The Name Every Bears Fan Should Know
When you think of the most important and influential Bears players, who do you think of? Walter Payton? Gale Sayers? Dick Butkus? Sid Luckman? Mike Ditka?
The aforementioned players are no doubt some of our most celebrated names and each hold their rightful place in Bears Football history, however there is a name that some of you might not be familiar with who also deserves his due recognition.
His name is Eddie Macon. He is a pioneer, a trailblazer, and the first African-American to pull on a Chicago Bears jersey.
Eddie Macon’s difficult upbringing reads more like a movie script. Born March 7, 1927, in Stockton, California Macon tragically lost his father at 18 months to a black widow spider bite. Raised by his step-father who he acknowledged as his father, Macon recounted his tragic upbringing in the Andy Piascik’s 2009 book, Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football:
“The only father I knew was my step-father. He raised us like we were his own children. My mother was always in frail health and she died when I was 14. Then my step-father raised my brother and I, and when he remarried, his wife helped raise us.”
During Macon’s early years, between 1934 and 1946, in what was a shameful period for the National Football League, there were no African-Americans playing in the League due to the “Depression-Era Ban”. Discrimination and race relations during the Great Depression had been pivotal to the ban, however it is also widely believed that George Preston Marshall (Washington Football Team owner) whom was openly opposed to having black players in his team had allegedly also put pressure on other owners in the league, including Tim Mara (Giants) and George Halas to follow suit.
Despite these widely-held beliefs, in several newspaper interviews, Halas has always denied that there had ever been a league-wide conspiracy against hiring black players.
By the early 1940’s, positive change was on the horizon. At the College All-Star Game, coach George Halas was so impressed with UCLA’s Kenny Washington that he asked Washington not to return home to Los Angeles and put him up in Chicago for three weeks whilst he lobbied the League to permit integration, but was unfortunately unsuccessful in his endeavour.
The lone holdout reportedly being, yep you guessed it, George Preston Marshall.
At age eighteen, Macon joined the Army and as World War II was drawing to a close, he was posted to Japan for seven months. Upon his return from Japan, Macon enrolled at the University of the Pacific in his hometown of Stockton where he ran track and played Football for the Pacific Tigers as running back/defensive back. Macon was also the first African-American on the team.
Meanwhile in 1949 in Chicago, the Bears had become the first NFL team to draft an African-American player by selecting halfback George Taliaferro from Indiana. Taliaferro however, never played for the Bears, opting to sign instead with the Los Angeles Dons in the All-American Football Conference.
In that same year, Macon and his Tigers enjoyed an unbeaten season (11-0). With quarterback Eddie LeBaron, the Tigers outscored their opponents by a combined 575 – 66, which included an astonishing 88-0 thrashing of the Cal Poly Mustangs and finishing #10 in the National Polls.
In a 2005 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Macon recalled a team trip to Baton Rouge in 1951, where he learned upon arrival that he would not be allowed to play against LSU. He would be hidden away at the home of a black funeral director and refused service at several restaurants.
Despite these experiences, Macon dominated for Pacific averaging 18.9 yards per punt return and made history as the first African-American to appear in a Sun Bowl.
Despite his size (5’11” and 150 lbs), Macon’s reward would come in the 1952 NFL Draft, when he was selected with pick 20 in the second round.
In the same 2005 interview, Macon reflected on his time in Chicago and the words that Halas had told him:
“I want you to be my Jackie Robinson. Halas was sending me a message by saying that. He knew there was going to be a lot of bigotry. There were going to be a lot of things I’d have to endure, and I couldn’t lash back.”
Halas’s predictions couldn’t have been more accurate. The bigotry however, came from inside the Bears locker room.
In Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football, Macon remembered Bears training as the “roughest time I ever had”:
“I’d go into the bathroom and they’d have ‘Macon go home’ and ‘Macon we don’t want you’ and other stuff written on the mirror or the walls.”
In an interview with chicagobears.com, Macon recalled playing pre-season games in the south, where black players were not welcome in hotels, and he would have to lodge with local African-American families in the area.
