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 on Monday in Palos Heights, Ill. He was 90.
His daughter, Susan Withers, confirmed the death.
Even by the N.F.L.’s roughhouse standards of his era — the 1940s and ’50s, when players like Chuck Bednarik and Bucko Kilroy of the Philadelphia Eagles and Hardy Brown of the San Francisco 49ers were notorious tough guys — 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,” Sprinkle told Stuart Leuthner in the oral history “Iron Men” (1988).
Sprinkle played in four Pro Bowls and was named to the N.F.L’s all-decade team for the 1940s. George Halas, the Bears’ founder and longtime owner and coach, honored Sprinkle by assigning him the No. 7 that Halas had worn in his own playing days. He called Sprinkle “the greatest pass rusher I’ve ever seen.”
Playing for the Bears from 1944 to 1955, 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.
“Sprinkle would drive you 10 yards out of bounds and the official would be taking the ball away from you, but Sprinkle 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 N.F.L. championship game, Sprinkle forced two 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 Sprinkle, he managed to get a throw off, but it was intercepted and run back for a touchdown in the Bears’ 24-14 victory.
Sprinkle, who went about his business without a face mask, wielded various tactics in addition to 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,” Sprinkle explained.
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 right out of the play.”
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 had enough of his pummeling: “Trippi came into a pile, hit me in the face and ran back to the sideline.”
Edward Alexander Sprinkle, a son of sharecroppers, was born on Sept. 3, 1923, in the West Texas town of Bradshaw and grew up nearby in Tuscola, Tex., south of Abilene. He played for Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene and for the United States 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 and tutored him there as a part-time adviser to the team.
Sprinkle was often a guard and then an offensive end in his early pro seasons, catching seven touchdown passes, and he sometimes played on both offense and defense before concentrating on the right defensive end position.
He had various business interests after retiring, but returned to pro football for a single season as the defensive coordinator for the 1962 Titans of the American Football League, the forerunners of the Jets, when Turner was their head coach.
In addition to his daughter, Sprinkle is survived by his sons Alan and Steven, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His wife, Marian, died in 2003.
The Collier’s article on Sprinkle noted that he was a decent sort in the off-season, when he worked for Inland Steel, ran a strawberry farm and was devoted to his family.
Halas defended Sprinkle’s ferocious play.
“He’s got to push and shove his way past those blockers,” he told Collier’s, “and if somebody gets an unintentional whack in the nose now and then — well, that’s football.”