The Graves of Sid Luckman and Motts Tonelli
by Randy Snow
Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Wednesday, August 24, 2022
In my previous article, I recounted to you how I drove to Chicago and met up with fellow Pro Football Researchers Association member, Greg James. Together, we visited the grave of legendary Chicago Bears owner and head coach, George Halas in Niles, IL. But there was so much more that happened that day.
After visiting Halas’ final resting place, we continued on to another cemetery about five miles away in Skokie, IL. There we found the graves of two more former Bears players, quarterback Sid Luckman and fullback Mario “Motts” Tonelli. These were grave visits #37 and #38.
Sid Luckman played college football at Columbia and was selected with the second overall pick in the 1939 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. He played his entire 12-year NFL career with the Bears from 1939-1950 and led the team to four NFL titles in 1940, 1941, 1943 and 1946.
Luckman entered the NFL at a time when offences were still running out of the single wing and double wing formations, which had been created by Pop Warner back when he coached at the Carlisle Indian School. Halas wanted to switch to a new type of offense called the T-Formation. It was very complicated and required a special kind of quarterback to run it. Luckman was a perfect fit.
However, it still took Luckman some time to adjust to the new offense, but when he finally did, the other teams in the league didn’t stand a chance.
In the 1940 title game, the Bears defeated the Washington Redskins by the score of 73-0 using the new T-formation offence. It wasn’t long before every team in the NFL was ditching the single and double wing formations and converting to the T, which is still used in the NFL today.
Sid Luckman was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965 and died in 1998 at the age of 81.
Mario Tonelli played college football at Notre Dame. He was mostly a backup player but he did have one shining moment on the college gridiron. It occurred in the final game of the 1937 season at home against USC. Tonelli came off the bench for an injured teammate and had a 70-yard run which set up his own game-winning touchdown a few plays later. Notre Dame won the game, 13-6.
Like Luckman, Tonelli was also selected in the 1939 NFL Draft. However, he was picked in the 21st round by the New York Giants. But he did not sign with the Giants. Instead, he signed with his hometown Chicago Cardinals. He played for the Cardinals during the 1940 season and then enlisted in the Army in 1941.
He was serving in the Philippines in April 1942 when he and 12,000 other American soldiers, along with 66,000 Pilipino soldiers, were captured by the Japanese. The prisoners were searched by their captors for any valuables and Tonelli was found to be wearing his Notre Dame class ring. He refused to surrender it and was about to be killed when a buddy convinced him to hand it over. It was given to a Japanese officer who went over to talk to Tonelli. Incredibly, the officer had been a student at USC and knew of Tonelli’s play in the 1937 game against USC. He returned the ring to Tonelli and told him to keep the ring hidden if he wanted to stay alive.
The 78,000 prisoners were then moved 70 miles over the next 6 days to a prison camp in what became known as the Bataan Death March. Many prisoners died or were killed by their captors during the forced march. Tonelli did keep his class ring hidden from the guards, even when he was put on what was known as a hell ship and sent to Japan to work in a smelting factory in the town of Toyama. Prisoners were packed into the bowels of the ship for the entire trip to Japan. Tonelli and about 1,000 other prisoners were on the ship for 62 days before they reached Japan.
When he got to the factory, he was given a prisoner identification number. It was the number 58, the same number he wore while playing football at Notre Dame and with the Chicago Cardinals. It was then that he knew, somehow, he was going to survive through his captivity and make it back home.
After the Americans dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, ending the war, Tonelli was rescued and returned home wearing his class ring. He had been a prisoner for almost three years and now weighed less than 100 pounds.
Upon his return home, Cardinals owner, Charles Bidwell, offered Tonelli a new contract with the team. Players who served during World War II had those years count towards their years in the NFL. By signing him to the Cardinals for the 1945 season, Bidwell knew that Tonelli was now eligible for an NFL pension. Tonelli played in just one game that season and carried the ball twice for no yards. The league also gave Tonelli a lifetime pass to attend any and all regular season NFL games.
Tonelli was elected Cook County Commissioner in 1946 at the age of 30. He served for eighth years and then spent another 34 years in county government. He wore his Notre Dame class ring every day after he returned home until he passed away in 2003 at the age of 86. Today, Tonelli’s class ring is on display at Notre Dame University.
Finding Their Graves
Sid Luckman and Motts Tonelli are buried in the Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie, IL. The address is 6800 Gross Point Road. Luckman is buried in the Monorah Section while Tonelli is buried in the Mausoleum Annex Section. These two sections are located right next to each other in the northwest corner of the cemetery. When you enter the cemetery from Gross Point Road, keep to your right and follow the road that goes along Old Orchard Road all the way to the back of the cemetery. Turn on the road that goes between the two sections. Sid Luckman’s grave is located near the road on your left just as you turn the corner. He has a separate marker that is flush to the ground in front of the larger Luckman family marker. It contains the words, “I had it all, I did it all, I loved it all.” Tonelli’s grave is located at the opposite end of the neighboring section on your right, along the road on the other side of the section.
I want to extend a special thank you to Greg James for being such a great chauffeur that day in Chicago. We went to two cemeteries and visited three graves, but the day was not over by a long shot. Greg then took me to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station and pointed out where the football stadium used to be when legendary Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown coached there for two seasons, from 1944-1945. His 1945 team featured future Browns legend and Hall of Famer, fullback Marion Motley. Greg then took me to Wrigley Field, where the Bears once played, and I got my picture taken in front of the iconic sign outside the stadium. We then had lunch across the street at The Cubby Bear restaurant. It was a great day for a couple of true football nerds! Greg is one of the hosts of the podcast From the 55 Yard Line as well as Gridiron Japan Radio and TV.