NEW YORK — Ed Sprinkle, who gained a reputation as “the meanest man in football” while playing for the Chicago Bears, leveling quarterbacks with ferocity in becoming a rugged prototype for pro football’s pass-rushing defensive ends, died Monday in Palos Heights, Ill. He was 90.
Even by the NFL’s roughhouse standards of his era — the 1940s and ’50s, when players such as Chuck Bednarik, Bucko Kilroy of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Hardy Brown of the San Francisco 49ers were notorious tough guys — Mr. Sprinkle stood out.
He weighed only 200 pounds or so, but in his 12 seasons with the Bears, he flattened quarterbacks with a powerful forearm delivered to the nose, jaw, or throat, a legal tactic at the time that earned him the nickname the Claw.
“I never really played dirty football in my life, but I’d knock the hell out of a guy if I got the chance,” Mr. Sprinkle told Stuart Leuthner in the oral history “Iron Men” (1988).
Mr. Sprinkle played in four Pro Bowls and was named to the NFL’s all-decade team for the 1940s. George Halas, the Bears’ founder and longtime owner and coach, honored Mr. Sprinkle by assigning him the No. 7 that Halas had worn in his own playing days. He called Mr. Sprinkle “the greatest pass rusher I’ve ever seen.”
Playing for the Bears from 1944 to 1955, Mr. Sprinkle menaced quarterbacks at a time when the T-formation and its passing game replaced the single wing. He also played havoc with running backs and pass receivers.
Mr. Sprinkle “would drive you 10 yards out of bounds and the official would be taking the ball away from you, but [he] would still be choking you,” Hugh McElhenny, a Hall of Fame halfback for the 49ers, told The New York Times in 1985.
In the 1946 NFL championship game, Mr. Sprinkle forced two New York Giants running backs to the sideline, George Franck with a shoulder separation and Frank Reagan with a broken nose. He also broke the nose of Giants quarterback Frank Filchock with his claw move, an illegal clothesline tackle in today’s game.
As Filchock was being battered by Mr. Sprinkle, he managed to get a throw off, but it was intercepted and run back for a touchdown in the Bears’ 24-14 victory.
Mr. Sprinkle, who went about his business without a face mask, wielded other tactics besides his signature move.
He described them to Bill Fay in a November 1950 Collier’s magazine profile that defined his legacy with a headline that called him football’s “meanest.” “There were all sorts of things you could do to keep a guy from catching a pass,” Mr. Sprinkle said.
First, there was tripping: “You just put your foot out and let the other guy fall on it.” Second, was chucking: “You put your hands out as though you’re pushing, but actually you’re grabbing your opponent’s shirt and you hold him for a one-two count.” Third, was spinning: “You grab a guy’s shirt as he’s running by and yank. If you’ve got a strong grip and your timing is right, he’ll spin himself . . . out of the play.”
Mr. Sprinkle sometimes got as good as he gave.
He told the Chicago Sun-Times how the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) “were always crying about me,” and he remembered the time Charlie Trippi, their star runner and passer, had enough of his pummeling: “Trippi came into a pile, hit me in the face and ran back to the sideline.”
Edward Alexander Sprinkle was born in the West Texas town of Bradshaw and grew up in Tuscola south of Abilene. He played for Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene and for the US Naval Academy. He tried out for the Bears at the urging of Bulldog Turner, Chicago’s center-linebacker and future Hall of Famer, who had played for Hardin-Simmons.