and made the junior varsity football team as a freshman at Erasmus Hall High School. Sought-after by college recruiters, Luckman had his choice of schools, and decided to enroll at Columbia University in New York City. With no athletic scholarships offered there at the time, Luckman often juggled multiple jobs to make his way through. In addition to playing football for the Columbia Lions, Luckman was a member of Zeta Beta Tau, a historically Jewish fraternity.

Columbia didn’t have the strongest collegiate team, but Luckman was a standout. He had not originally intended to pursue a career in professional football – he married shortly after graduating in 1939, and planned to join his family’s trucking business – but he was urged to go pro by Chicago Bears coach George Halas, who had seen Luckman play.

Halas must have been convincing, because Luckman went on to join the Bears for 12 seasons. He was known as the “Master of the T-Formation,” pioneering this offensive strategy. November 14, 1943 was declared “Sid Luckman Day” in New York to commemorate the Brooklyn native’s incredible performance that day, contributing to the Bears’ win over the Giants, 56-7.

I was curious about Luckman’s connection to Judaism, and in what ways his background and career might have converged. Unlike Sandy Koufax, Luckman didn’t make a name for himself after choosing to sit out a game in observance of a Jewish holiday. In an interview in 1949 for Sport magazine, Luckman commented, “I go to the temple regularly and I observe the high holidays and I never go to bed at night without saying a little prayer.” Luckman made little else public about his relationship with religion. Still, the “greatest long-range passer of his time” remains an icon of Jewish Americans in sports.

You can see Luckman’s football on view at NMAJH, or find out more about Jews in American sports on our Only in America website.

-Contributed by Jackie Bein, NMAJH Curatorial Intern

Football signed by Sid Luckman, Chicago Bears. National Museum of American Jewish History, 2008.35.1, Gift of George Blumenthal.



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