Bill Wade, who led Bears to 1963 championship, dies at 85

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The Bears’ 1963 NFL championship team was known for it’s dominant, league-leading defense — led by future Hall of Famers Bill George and Doug Atkins — that allowed 10.3 points per game. But quarterback Billy Wade provided leadership that proved decisive.

“The Bears in ’63 would not have won the championship if we didn’t have Bill Wade,”  said former Bears tight end Mike Ditka, who played with Wade in his first six NFL seasons from 1961-66. “He brought stability to our offense. He was a class guy, a smart guy with great ethics.

“We had a great defense. But you can’t win with one side of the ball. We did enough things on offense to get the job done and that was because of Bill and his leadership.”

Wade, who scored both touchdowns on quarterback sneaks in the 14-10 victory over the Giants that gave George Halas his first NFL championship since 1946,  died Wednesday night at 85.

The No. 1 overall draft pick in 1952 out of Vanderbilt, Wade played 13 seasons in the NFL — seven with the Los Angeles Rams (1954-60) and the Bears (1961-66). He made the Pro Bowl twice — with the Rams in 1958, when he led the league with 2,875 passing yards (36 yards shy of Sammy Baugh’s NFL record); and in the glorious 1963 season with the Bears, when he threw 15 touchdown passes and rushed for six.

“Bill Wade was a gentleman in every sense of the word. He carried himself with dignity in all aspects of his life,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said in a statement. “Even in more recent years when he experienced health challenges, Bill maintained a positive disposition and expressed gratitude for everything he had.  Those qualities were what made him a great leader and a favorite of Papa Bear.”

Indeed, 6-2, 200-pound Billy Wade was a headstrong, confident player who was respected by teammates and peers. At Vanderbilt he was awarded the “bachelor of ugliness” award — given to the outstanding senior voted the “most regular fellow.”

“He marched to his own drummer,” Ditka said. “He didn’t do the things that other guys did. He did the right things. And Halas loved him for that. He was great that way.”

After the Bears followed up back-to-back 8-4 seasons in 1958 and 1959 with a disappointing 5-6-1 record in 1960, Halas acquired the 30-year-old Wade from the Rams for defensive back Erich Barnes and quarterback Zeke Bratkowski.

Wade eventually beat out veteran Ed Brown — a pretty good quarterback in his own right — and made an immediate impact. In  his first start, he threw a franchise-record 98-yard touchdown pass to Bo Farrington, a 37-yard touchdown pass to Ditka and scored on a sneak in a 31-17 victory over the Lions. In 1962, he threw for 466 yards in a 34-33 victory over the Cowboys — the most by a Bears quarterback since Sid Luckman in 1943.

But it was in 1963 that he cemented his legacy as a Bear, helping lead the Bears to an 11-1-2 record en route to the NFL championship. The defense dominated that championship game against the Giants with five interceptions of future Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle. But Wade’s two quarterback sneaks provided the margin of victory.

“Bill Wade was one of the great Bears of all time,” Ditka said. “He was a class act — on and off the field. That’s hard to find today. And I’m not saying that because he passed away. If he was sitting here next to me, I’d tell him the same thing  — that I appreciate everything he did for the Bears and for me. My career would have been nothing without Bill Wade. I really believe that.”

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