Mutka: Hobart’s John Johnson celebrates 50 years with Bears, Laurel
By John Mutka Post-Tribune senior correspondent email@example.com September 8, 2013 9:08PM
Stephanie Dowell/Post-Tribune Hall of Fame inductee John Johnson (center, dark suit) talks with (from right) his brother-in-law Dick Loverich of Valparaiso, his brother Jim Johnson of Hobart and current Hobart football coach Wally McCormack during the 2008 Brickie Ball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Ambassador Banquets in Hobart July 18, 2008. McCormack organized the event.
Updated: October 10, 2013 6:36AM
To say this is a memorable year for John Johnson is putting it mildly. Two anniversaries would fill anybody’s scrapbook, but these are real doozies.
Fifty years ago the Hobart native played defensive tackle for the Bears, who edged the New York Giants 14-10 for the NFL championship. He was also married in 1963, his rookie season.
“Laurel was from Hobart, but she attended Bishop Noll,” said Johnson, who played his high school football for the legendary Russ Deal. “She was a music major and attended St. Mary’s for two years, but I talked her into coming to Indiana for her junior year. We celebrated our 50th anniversary with a river cruise in Europe.”
After playing for Hobart’s first unbeaten team (1959), he signed with the Hoosiers, who seldom strayed from Big Ten bottom feeding. To make matters worse their perpetual rebuilding was complicated by a stiff NCAA penalty, which included banishing coach Phil Dickens to the sidelines for one season.
“I had a good senior year, but we weren’t winning,” said Johnson, who still attracted enough attention to be drafted in the sixth round as an offensive tackle. In his six years with the Bears he appeared in 85 games. Johnson credits George Allen, the Bears defensive guru, for his longevity.
“If it wasn’t for Allen’s relationship with my college coach (Dickens), we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said.
Allen shifted Johnson to defense when Fred Williams was injured and he started in a 52-14 romp against the Los Angeles Rams. After the Bears improved to 5-and-0 he received the game ball.
Defense has always been a trademark of the Bears, who were dubbed “Monsters of the Midway” before Johnson joined the storied franchise. Their defense inspired an 11-1-2 season by limiting eight opponents to seven points or less. In two victories over the hated Packers, who finished 11-2-1, they gave up just 10 points. Only San Francisco solved the Bears with a 20-14 victory.
Allen received the game ball after the championship game, but Larry Morris inspired the victory with an early tackle of quarterback Y.A. Tittle. The wily veteran suffered an injured left knee and was severely hampered over the next three quarters.
In the second quarter Morris aggravated it with another hit to the left knee. To continue in the second half Tittle needed cortisone, novocaine and heavy taping. Throwing off his back foot, he was gobbled up in a feeding frenzy.
One of his five interceptions went to Morris, who raced 62 yards to set up the Bears’ first touchdown. To be sure it was an MVP performance.
Unfortunately, Morris will only be present in spirit when surviving members of that championship season are honored Sunday during a game with the Vikings. Morris died last spring, but was not forgotten.
“Must have been more than 400 people attended a memorial service for him,” said Johnson, who will be among the 1963 Bears present at Soldier Field. “We’ll have at least 20 guys.”
Unfortunately, that won’t include Gary’s Ted Karras, who is confined to his home in Miller because of health problems. Karras and Johnson share an Indiana University heritage.
“He can’t make it because his legs are in real bad shape,” Johnson said.
Neither will Richie Petitbon, whose end zone interception in the final seconds preserved the victory. He’s also having health issues.
Their championship season was tarnished by the NFL’s refusal to postpone games on Nov. 24, the day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Johnson learned of it after practice.
“I lived in Glen Park in my rookie year and used to ride to practice with Ted (Karras),” he said. “We were driving back home and heard it on the radio. It was very emotional because he was such a (charismatic) figure.”
The Bears and Steelers struggled to a 17-17 tie, a score copied the following week against the Vikings.
In retrospect, Johnson wonders if the games could have been postponed until Monday, but pointed out the difficulties involved.
“We played 14 games,” he said. “Rescheduling would have been a nightmare.”
Does he wonder why the ‘63 team never received the permanent adulation of the 1985 Super Bowl champions?
“It had become a different game by then,” Johnson said. “In my rookie year I signed a $10,000 contract and received a $2,000 bonus. When we won the championship I got a check for $5,849. Now I think they got something like $250,000.
“Most of us worked summer jobs. Joe Stydahar set me up with a corrugated box company, then in industry sales for Northern Indiana.”
He often worked on and off the field.
“On Mondays, our day off (football) I worked full-time and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays a half-day.”
Johnson phoned in our conversation from Steamboat Springs, a resort area in northwest Colorado, where they spend four-to-six weeks every year.
“We built a home there in 1986,” he said. “We had two sons who played in the WAAC, one with the Air Force Academy and the other at Wyoming so we needed a place to hang out for games.”
Over the weekend the Johnsons packed up and were planning to return to Chicago on Monday.
Johnson lived in Valparaiso until his dad built a home in Hobart on Ohio Avenue. He was a fifth grader when they moved.
During his years with the Bears, George Halas whipped them into preseason shape at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer. A residence hall on campus was named after Papa Bear (Take that, you who suggest we should embrace the sneaky Colts, who betrayed Baltimore in the dead of night years ago).
“Nobody could see us practicing because we were surrounded by corn,” Johnson recalled. “In the cornfield it seemed like the temperature was 105.”
Not much to do in what little spare time they had, was there?
“We’d go over to Lake Shafer (Monticello),” he said. “It was only a 30-minute drive. That was one of our hangouts.”
During his Big Ten years, Johnson played against Tom Kerr, long-time defensive coordinator during Don Howell’s Hobart dynasty.
“Tom was a team captain at Michigan,” Johnson said. “I got hurt in our game during my junior year and he came over (still) in uniform and talked his way into our locker room to see how I was doing.”
Offense was not a strong point of the 1963 Bears. They only averaged 22.5 points, but Iron Mike Ditka caught a team-high 59 passes for 714 yards from the tight end position.
Belatedly, the Bears have retired No. 89 and owner George McCaskey suggested Ditka’s number would be the last to be stored in mothballs. Sorry about that, Mr. Urlacher.