George McCaskey cracks open the first of his three binders, compiled after trips to the Lake Forest College library and the bowels of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and buoyed by a lifetime of institutional knowledge. Bronko Nagurski is on the cover, wearing a 1936 white jersey with alternating blue and orange stripes on his shoulders and sleeves. He has navy pants and navy-and-orange striped socks.
Over the last 14 years, McCaskey, the Bears’ chairman, has compiled a history of the team’s uniforms in three-ring binders he keeps on his office shelf, feeding a passion that started when he worked in the team’s equipment room in high school. The black and white newspaper clippings and new photos of old jerseys trace one of the most consistent, recognized uniform sets in all of sports.
On the rare occasion the Bears make uniform changes, it’s never taken lightly. And it’s always done at the ownership level.
On Friday, the Bears unveiled orange jerseys, which will return after a seven-year hiatus, and began selling them to fans on their website. Except for a new manufacturer, Nike, they are almost identical to what the Bears wore from 2005 to ’09 and again in 2011: an orange Pantone 1655 jersey with the distinctive number font they’ve used since 1949. On the left sleeve, a tribute to George S. Halas sits over recognizable stripes that echo Nagurski’s.
The Bears will pair the orange jersey with white pants and their typical navy helmet and facemask twice this year — in Week 6 at Miami and in Week 11 against the Vikings at Soldier Field.
They’ll also wear their “Monsters of the Midway” throwback jersey once this year. It will remain the same as in years past, though the Bears might scrap the accompanying gray facemasks.
The orange jersey is actually a callback to the past, too.
“That’s one thing I love about [it],” McCaskey said. “It’s a modern-day style, font. It has the ‘GSH’ monogram. But it’s also reminiscent of the time we were dominant.”
The Bears ruled the 1940s in any color, winning four championships. They wore orange for the first time on Oct. 1, 1933, a win against the Boston Redskins, and donned orange jerseys 18 times from 1933 to 1946, per McCaskey’s records, losing only four of those games.
He opens his binder to a photocopy of a 1936 listing of NFL team colors. The Bears’ were orange and white.
They revived the orange jerseys on Thanksgiving Day 2004, wearing a 1946 throwback with blocky numbers against the Cowboys. Principal owner Virginia McCaskey wasn’t sold — she thought, her son said, that Bears fans should recognize their team immediately on television.
A 21-7 loss to the Cowboys seemed to banish the jerseys back into mothballs. But George McCaskey and Bears head equipment manager Tony Medlin imagined an orange alternate jersey that mimicked the Bears’ current sets. Suspecting his mom would veto it, McCaskey had Medlin pitch it to her anyway in the spring of 2005 — and she said yes.
“And then,” George McCaskey says, “we had success.”
Coach Lovie Smith’s teams went 4-2 in orange before switching to the “Monsters of the Midway” throwback after the 2011 season. McCaskey envisioned bringing back orange eventually but thought the Bears could only switch from the throwbacks to the orange alternates in five-year increments. When commissioner Roger Goodell visited Halas Hall in March, McCaskey asked for a waiver — only for Goodell to tell him he wouldn’t need one. The NFL later declared that teams could wear both a throwback and an alternate. The Bears could start this year because their orange design was approved long ago.
McCaskey, who announced the return to orange in March, had rebuffed more drastic changes in recent years. The Bears were asked to wear an orange jersey, orange pants and orange socks for the NFL’s now-defunct “Color Rush” games but quickly declined.
“We just decided it was too much,” McCaskey said.
Instead, they wore an all-navy Color Rush set the last two seasons. McCaskey said it was former coach John Fox’s suggestion to pair their navy jersey with navy pants in last year’s season opener. Fox liked the monochromatic look when he coached the Broncos.
McCaskey, though, doesn’t plan on the Bears wearing all navy this year, nor all-white on the road. The Bears have no plans to wear orange pants any time soon, either.
The jerseys, though, are another story. They sold well last decade and probably will again. Fans figure to embrace a rare change in the team’s Sunday look.
“Selling it is part of it. Giving people what they want is part of it. Being faithful to our tradition is part of it,” McCaskey said. “I think people really have an affinity for the orange jersey and are excited for it to come back.”