(b. 21 November 1916 in Brooklyn, New York; d. 5 July 1998 in North Miami Beach, Florida), college All-American and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, often considered to be the creator of the modern quarterback position and pioneer in the development of the T-formation.
Luckman was one of two sons of Meyer Luckman, owner of a small family trucking business, and Ethel Drukman, a homemaker. Luckman's father gave him a football when he was eight years old, sparking his interest in the sport. By the time he graduated from Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School in 1935, Luckman was a polished single-wing tailback, equally skilled at passing, running, and kicking.
Luckman received many enticing scholarship offers to play college football. After meeting Columbia University's coach Lou Little, though, Luckman decided to enroll at that Ivy League institution, even though the school did not offer athletic aid. Luckman spent four years painting walls and washing dishes at one of Columbia's fraternity houses to pay his way through school. On the football field he again excelled as a triple-threat tailback. During his senior season in 1938, Luckman was chosen as an All-American and was third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy. His accomplishments were made more impressive by the fact that he was not surrounded by a strong team. Without scholarships, Columbia attracted few good athletes and had a losing record during Luckman's tenure.
Following his graduation in 1939, Luckman played in the College All-Star game in Chicago. He also married Estelle Margolin, his high school sweetheart. They had three children.
At six feet, 197 pounds, Luckman believed he was too small to play professional football. George Halas, owner of the Chicago Bears in the National Football League (NFL), drafted him in the first round anyway and spent several weeks convincing Luckman to sign. Halas and Stanford University coach Clark Shaugnessy were in the process of developing a new offense, based on the old T-formation. Where the original formation had emphasized power and running, Halas and Shaugnessy were designing a system based on speed, deception, and the forward pass. Halas believed Luckman was the ideal candidate to play quarterback in this new scheme.
Luckman's transition from single-wing tailback to T-formation was not easy. Just receiving the ball directly from the center, instead of standing four yards behind the line, took adjustment. At the start of his rookie season, Luckman played halfback and defensive back while he practiced the new offense. By 1940 he was ready.
The Bears enjoyed immediate success with Luckman and the T-formation, winning the NFL championship in 1940, 1941, and 1943, and playing in the championship game, but losing, in 1942. The 1940 championship was particularly impressive. The Bears beat the Washington Redskins 73–0 in what is still the most lopsided victory in league history. Games like these, and the Bears 56–7 victory over the New York Giants in 1943, convinced many coaches that the T-formation was the future of football and that Luckman was its master.
In the off-seasons Luckman began to visit colleges across the United States, helping their coaching staffs implement the T-formation. The United States Military Academy, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, and Columbia are just a few of the schools that requested Luckman's help. Luckman also wrote two books, Passing for Touchdowns (1948), and Luckman at Quarterback: Football as a Sport and Career (1949), and wrote numerous articles for boys' magazines. Outside of football, Luckman worked for Cellu-Craft Products, a food product packaging company.
Luckman spent 1943 and 1944 as an officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine, working on tankers and transports. He was able to get leave during football season weekends, though, and continued to play for the Bears. Apparently, missing practices all week was not a problem—Luckman won the NFL's Most Valuable Player award in 1943. After World War II, Luckman returned to the Bears full time, leading them to another championship in 1946. Retiring after the 1950 season, Luckman left the Bears with 14,686 career yards passing and 137 touchdown passes, both team records. He set the still-standing NFL record for most touchdown passes in a single game—seven, against the New York Giants in 1943.
Luckman believed the key to the Bears' success was the unselfishness of his teammates. Each player knew his role, and did not complain if he did not get the ball as often as he would have liked. Halas gave Luckman a greater share of the credit; he once said his quarterback had not called a bad play in twelve years. Luckman was like a playing coach. Knowing what to do, as well as having the physical skill to carry it out, was Luckman's main strength.
After he retired from professional football, Luckman continued to tutor college programs in the T-formation. Until 1964 he was also an unofficial assistant coach for the Bears, working regularly, but refusing to draw a salary. Luckman also continued his association with Cellu-Craft Products, eventually becoming the owner. The business made him a multimillionaire and allowed him to earn a reputation for gracious entertaining. Luckman was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame (1960), the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1965), and the New York Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (1975–1976).
Luckman retired to North Miami Beach, Florida, where he died of undisclosed causes. He is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Wilmette, Illinois.
Luckman's career changed the NFL more than any other player's. When he was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1939, every team except Chicago and the New York Giants was running the single-wing formation. Today every team runs some variation of the T-formation. Luckman's success and ability to run the new offense made that change possible. Had the Bears failed in the 1940s, the T-formation and much of modern football might have failed as well. The T-formation opened up the game of football by encouraging passing instead of power running. More points were scored, making the game more exciting, especially for television audiences. The heightened excitement helped increase football's popularity relative to baseball and other slower-moving games. Luckman's role as a Jewish athlete was also important in a United States trying to overcome a legacy of ethnic and religious intolerance.
Luckman wrote two books about football and his career: Passing for Touchdowns (1948), and Luckman at Quarterback: Football as a Sport and a Career (1949). He was also interviewed extensively for two oral histories: Bob Curran, Pro Football's Rag Days (1969), and Richard Whittingham, What a Game They Played (1984). An obituary is in the New York Times (6 July 1998).
Harold W. Aurand, Jr.