By Doug Buffone
I look back at my career with fondness. I had a great run and other than not winning a championship and playing during an era when players had to actually get off-season jobs to make ends meet, there’s not much I would have changed much about my 14 years as a Bear, even now.
One thing I particularly enjoy is the fact that I am the only player in franchise history who bridged the Bears last two championship eras. Let me explain. When I came into the NFL in 1966, there were a number of guys from the ‘63 NFL Championship team still playing. I then hung around long enough to also take the field with a handful of guys who would go on to form the nucleus of the ‘85 Super Bowl champs.
That fact gives me (quite literally) a one-of-a-kind perspective on the Bears of the modern era, particularly when it comes to the subject of this month’s Buffone Top Ten: the ten most underrated Chicago Bears on the defensive side of the ball.
With that in mind, here in ascending order are my ten most criminally under-appreciated Bear defenders of the past 50 years:
#10 Allan Ellis, CB
Back in the day, as much as the Bears had a reputation for developing great defensive players, they’d often draft guys who simply couldn’t play a lick. Every once in a while, however, a rookie would enter camp a virtual unknown and knock peoples’ socks off. Ellis was one such guy. A 1973 fifth-round pick out of UCLA, he walked on the field the first day of practice with the ability to run faster backward than just about any of us could run forward. And in man coverage he was an absolute blanket. In fact, it seemed at times he was beating veteran receivers to spots they didn’t even realize they were trying to get to. He was truly amazing. Our nickname back then for the most underrated cover corner many of us had ever played with — or for that matter, would ever play with — said it all. From day one, we simply started calling Allan Ellis, “Fast.”
#9 Todd Bell, SS
Bell qualifies as underrated for one simple reason: he had the misfortune of turning his back on the most storied team in Chicago sports history. As a football player, Todd Bell was not unlike Superman: faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. And he did indeed hit like a freight train, playing safety like a linebacker. Not only that, but he had a real instinct for the ball. But after he made All Pro in ‘84, he sat out the entire ‘85 season as a negotiating ploy. Unfortunately for Bell, the team’s Plan B safety, Dave Duerson, proved to be a more-than-worthy replacement and helped the ‘85 Bear defense etch its name forever in the annals of NFL history. Bell did come back the following season and played once again like an All Pro, but by then his window of opportunity had quietly closed and his chance at football immortality had disappeared forever.
#8 Ross Brupbacher, OLB
In 1970, the Bears drafted a whip-smart, slightly flaky linebacker out of Texas A&M. As a rookie Ross Brupbacher never did start a game, but was a special teams dynamo and played excellent defense when given the chance. In fact, on those rare occasions when Brupbacher played opposite me, with Butkus in the middle, the three of us could really get it going. We weren’t that quick, but in my humble opinion you’d have to look long and hard to find any linebacking trio anywhere, or at any time, with a better collective nose for the football. Unfortunately for the Bears, Ross never seemed to like the game all that much, and wanted more out of life. After a few years of playing second fiddle in Chicago he signed a deal to play in the WFL, led his team to a title in a year, and then in 1976 when the new league folded, returned to the Bears. His encore season with us was for my money — and I kid you not when I say this — one of the greatest seasons any linebacker has ever had in this town. In ‘76, despite starting just 12 games, he finished with an amazing seven interceptions and three fumble recoveries, to go along with a ton of unassisted tackles. Then, to the surprise of no one who truly knew him, Ross Brupbacher simply walked away from football and went home to Louisiana, where he enrolled at LSU Law School, graduated with honors and became one of the most feared lawyers in that state’s history.
#7 Joe Taylor, CB
Imagine if Ronnie Lott or Steve Atwater had played corner. That’s what Joe Taylor was like in the early days of my career. Quiet and soft-spoken, Taylor could put the clamps on a lightning-fast receiver just as effectively as he could fight off the block of a massive offensive lineman and drill a 220 lb. ball carrier between the numbers. Taylor, who was raised in Florida and who played college ball at North Carolina A&T, was like a lot of kids in the 60’s from small, mostly black southern schools. He never said much, on or off the field, but let his football do the talking for him. Though his career numbers aren’t overwhelming, that only speaks to his greatness. Because much like a strong-armed outfielder who doesn’t get a lot of assists because no one runs on him anymore, Joe Taylor never picked off a lot of passes in a Chicago Bear uniform because he so utterly dominated his side of the field that most NFL passers eventually stopped looking in his direction.
#6 Jim Osborne, DT
Look up “Underrated Chicago Bear” in the dictionary, and there’s a good chance you’ll see Jim Osborne’s tired old face staring back at you. A starter his rookie year and a defensive anchor throughout his largely anonymous 12-year career, Osborne once started 154 out of a possible 170 games, a percentage that would have been significantly higher had he not missed ten games in 1975 due to a career-threatening injury. As a player, he didn’t do any one thing particularly well, except show up every day, even at practice, and give the coaches everything he had. And he never once cheated anyone, especially himself. So many times in the years since I’ve watched some young, enormously talented defensive lineman come into town and fail to live up to expectations. At those times I’ve thought to myself, “If only that kid had Osborne’s heart.” But then I reflect back on Jim, what a warrior he was, and how he gave his all to the Bears every time he put on his uniform, and I catch myself. It’s then that I think, “If only Jim Osborne had that kid’s talent.”
