Sue Withers laughs at the notion of her father, Hall of Fame inductee Ed Sprinkle, being called the “Meanest Man in Pro Football.”
“He was just so gentle,” she said.
Withers admittedly was 2 years old when Sprinkle retired from the NFL after 12 seasons (1944-55) with the Chicago Bears, so she recalls little, if anything, about his playing days.
She spent decades, though, listening to him tell stories about what it was like to play at a time when clotheslines and chop blocks were legal and hard helmets and facemasks were years away. She never got the sense he was anything more than a hard-nosed, prototypical pass rusher working for a demanding, old-school coach in George Halas.
Sprinkle, who died in 2014 at age 90, is one of 15 people being enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame early next month as part of the NFL’s centennial class. The group includes 10 senior players, three contributors and two coaches, and will join the 2020 and 2021 classes in Canton, Ohio.
Sprinkle’s much-used moniker probably won’t be ignored. Collier’s magazine famously dubbed Sprinkle the “Meanest Man in Pro Football” in 1950. Sprinkle wasn’t pleased with the piece, Withers said, and thought it mischaracterized his aggressive (yet clean) style.
“He got that label and it’s kind of stuck with him ever since,” she said.
Still, there’s no denying that Sprinkle played with an edge few others did at the time.
Despite weighing a little more than 200 pounds, he managed to disrupt quarterbacks and running backs with a powerful forearm — usually above the neck. A legal move at the time, it earned him the nickname the Claw.
“He always said, ’In my profession, it was always better to give than to receive,” said Sprinkle’s son-in-law, Dave Withers. “That was his thing. He did that on the field. He took no prisoners. He played to win. He took his work very seriously.”
Sprinkle made four Pro Bowls and would have played in more had the league’s annual all-star game started before 1951. He spent his entire career with the Bears and wore No. 7, the number Halas made famous in the 1920s.
Sprinkle was born and raised in Texas — he played for Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene and then for the United States Naval Academy — but his home and heart were in Chicago. After spending his entire pro career with the Bears, he mostly remained in the area.
“He bled blue and orange,” Dave Withers said.
Sprinkle worked for Inland Steel, spent a year as defensive coordinator for the New York Jets, bought a bowling alley in Chicago, played golf, loved cards, took annual fishing trips to Canada and Arkansas, and coached youth football and baseball. He lived the final 12 years of his life with his daughter and her family.
Dave Withers decided one night to surprise Sprinkle with a copy of the 1946 NFL championship game between the Bears and the New York Giants. Sprinkle had never watched a replay of the game, which Chicago won 24-14. Withers poured him a glass of wine and pushed play.
“Out of the clear blue sky he said, ‘Now watch this play,’” Withers recalled. “He came out of nowhere and took out the quarterback. He was a one-man wrecking crew on that ’46 team.”
Sprinkle’s family stopped believing he would make the Hall of Fame after years of writing letters in hopes of getting him nominated and part of the conversation.
The centennial class provided an unexpected avenue. Family members were invited to Canton in April for the unveiling of Sprinkle’s bust and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hall of Fame. They brought some of his memorabilia to add to his Hall of Fame locker and were treated with highlights from his playing days.
“I’ve got goosebumps right now just thinking about it,” Sue Withers said.
The Sprinkle family will have a bigger entourage in Canton next month and will do their best to debunk the myth about him being the NFL’s meanest.
“He always said that was a misunderstanding,” Dave Withers said. “He played hard. He played to win every down. He always told us, “I hit people as hard as I could hit them; I wanted them to remember.’ He used to tell opponents, ‘My name is Sprinkle. I’m No. 7. I will be here all day.’ And he was.”
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