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George McAfee, 90

George McAfee Dies; Hall of Fame Halfback for Chicago Bears

George McAfee, known for his game-breaking plays, excelled on offense and defense for the Bears in the 1940s. He also starred at Duke University.
George McAfee, known for his game-breaking plays, excelled on offense and defense for the Bears in the 1940s. He also starred at Duke University. (1949 File Photo -- Associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009

George McAfee, 90, a speedy Hall of Fame halfback who was known for his game-breaking plays for Duke University and the Chicago Bears in the 1930s and '40s and who pioneered the use of lightweight low-cut football shoes, died March 4 at a hospital in Snellville, Ga. His family did not disclose the cause of death.

Mr. McAfee played for the "Monsters of the Midway," the formidable Chicago teams that won four National Football League championships between 1940 and 1946. In the final game of his rookie season in 1940, he returned a pass interception for a 34-yard touchdown as the Bears crushed the Washington Redskins, 73-0, in the most one-sided NFL championship game ever.

Fast, elusive and talented, Mr. McAfee played both offense and defense and excelled at every skill of his sport: running, passing, receiving, punting, kick returning and pass defense. At 6 feet tall and 178 pounds, he was not particularly big, even for the era of leather helmets and the single-wing offense. He earned the nickname "One-Play McAfee" as a college star at Duke for the way he could swiftly turn the fortunes of a game.

Mr. McAfee led his Duke team to a 24-4-1 record between 1937 and 1939 and was named an all-American as a senior. In 1938, the "Iron Dukes" were unbeaten and unscored upon for the entire season before losing to the University of Southern California in the Rose Bowl, 7-3.

Mr. McAfee was one of the nation's finest open-field runners and often broke into the clear after catching passes from his brother Wesley. He was also an outstanding left-footed punter and a sure-handed tackler as a defensive back.

In his first professional game in 1940, Mr. McAfee returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. He also threw a touchdown pass as the Bears defeated the Green Bay Packers, 41-10. Green Bay Coach Earl "Curly" Lambeau called Mr. McAfee "the most talented back the Packers ever faced."

Mr. McAfee was something of a trendsetter as one of the first players to wear low-cut football shoes, which he believed gave him greater mobility and speed. In practice, he wore traditional high-top shoes, then switched to the lightweight low-cuts for games.

"It was almost as though I didn't have any shoes at all," he said. Other players soon copied his style.

He had his finest season in 1941, when he led the NFL with 12 touchdowns and a rushing average of 7.3 yards per carry. His touchdowns came in every possible way: five by running; three on pass receptions; one each on returning a kickoff, punt and pass interception; and one when he picked up a loose ball after a blocked kick and ran it into the end zone. He had six interceptions on defense that season, and his rushing total of 474 yards ranked second in the league.

Red Grange, the most renowned football star of the 1920s, called him "the most dangerous man with the football in the game."

Mr. McAfee was entering the prime of his athletic career when the United States entered World War II, and he missed three full seasons and most of a fourth while serving in the Navy. In his first game back, late in the 1945 season, he carried the ball five times for 105 yards and three touchdowns.

He retired after the 1950 season with 39 touchdowns and 25 pass interceptions. His career average of 12.78 yards per punt return remained an NFL record until it was broken two years ago by Chicago's Devin Hester. After Mr. McAfee's playing days ended, the Bears retired his uniform number 5.

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