Tough Luck: Sid Luck­man, Mur­der, Inc., and the Rise of the Mod­ern NFL

  • Review
By – August 12, 2019

Sid Luck­man was one of the most famous and, arguably, the great­est Jew­ish Amer­i­can foot­ball play­er. George Halas, a co-founder of the Nation­al Foot­ball League (NFL) and the coach and own­er of the Chica­go Bears for whom Luck­man played from 1939 to 1950, con­sid­ered him to have been the finest NFL quar­ter­back in his­to­ry. Halas felt close to Luck­man and treat­ed him as a sur­ro­gate son, while Luck­man was one of the very few of the Bears play­ers who felt any affec­tion toward Halas, one of the stingi­est and most intim­i­dat­ing fig­ures in the league’s his­to­ry. Luck­man was proud to have been part of one of the league’s great­est dynas­ties, and he par­layed the con­tacts he made with Jew­ish entre­pre­neurs while play­ing for the Bears into a lucra­tive post-retire­ment career in business. 

Luck­man became a New York City leg­end while play­ing foot­ball for his Brook­lyn high school in 1934 and 1935 and lead­ing the team to two city cham­pi­onships. He attend­ed Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty where he became one of the university’s most illus­tri­ous ath­letes. Luck­man was the sec­ond play­er draft­ed in 1939 and led the Bears to four league cham­pi­onships, becom­ing first-team All-Pro for five years and the league’s Most Valu­able Play­er in 1943

Luck­man led an exem­plary life and was gen­er­ous to a fault. Rosen spec­u­lates that this was par­tial­ly due to Luckman’s attempt to com­pen­sate for the dis­grace which hung over his fam­i­ly. While Luck­man was in high school, his father mur­dered his book­keep­er, who was also his broth­er-in-law, for embez­zling funds to feed his gam­bling addic­tion. His wife nev­er spoke to or vis­it­ed her hus­band after he was con­vict­ed and sent to prison where he died a decade lat­er. His son also cut off con­tact with his father, nev­er dis­cussed the scan­dal, and few out­siders knew about it.

Tough Luck attempts to weave togeth­er two themes: Luckman’s ath­let­ic accom­plish­ments and his father’s involve­ment in NYC’s crim­i­nal under­world. The book con­tains lengthy digres­sions on the his­to­ry of crime in NYC dur­ing the 1930s, but their rela­tion­ship to Luckman’s sto­ry is murky at best. There is lit­tle evi­dence of any con­nec­tions between Luck­man, the rise of the mod­ern NFL, and Mur­der Incor­po­rat­ed. For Jew­ish read­ers, the sig­nif­i­cance of Luck­man lies else­where. At a his­toric height of Jew­ish vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty,” Rosen writes, Luck­man was a sym­bol of phys­i­cal courage, qui­et indig­na­tion, and social acceptance.”

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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