#5 Leslie Frazier, CB
In 1985, there was enough macho bravado on the Bears defense to fill ten locker rooms. Guys like McMichael, Hampton, Singletary, Wilson, Marshall and Dent were all full of man-sized bluster, and rightfully so. They were all amazing football players who always made great copy, either by the things they did on the field, or the things they said off it. One guy on that defense, however, was very different from the rest. Leslie Frazier was quiet, unassuming and rarely, if ever, given to outward displays of chest-thumping. But he was one heck of a pass defender and he studied and understood the game like few of those ‘85 Bears did, including their twin symbols of football smarts, Singletary and Fencik. That’s why when all is said and done, my sense is the only defender on the ‘85 club (besides Singletary) who will ever land a head coaching gig will be the quiet little guy very few people ever talked about; the thinking man’s cornerback who spent his all-too-brief career, not strutting around, posing for the camera or filming TV commercials, but learning the game of football, inside and out.
#4 George Seals, DT
You want to know how tough Seals was? Back in the day, no one — and I mean no one — took on Butkus. Everybody backed down. Except George Seals. I’ll never forget one day when the two of them got into it over something that happened on the field. Though no punches were thrown and nothing ever came of the showdown, it amazed us all. And I always wondered if somewhere deep down inside Butkus there wasn’t a small voice telling him to be leery of any guy either stupid or crazy enough to want to take him on. Seals was an offensive lineman for five seasons before switching to the other side of the ball. The move seemed to fire him up and he in turn helped elevate both the ferocity and the intensity level of every one of us on defense. There were a lot better football players around back then — even on his own team — but if my back were against the wall and my life depended on one guy being there for me, there was no teammate I would rather have had standing by my side than George Seals.
#3 Mike Hartenstine, DE
When I was playing, the coaching staff would evaluate defenders by calculating the average yards per carry the opponents gained when they ran to our side of the field. For the first 8 years of my career, my average yards-per-carry was among the best on the team; consistently under three yards per attempt. But then in 1975, the front office brought in this mountain of a defensive end from Penn State to play on my side, a kid who learned football under Joe Paterno. The following year, with that kid playing in front of me and stuffing runners and blockers like he was the Great Wall of China, my average yard-per-attempt was cut in half — half — to just over one yard per carry. I’m not sure I have the words to explain just how great (and unsung) a football player Mike Hartenstine was, and it still confounds me how far his name’s fallen through the cracks of time.
#2 Willie Holman, DE
I’m sure this pick surprises a lot of people. In his time, Willie Holman was viewed by both fans and sportswriters alike as just one more in a long line of very good, tough-as-hell Bear defensive ends. But let me tell you, Holman wasn’t just good. He was great. And he was as tough as they came. And not just physically tough; he was mentally tough. A lot of current scouts pay players the highest compliment by saying they “never take a play off.” That was Willie Holman in his day. The guy gave everything he had every time he lined up in his stance. Like Joe Taylor, he was a kid from a small, black college who never tooted his own horn or brought unnecessary attention to himself. He was simply a four-down warrior who every Sunday played the game like it was the last time he would ever do so in his life. There are ten great football players on this list, but all you need to know about my feelings toward Willie Holman – both a man and as a football player– is where I’ve placed him compared to eight of those other guys.
#1 Alex Brown, DE
It Willie Holman at #2 surprises some people, I’m sure this pick shocks them. But let me tell you why Alex Brown is the most underrated Chicago Bear since the days of the first Mayor Daley. Unlike the nine other players on this list, all of whom played when football coverage amounted to handful of broadcasts and newspaper stories per week, Brown played in the age of media saturation and wall-to-wall air time. He was a Bear when NFL beat reporters and commentators had so much shelf space to fill they’d report on who guys were dating or what they were having for breakfast. And that’s not even taking into account the internet and the explosion of user-driven outlets like Twitter and YouTube. Yet despite all that airtime and all that coverage, very few fans (and even fewer reporters) came to appreciate just how much of a gladiator Alex Brown was. The guy wanted to play every down, never wanted to come out of a game, and could play the run or the pass as well, if not better, than virtually every one of his teammates, including many of the so-called specialists. I know why the front office went out and signed Julius Peppers this past off-season. I really do. After a year like ‘09, they needed to bring in fresh blood and to give Bear fans a reason to get excited. But trust me, Peppers came at a price tag much bigger than all those zeroes in his contract. It cost them one of the hardest working and most consistent linemen in Chicago Bear history. And the day will come — and believe me, it will be here sooner than anyone realizes — when most of those same Bear fans will be sitting in Soldier Field thinking, “Wow…do I miss Alex Brown.”