A bear of a man

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Oct. 20—So you think you know North Carolina sports trivia?

OK, then, try this one: Did you know that one of the NFL's most storied franchises, the Chicago Bears, can trace its origins to a small log cabin in Randolph County, just across the Guilford-Randolph county line near Julian?

No, that's not where George "Papa Bear" Halas — the man generally heralded as the founder of the Bears — was born.

The site, on what's now known as Old Red Cross Road, is the birthplace of A.E. "Gene" Staley, a man better known for cornstarch than football. It was Staley — not Halas — who deserves the credit for founding the Bears more than a century ago, though Halas was certainly instrumental in the process.

You can be forgiven for not knowing about Staley's connection to the so-called "Monsters of the Midway," as that particular piece of history isn't exactly common knowledge, even here in Staley's native state. But another Staley — Julie Staley — hopes to change all that.

Julie, who happens to be married to A.E. Staley's great-grandson, is the owner and chief operating officer of Spencer Films, an Illinois-based film production company that's producing "Fields of Gold," a documentary about the inspiring story of A.E. Staley's life, including his link to the Bears.

"We're in post-production right now and working as fast as we can," says Julie, who is also the film's director. "The documentary will be released sometime in 2022."

For the uninitiated, A.E. Staley has quite a rags-to-riches story. Born in the aforementioned log cabin in 1867, he grew up working on his parents' small farm and spent little time in school.

"He didn't have much more than a formal third-grade education," Julie says. "His mother would teach him through Webster's 'Blue-Back Speller,' and everything else he just learned on his own. He had to work on his family's farm, but he always had an ambition to do more outside of his own community. He knew there was a world out there that he wanted to be a part of."

As a teenager, Staley was introduced to the art of salesmanship and never looked back.

"His father said, 'Why don't you load up the wagon (with produce from the farm), and go to town and see what you can sell?' " Julie says. "He sold all

of it."

Staley went on to become a successful traveling salesman, but when his future wife made him promise to settle down somewhere and stop traveling so much, he got into the starch business, initially in Baltimore and then in Decatur, Illinois, opening the A.E. Staley Mfg. Co. there in 1912. The company thrived, and Staley became a household name in the Decatur community.

As his business grew, Staley began offering a variety of amenities to his employees to keep them happy, such as parties, a fellowship club and a number of athletic clubs, including — you guessed it — the Decatur Staleys football club, which was established in 1919.

Even though this was just an industrial league team, Staley's competitive nature drove him to hire a former University of Illinois standout named George Halas, who was recruited not only to play for the Staleys but to coach the team as well.

Halas, in turn, was sent out to recruit a team of football studs, and he did just that. The players were promised a regular salary for their workweek at the starch plant — which included two hours a day for football practice — and they were paid a portion of the gate at the end of the season.

The Staleys had 10 wins, one loss and two ties during their inaugural season.

Meanwhile, in 1920, Halas met with a group of men from other teams, and they developed what they called the American Professional Football Association — we now know it as the NFL.

The sport was growing quickly, which forced Staley to rethink his fledgling football program. Despite the prominence of the Staley name in Decatur, the city wasn't large enough for the football program to grow the way it could if it were based in a larger city.

"His stadium in Decatur might've held 2,000 to 3,000 people in the stands, but the stadium in Chicago (Weeghman Park, later to be renamed Wrigley Field) held about 15,000," Julie Staley explains. "They could obviously sell a lot more tickets in Chicago."

So Staley made the decision to move his football club a couple of hours north to Chicago, and he gave Halas the reins to the franchise. For one season, the team would maintain the name Staleys — the Chicago Staleys — and Staley would jokingly refer to Halas and the other players as "the transplants."

When it came time to change the name, team officials chose the Bears for a simple reason: They were sharing the stadium with the Chicago Cubs, and everybody knows football players are bigger than baseball players, so Bears was an obvious choice.

So was Staley's contribution to the Chicago Bears franchise eventually just forgotten?

Nope.

When the Bears introduced their team mascot in 2003, they named him Staley Da Bear, a fitting tribute to the successful entrepreneur. He may have been born in a little log cabin in Randolph County, but his influence reached — and continues to reach — well beyond North Carolina.

jtomlin@hpenews.com — 336-888-3579

jtomlin@hpenews.com — 336-888-3579

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