Once called “The Meanest Man in Football,” Chicago Bears great Ed Sprinkle spent 12 seasons punishing opponents and helping the team to an NFL Championship in 1946. He is considered one of the best defensive ends in team history.
Sprinkle's 1951 Bowman card
However, the moniker of “The Meanest Man in Football” still haunts him. It was coined by Bill Fay in a November 25, 1950 article in Collier’s Weekly. According to an article written by Bob Carroll, my predecessor at the Professional Football Researchers Association, Sprinkle was quoted as saying, “I think that the article was a bum rap. I was about as aggressive as any football player that walked on the field. If I had an opportunity to hit someone I hit them. I had a reputation with my teammates and [George] Halas as being the roughest player the Bears ever had. That doesn’t make me mean or dirty.” I would have been remiss if I did not ask Sprinkle about that article. Sprinkle recalled, “[Fay] interviewed me for the article, but he didn’t say anything about what he was going to write about. I was a little surprised. I came in full barrel when I played, but I didn’t know that was what he was writing about.” Sprinkle commented on the aftermath of the article, “What can you say? What is done is done.”
Sprinkle attended Hardin-Simmons College, where he earned All-Border Conference honors. He also earned All-Eastern honors while at the Naval Academy. He only attended Hardin-Simmons for three years, before the athletic program was cancelled due to the war. At that point, he went to the Naval Academy.
When asked whether he wanted to make the military his career, Sprinkle replied, “I did. I would have if they did not cancel [the program] because of the war. I wanted to be a pilot in the Naval Air Corps, but the war ended before I got into active duty. I was at a Naval Air Station in New Orleans.”
While in college and in the Navy, Sprinkle had a desire to play professional football. According to Sprinkle, “I was interested in professional football because of Bulldog Turner. He went to Hardin-Simmons, where I went. I met Bulldog and I was going to try to make it with Bulldog’s help.” In 1944, he tried out for the Bears and made the squad.
The Bears started him at guard, but switched him to end after two years. “I wasn’t big enough to play guard. I weighed 210 pounds.”
Sprinkle recalled playing for George Halas; “Everybody was worried about George Halas. You didn’t make mistakes with him out there.” He continued, “But, he wasn’t there every day. We had two other co-coaches: Luke Johnsos and Hunk Anderson. They handled the coaching.”
Sprinkle’s ability earned him four Pro Bowl bids in the last six years of his career. The Pro Bowl did not start until 1950, or he probably would have been nominated to more. However, earning four nods in the six-year existence of the Pro Bowl was quite an accomplishment. Historical Note: All-Star games were played earlier than 1950 between a team of all-stars and the league champion, but the Pro Bowl concept did not come into being until June of 1950.
Sacks did not become an official statistic until 1981, but Sprinkle remembered his ability to hit the quarterback for a loss. “I had five sacks on one game.” It is unknown how many sacks he racked up during his career.
He received the nickname ‘The Claw’ from his infamous clothesline tackling technique. Sprinkle commented, “They were going to put me at left end. I said, ‘I want to be a right end because I could reach over with my left arm.’ I am left handed.” As unsuspecting runners came through the line, they were met with the fierce arm of Sprinkle.
During the off-season, Sprinkle worked as an engineer at Inland Steel. That continued after his retirement. Then, he opened his own tile and carpet shop and was owner of a bowling alley.
Since his retirement, Sprinkle has been honored with several awards, including induction into the Chicago Bears Ring of Honor and the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame.
In 2007, Sprinkle was inducted into the Professional Football Researchers Association’s (PFRA) Hall of Very Good. Formed in 2003, the Hall of Very Good is the PFRA’s way of honoring players who have had excellent careers, but are not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When asked about his chances to be inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame, Sprinkle did not mince words. “My personal opinion is that politics played into getting players into the Hall of Fame that didn’t deserve it. I feel like I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. It probably won’t happen.”
Currently, Sprinkle lives in Illinois with his daughter and her husband.
• Chicago Bears (1944-55)
• Selected to four Pro Bowls
• Inducted into the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame (1984)
• Inducted into the Helms Foundation Hall of Fame
• Inducted into the Hardin-Simmons University Hall of Fame (1990)
• Inducted into the Professional Football Researchers Association’s Hall of Very Good (2007)
• Inducted into the Big Country Athletic Hall of Fame (2007)
• Named to the 75th Anniversary All-Sun Bowl Team (2008)
• Chicago Bears Ring of Honor (2009)
• Named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-Decade Team of the 1940s
Ken Crippen is the former executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association. He has researched and written about pro football history for over two decades. He won the Pro Football Writers of America’s Dick Connor Writing Award for Feature Writing and was named the Ralph Hay Award winner by the Professional Football Researchers Association for lifetime achievement on pro football history.