Connor, George Leo, Sr. (“Moose”)
Connor, George Leo, Sr. (“Moose”)
(b. 21 January 1925 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 31 March 2003 in Chicago, Illinois), college and professional football lineman who entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975.
For a man who acquired the nickname “Moose,” Connor had an inauspicious beginning. At the time of his birth Connor weighed only two pounds. A diet of cabbage juice administered hourly by his mother using an eyedropper is credited with saving the tiny infant. Connor was the first of the three children of Charles Connor, a physician, and Esther (Keeley) Connor, a registered nurse.
Connor weighed only 125 pounds and was five feet, three inches tall in 1938 when he first reported for football at De La Salle Institute in Chicago. A growth spurt then added a foot in height and a corresponding amount of weight. In addition to football at De La Salle, Connor played basketball, using his newly acquired height and bulk to full advantage. He said, “I was probably a better basketball player than a football player in high school. I also played basketball in college—two seasons at Holy Cross and one at Notre Dame. I liked to mix it up under the boards.”
In 1942 Connor matriculated at the College of the Holy Cross, a small Jesuit college in Worcester, Massachusetts, where his uncle was a priest and faculty member. Although the Holy Cross Crusaders were a mediocre team, Connor attracted much attention as a play-wrecking tackle. Even though Connor was a freshman, the sportswriter Tim Cohane considered him “the finest tackle ever turned out by a New England college.” That Holy Cross had a reputation for mediocrity may have been the reason the All-America team overlooked Connor. Another explanation may be that the selectors of the collegiate All-America team would not accept a player only several months removed from playing high school football. The freshman Connor was selected to the All-East team.
Connor and his teammates had an indirect hand in saving the lives of many Boston College football players in the 1942 season. The Boston College Eagles had gone into a game against Holy Cross undefeated, practically assured of a bowl game bid, and fully expecting to thrash Holy Cross. A postgame celebration for the Eagles had been planned for 28 November 1942 at Boston’s renowned Coconut Grove night club. Connor and his team-mates devastated the Eagles, pulling off one of college football’s greatest upsets by winning 55–12. The victory party was called off, sparing the Eagles from the fifteen-minute fire that claimed 492 lives in the overcrowded club.
As a sophomore in 1943 Connor was named to most of the major All-America teams. He was instrumental in helping Holy Cross improve its record to 6–2. Connor served two years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, missing the 1944 and 1945 college football seasons. In 1946 Connor chose to play closer to home and transferred to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The furor caused by Connor’s leaving Holy Cross for the nation’s premier football school led Notre Dame to declare that future student athletes who transferred were welcome as students but ineligible to be athletes.
Playing for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in 1946, Connor picked up where he had left off before the war. He was a consensus All-America and won the inaugural Outland Trophy, emblematic of college football’s most outstanding interior lineman. The undefeated Notre Dame team was crowned national champion. In 1947 Connor repeated as consensus All-America, and Notre Dame was again unbeaten and national champion.
Because he had entered Holy Cross in 1942, Connor was eligible for the 1946 National Football League (NFL) draft. He was chosen by the New York Giants in the first round. Connor finished his Fighting Irish career and told the Giants he would not play in New York. The team traded his rights to the Boston NFL franchise, the Yanks, but Connor successfully angled to play in his hometown for the Chicago Bears and George Halas.
As a rookie in 1948 Connor was a two-way (offense and defense) tackle, averaging fifty-four minutes a game. As two-platoon football was phased in, Connor showed true versatility. He played offensive tackle and defensive tackle and at six feet, three inches and 245 pounds became the first jumbo linebacker in the NFL. Connor was moved into that position to stop the Philadelphia Eagles power runner, Steve Van Buren. Connor did such a fine job that the Bears won their game against Philadelphia 38–21, handing the eventual NFL champions their only defeat in 1949.
Connor was a man of integrity. The Bears halfback Eddie Macon, one of the few African Americans in the league in the early 1950s, was subject to verbal abuse from the Texas-flavored Detroit Lions. Said Macon, “George just told them to knock it off—they did! I had no trouble after he spoke to them.”
Connor took a screen test in Hollywood as a possible replacement for Johnny Weissmuller in the role of Tarzan. A producer said of the hulking, handsome Connor, “If George were to play Tarzan and he had to fight a tiger, the tiger would be the underdog.”
From 1948 to 1955 Connor was the heart and soul of the Bears. Paul Stenn, a teammate, said of Connor, “I’ve never been around a better football player or a better man.” Connor earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors eight times: five times as an offensive tackle, twice as a linebacker, and once as a defensive tackle. A knee injury forced Connor to retire prematurely before the 1956 season. He was on the Bears coaching staff for several years and provided color commentary for NFL games broadcast on television by the Columbia Broadcasting System. Connor became a successful businessman, owning and operating a corrugated container company. In 1962 Connor married Suzanne Dungan. The couple had two sons.
Connor’s health failed in his last years, and on 31 March 2003 in Chicago the nearly indestructible football player died of complications of several illnesses and numerous surgical procedures. A funeral mass at Holy Name Cathedral, Chicago, was followed by burial in All Saints Catholic Cemetery, Des Plaines, Illinois.
Connor was an innovative football player with a special zest for the game and for life in general. His pursuit of excellence carried into all facets of his life.
For a biography by Connor’s brother, see Jack Connor, Connor: The Life of George Connor (2001). For information on Connor’s contributions to football, see Bob Curran, Pro Football’s Rag Days (1969); Murray Olderman, The Defenders (1973); Richard Wittingham, Bears, in Their Own Words (1991); and Jack Connor Leahy’s Lads (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Apr. 2003).