If they had ESPN, NFL Network or even sack totals in the 1950s and ‘60s, you wouldn’t have to explain the impact Doug Atkins had on a football field. His legend would precede him.
“He was the most feared player I ever saw,” former Bears teammate Ed O’Bradovich said of Atkins, a Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end who died of natural causes at 85 on Wednesday in Knoxville, Tenn.
“If Atkins played today, he’d have to be banned,” the late Doug Buffone once said of Atkins, a Bears teammate in his rookie season of 1966.
The 6-foot-8, 260-pound Atkins was a terror at defensive end in 17 NFL seasons (1953-69), including 12 years in his prime with the Bears from 1955-66. He played with the ferocity of Dick Butkus, had the leaping ability of Walter Payton and the gumption to stand up to coach George Halas.
“He was the greatest defensive end to ever play the game,” O’Bradovich said. “I would watch him pick up players and throw them around like he was plucking a chicken.
“There were some great defensive ends [in that era] — Gino Marchetti with the Colts; Willie Davis with the Packers. But there was only one Doug Atkins. He high-jumped 6-8 in college [at Tennessee] in 1951. The following year, the guy that won the Olympics [future NBA forward Walt Davis] jumped 6-8. He was like a gigantic hurdler. If an offensive lineman set up and took him on, he’ throw you like a rag doll. If you went down and tried to cut him, he’d jump over you. He was incredible.”
Atkins was selected 11th overall out of Tennessee by the Cleveland Browns in the 1953 NFL draft. He played on the Browns’ 1954 NFL championship team. But after undergoing knee surgery, Paul Brown gave up on him and traded Atkins and safety Ken Gorgal to the Bears for two draft picks in 1955.
After splitting time with the great Ed Sprinkle in 1955 and Ed Meadows in 1956, Atkins became a full-time player in 1957 and blossomed into a star. He made the first of seven consecutive Pro Bowls (1957-63).
And Atkins had staying power. He was a force on the Bears’ 1963 championship team at 33 and made the Pro Bowl for the eighth time in 1965 at 35. After being traded to the Saints, Atkins was having a Pro Bowl season at 38 in 1968 but suffered a broken leg.
There were no limits to Atkins’ strong will. “He was the only one that would stand up to the old man [Halas],” O’Bradovich said. “He’d tell the old man where to go and how fast to get there — and he meant it and didn’t smile. Everybody else was, ‘No, sir. Yes, sir.’ Not Doug.”
Bears chairman George McCaskey acknowledge that “unique communication style” in a statement released by the Bears following news of Atkins’ death.
“Doug Atkins is an all-time great who will be remembered as one of the pillars of the 1963 Championship Bears,” McCaskey said. “He had a freakish combination of size and athletic ability and was as tough as anyone who ever stepped on a football field. Doug wasn’t afraid to offer his opinion off the field as well and had a unique communication style when it came to interacting with Coach Halas. He embodied the spirit and commitment of what it means to be a Bear.
“Our prayers are with Doug’s wife, Sylvia, and their family.”