One spring day in a much simpler time in Chicago, a photo appeared in the Cicero Life newspaper that helped create a picturesque childhood for Tony and Carl Ruzicka, twin ball boys for the 1963 NFL champion Bears.
It was a shot of good ol' No. 73, former Bears defensive tackle Bill Bishop, who the twins heard lived a few blocks away. Sure enough, they found Bishop's name and address listed in the phone book: 1842 S. 61st Ct., Cicero. So Tony and Carl rode their bikes over to Bishop's house, rang the doorbell and changed their futures.
"We had audacity,'' Tony recalled.
Bill Bishop not only answered the door but talked about the Bears for an hour and invited the boys back for a barbecue where the Ruzickas met a bunch of gracious players including Willie Galimore and Doug Atkins. A friendship developed and Marilyn Bishop, Bill's wife, suggested the twins write George Halas to ask about serving as Bears ball boys.
Halas responded in July 1962 saying the team was set for the upcoming season but if the Ruzickas made "the golden honor roll" again, he would try to add them the following year. True to his word, Halas delivered the best news the 14-year-olds could imagine in a letter dated May 18, 1963.
"I am pleased to know that you have maintained your honor roll status,'' Halas wrote. "We will be glad to have your help as clubhouse boys.''
Whenever you hear that happiness was born a twin, think of the Ruzickas.
For the four years they worked Saturdays and Sundays of home games for $5 a weekend, both brothers answered whenever anybody shouted for "the twins.''
"I don't know how many players knew our first names, to be honest,'' Tony said.
They stood close enough to the action to hear Mike Ditka groan to Halas about not catching enough passes or Atkins complain about the offense not scoring enough points. Carl's job was to clean mud off cleats and drape players in parkas once temperatures dropped. Tony had the more enviable task of carrying an extra ball around as he followed Halas. At times, the legendary coach leaned on Tony's knee and shoulders for support when he crouched — but never on him for advice Tony offered freely.
"(Quarterback) Billy Wade would come to the sidelines and say to Halas and the coaches, 'What are we going to do?' and I might say, '63 South Mo Lens Brown Right would work here,''' Tony said. "Coach would look at me but never be critical.''
Acceptance from the 42 players on the '63 team came after the first day on the job when linebacker Bill George made the twins feel welcome talking to them. Ditka often asked the twins about running cross-country at Morton East, which they chose over football to keep weekends free. Mike Pyle would write them a letter of recommendation to Yale, his alma mater. They played flag-football with Bennie McRae and traded jokes with Roosevelt Taylor. They teased Ed O'Bradovich about his postgame primping and enjoyed Atkins' outbursts when somebody changed his favorite station on the locker-room radio.
Amazingly, the twins were interacting with players they idolized, creating the kind of bonds unforgettable experiences form.
Before games at Wrigley Field, Rudy Bukich, Richie Petitbon and other Bears liked to sneak a smoke in a hidden area. The players enlisted the twins to watch out for Halas. Once the teens grew more at ease, they would scare the players by shouting, "Here comes the old man.''
"He wasn't but they started scrambling like school kids,'' Tony said. "They fell for it every time.''
Slowly, the Ruzickas gained respect from players evident during one pre-game frenzy after Halas ordered the ball boys to change the players' cleats following warm-ups on a wet field. With only 20 minutes until kickoff, players got restless — and loud.
"Then Doug Atkins yelled, 'Leave the twins alone, we can count on them to do their jobs,''' Carl said. "I never forgot that.''
But the coolest part came in the rapport the twins established with Halas, who they maintained contact with after graduating from Yale and settling back in Chicago to build successful careers in accounting. They used to drop by the Bears old headquarters at 55 E. Jackson to visit Halas and felt comfortable enough to call him at home in 1982 to recommend hiring Ditka over George Allen as head coach.
"We said, 'Coach, when we were there one guy had the guts to stand up to you, Mike Ditka, and you know how much he cared so isn't that someone you would want to follow in the Bears tradition?''' Tony said. "He listened and said, 'Thanks for the input boys.'''
For their input during the '63 championship season, Tony and Carl received $10 tips from Taylor and George. Richer rewards came from life-long friendships and memorable encounters such as the 25th reunion party in 1988 when Galimore's widow told the twins they were "two of Willie's favorite people.''
They were just two kids whose curiosity took them on the ride of their lives.
Twitter @DavidHaughCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun