Bears great Joe Fortunato dead at 87

Joe Fortunato was such a dominating force during a 12-year career with the Bears that if he had played elsewhere, he might be even more revered as one of the game’s all-time great linebackers.

But as a member of the Bears and a teammate of Bill George, known as the first true middle linebacker in the sport, Fortunato’s credentials never got quite the same consideration. Fortunato died Monday in Mississippi at 87.

“Joe Fortunato was not only a great player for the Chicago Bears, including being a part of our 1963 championship at Wrigley Field, he was a key figure in one of the greatest linebacker trios in Bears history alongside Hall of Famer Bill George and Larry Morris,” Bears Chairman George McCaskey said in a statement. “The Chicago Bears family extends our condolences to the Fortunato family on the passing of Joe.”

A seventh-round draft pick out of Mississippi State in 1952, Fortunato did not join the Bears until the 1955 season because of a military commitment. He quickly emerged as a standout and was a three-time All-Pro selection and a five-time Pro Bowl pick. Fortunato was a member of the 1963 championship team, and by that time he had taken over the play-calling on defense from George.

Fortunato was one of 14 defensive players named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1950s and the only one not selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His body of work compares favorably to George, Sam Huff and Joe Schmidt, the other linebackers on that team, all in the Hall.

Fortunato was known for his speed and had a knack for being a playmaker. He intercepted 16 passes in his career, an impressive number for a linebacker in any era, but especially noteworthy because passing games then were not nearly as prolific as they are today. He also recovered 22 fumbles in his career. He started every game but one during his Bears career.

After retirement, he was an assistant coach in 1967 and 1968 for the final season of George Halas and the first year of Jim Dooley. Fortunato returned to Mississippi after that. He operated Big Joe Oil Company and resided in Natchez, Miss., and for decades worked to raise scholarship money for students.

Fortunato was enshrined into the Mississippi State football Ring of Honor last month, one of seven players to be so honored. He is also a member of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.

Twitter @BradBiggs

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