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EARLY ON the morning of July 24, 1915, more than 2,500 Western Electric employees boarded the SS Eastland tour ship outside Chicago for a short trip across Lake Michigan to the company's summer picnic in Michigan City, Ind. Arriving late to the port that morning was 20-year-old George Halas, a summer hire at the telephone manufacturer who had planned to play in the company baseball game that day. Instead, he arrived at the Clark Street port to find the top-heavy steamer had rolled over in the Chicago River, killing 844 passengers.

Entire families were wiped out in the capsizing. Because Halas had purchased a ticket, his name was even published in the local papers among the list of missing and dead.

Physically, at least, he was fine, and five years later Halas was working at a starch manufacturer in nearby Decatur, playing for and coaching the company's football team. In short time he took over the Decatur Staleys entirely, helped form the APFA (which became the NFL), moved the Staleys to Chicago, won the second league title and renamed the team as the Bears. At a time when baseball ruled, he organized a coast-to-coast barnstorming tour and drummed up enough interest in pro football (partly by persuading Illinois's Red Grange to join his team) to ensure the NFL's survival. In the 1960s, he helped lead the charge to share TV revenues equally throughout the league, saving small-market franchises.

In other words, had Halas boarded the SS Eastland, sure, the Midway would be Monster-less—but there also might not even have been a Super Bowl to shuffle to.