Macon spent two years in Chicago (1952 – 1953), for 23 games. He rushed for a total of 324 yards and 2 touchdowns from 70 attempts, while catching 14 passes for 49 yards and 2 touchdowns. In 22 kick returns, he averaged 30.5 yards per return and 5.9 yards on 24 punt returns.
One of these punt returns was a memorable 63-yarder against the Redskins in which Macon zig-zagged across the field. No doubt George Preston Marshall would have enjoyed that one.
After just two seasons, Macon left the Bears in 1954 for better pay and to follow his old Pacific Tigers coach, Larry Siemering to play with the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League.
“After I played for the Bears for two years, I got more money to play with the Calgary Stampeders so I jumped my contract. That changed my life drastically and ended up costing me a lot of money.”
Macon’s move to Canada left Halas so incensed that he blacklisted Macon, refused to acknowledge him and went so far as suing him for $100,000.
After four seasons in the Canadian Football League, Macon returned to his beloved Stockton, playing all 14 games for the Oakland Raiders in their inaugural season in 1960.
Macon hauled in 9 interceptions in his season with the Raiders and earned himself selection in the AFL All-Pro Team. After a decision made by the Raiders to opt for youth, Macon’s Football career had come to an end.
Later on in life in 2005, Macon reflected on the hardship of a lifetime of dealing with systemic racism:
“Every day when I wake up, I know that I’m black. I knew that I was a young kid and I know it today. I wake up and I say to myself ‘Good morning cruel world, how are you going to screw me today’.
“Hardly a day has gone by in my life where something hasn’t happened to me to let me know that I am black. You go to a store in a mall and you’re looking at things and you know there’s somebody following you. Or you’re the first one standing in line to buy groceries and the cashier points to the guy behind you if he’s caucasian and calls him to the front of the line. That’s when I have to say ‘Wait a minute, I’m next’.
Incredibly, and in a testament to his strength and grind mentality, Eddie Macon worked as a longshoreman until the age of 82. Sadly, he passed away aged 90 on Wednesday April 19 after a short illness. Eddie was survived at the time by his wife Jessie of 71 years, his four daughters, Marilyn, Janice, Edna and Andrea, his 12 grandchildren, more than three dozen great-grandchildren and 10 great-great-grandchildren. Macon was preceded in death by his son, Edwin Jr., and two grandsons.
Perhaps it is most fitting to end with a quote from Macon in 2005, speaking about the pride he had of being the Bears first ever African-American player:
“I’ll remember blazing the trail, being the first black player on the Bears. Nobody can take that away from me.”
Next year, it will be the 70th anniversary of Eddie’s historic moment of being the first African-American to play for the Bears. Eddie’s resilience, strength and bravery, despite the systemic racism experienced all around him in society, from the opposition, (and even from his own team) deserves acknowledgement.
Seemingly, Eddie has never been officially welcomed back to Chicago. Sure, the Bears have published a few well-timed articles on chicagobears.com along with a bunch of social media posts, however, the organization can and should do better.
Eddie Macon deserves to be honored by Chicago, and fans should be given the opportunity to celebrate his contribution.
To the Bears organization please. Wrap your arms around Eddie’s family and give them the celebration and acknowledgement that they deserve. Call it a homecoming of sorts.
Perhaps a small presentation of Eddie’s #25 jersey to the family in the middle of Soldier Field would be a nice touch.
It would be a fitting gesture and one that is decades overdue.
Until that day, Eddie, to you and your extended family, thank you for your contribution to the Bears organization. Most importantly, thank you for being a key figure for the reintegration, and equality for the NFL.
Edward Donald Macon
Born: 7 March 1927, Stockton, California, United States
Died: 19 April 2017, California, United States
Height: 1.83 m
College: College of the Pacific
NFL draft: 1952 (Round: 2 / Pick: 20)
Bears Jersey: 25
NFL Games: 37
Rushing Yards: 324
Receiving Yards: 49