From Bill Wade to Jay Cutler, Vandy Dandy Takes Chicago
Nearly 60 years ago, Wade was the No.1 pick in the 1952 NFL Draft. Today, he is nearly blind, having begun to lose his eyesight due to glaucoma eight or nine years ago, a large, proud man in a wheelchair, clinging tightly to his love for the Chicago Bears.
Wade's 80 and it's been over 47 years since he scored two rushing touchdowns to claim a 14-10 NFL championship for the Bears over the New York Giants. That 1963 title is one of only two championships the Bears have won since 1947. Now it's the Friday before the NFC Championship Game, when another Vanderbilt quarterback, Jay Cutler, will lead the Chicago Bears against the arch-rival Green Bay Packers with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Wearing a white button-down shirt with a Chicago Bears tie and a navy blue Chicago Bears baseball cap, Wade has lost none of the fiery passion that epitomizes one of the NFL's oldest rivalries. "Well," Wade says when asked about the Green Bay Packers, "they have a good football team, but we always have a better one."
Wade, who along with Jim McMahon, is the only living Bears quarterback to have won a championship, came to Chicago via trade from the Los Angeles Rams in 1961. Though he played seven years for the Rams, Wade was never completely comfortable there. "The Rams were kind of Hollywood," Wade said -- and he'd never considered himself a flashy player. Just like Cutler, Wade came to the Bears after an unsuccessful NFL sojourn out west.
Upon arriving in Chicago, Wade immediately impressed 12-year-old Patrick McCaskey, the grandson of head coach George Halas, whose family still owns the team today. By the summer of 1966, Wade, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound quarterback whose favorite passing target was tight end Mike Ditka -- "When you got him (Ditka) the ball, he didn't stop," Wade recalls -- had agreed to instruct McCaskey in the finer arts of quarterbacking. But before he would begin any instruction, the gentle giant insisted that he and McCaskey find a four-leaf clover in the grass. "He believed that meant we'd have a good workout," McCaskey told FanHouse.
By 1967, Wade was a player/coach on the team and saved McCaskey from a severe scolding when he walked into the team bathroom to see that a water fight had nearly destroyed the bathroom. "If you put the washroom back into its original condition, I won't tell Coach Halas," he said.
All accepted, McCaskey wrote in one of his two books about his life experience with the Bears.
But the next season, 1967, Wade called his old coach and announced his retirement. Wade would become a banker in Nashville. But before he took up a second career, McCaskey said that Wade confessed to crying for three straight hours. The two men still talk on the phone, most recently last month.
Even 43 years after his retirement, Wade's love for the Bears has not faded. "They'll be important to me all my life," he says.
As the latest, biggest game in the Bears-Packers rivalry nears, Wade was asked about his own rivalry games with the Packers. "I liked Bart Starr," Wade says, "I thought he was a good man. Just so long as we beat them, he was." Wade cackles, an old man made young again. Taken back to the days when his hulking frame was tough to tackle. "I don't know if they were scared of me," he says, pausing to stretch three or four beats on a winter morning, "but I sure hope they were."
Asked if Coach Halas had any special words for the team before taking the field against the Packers, Wade exhorts: "He'd say beat those ..." Wade pauses, redirects, a Southern gentleman at a loss for words. "I don't believe I can tell you what he called them," he says.
Come Sunday, Wade will be listening to the game as Cutler, the latest Vandy quarterback to chase the biggest prize in sports, and the Bears try to advance to the Super Bowl. Wade may well be listening from his room at the elder care facility. The same room with three different Bear hats hanging from the wall, a Chicago Bears locker room placard and a single white sign hanging from the wall in front of his bed. A simple message that every modern-day Bear fan can appreciate is scrawled in black ink: "Bill Wade #9 says: Beat the Packers!"
Alongside his twin bed with a Chicago Bear throw pillow on top, Wade sleeps beneath a portrait of a young man in a No. 9 jersey, right arm cocked backward, helmet off, arm poised to uncork yet another spiral to a receiver just outside the frame. Asked if he has any advice for Jay Cutler on the eve of the biggest game of Cutler's career, Wade cackles anew, "Don't forget to ask for money!" he says.
After pausing for laughter, Wade blinks his eyes rapidly several times, leans forward, and says, "If you play, you need to win." Wade is silent for a moment, lost in thought about games of yesteryear, of touchdowns come and gone, of clocks that never stop running.
His final advice to Jay Cutler less than 48 hours from kickoff?
"Why lose?" he asks.
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