Doug Atkins, one of greatest players and all-around characters in NFL history, died on Wednesday in Knoxville, Tenn., at the age of 85.
Atkins, enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982, had his number 81 retired by both the Bears and New Orleans Saints, to whom Atkins was traded in 1967 and played the final three years of his career.
“Doug Atkins is an all-time great who will be remembered as one of the pillars of the 1963 championship Bears,” chairman George McCaskey said in a statement. “He had a freakish combination of size and athletic ability and was as tough as anyone who ever stepped on a football field.”
Over 17 NFL seasons, including 12 with the Bears (1955-66), Atkins was an eight-time Pro Bowler (1958-64, ’66), a two-time NFL Champion (1954 with Cleveland and 1963 with Chicago) and a 1960’s All-Decade team selection. During the Bears 1963 NFL Championship season he was a unanimous choice (AP, UPI and NEA) All-Pro selection.
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Atkins’ athleticism was the stuff of legend. He went to Tennessee on a basketball scholarship and was a high-jump champion in track and field before switching to football and winning a national championship with the 1951 Volunteers. Atkins is one of the few Tennessee players, along with Reggie White, to have his number retired by the school.
In the NFL he revolutionized the pass-rush position of defensive right end. "One of his favorite tricks was to throw a blocker AT the quarterback,” Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas has been quoted saying.
Atkins also was a legend off the field, in no small measure for his tweaking of George Halas, things like: The Bears were out for a full, padded practice in one training camp. All except Atkins, who suddenly appeared, late, wearing a helmet, shorts and his cleats. Atkins jogged slowly around the field and back toward the locker room. When Halas yelled for Atkins to get over with the rest of the team, Atkins replied, “I’m breakin’ in a new helmet.”
Atkins and defensive tackle Fred Williams engaged in a martini-drinking contest. “I drank 21,” Williams said afterwards, “same as Atkins. But he beat me, I figured, because he drove me home and carried me in.”
Said McCaskey: “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.”