Sid Luckman was one of the most famous and, arguably, the greatest Jewish American football player. George Halas, a co-founder of the National Football League (NFL) and the coach and owner of the Chicago Bears for whom Luckman played from 1939 to 1950, considered him to have been the finest NFL quarterback in history. Halas felt close to Luckman and treated him as a surrogate son, while Luckman was one of the very few of the Bears players who felt any affection toward Halas, one of the stingiest and most intimidating figures in the league’s history. Luckman was proud to have been part of one of the league’s greatest dynasties, and he parlayed the contacts he made with Jewish entrepreneurs while playing for the Bears into a lucrative post-retirement career in business.
Luckman became a New York City legend while playing football for his Brooklyn high school in 1934 and 1935 and leading the team to two city championships. He attended Columbia University where he became one of the university’s most illustrious athletes. Luckman was the second player drafted in 1939 and led the Bears to four league championships, becoming first-team All-Pro for five years and the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1943.
Luckman led an exemplary life and was generous to a fault. Rosen speculates that this was partially due to Luckman’s attempt to compensate for the disgrace which hung over his family. While Luckman was in high school, his father murdered his bookkeeper, who was also his brother-in-law, for embezzling funds to feed his gambling addiction. His wife never spoke to or visited her husband after he was convicted and sent to prison where he died a decade later. His son also cut off contact with his father, never discussed the scandal, and few outsiders knew about it.
Tough Luck attempts to weave together two themes: Luckman’s athletic accomplishments and his father’s involvement in NYC’s criminal underworld. The book contains lengthy digressions on the history of crime in NYC during the 1930s, but their relationship to Luckman’s story is murky at best. There is little evidence of any connections between Luckman, the rise of the modern NFL, and Murder Incorporated. For Jewish readers, the significance of Luckman lies elsewhere. “At a historic height of Jewish vulnerability,” Rosen writes, Luckman “was a symbol of physical courage, quiet indignation, and social acceptance.”