As the greater Chicago area mourns the premature end of a surprisingly successful Chicago Bears season, Gene Schroeder, the Bears 1951 first-round draft pick and resident at Park Place of St. John, understands that disappointment.
Before the Super Bowl existed, the best NFL teams competed for the National Championship title. Gene still smarts at the thought of the 47-7 loss to the New York Giants in the 1956 NFL Championship game, after the Bears’ 9-2-1 season that year.
“Of course, you’d like to say that it felt good to make it that far,” he says. But, like the current Bears team, he understands the pain that comes with heartbreaking defeat. “Without question, losing in the NFL Championship game was my biggest disappointment. To get that far and lose that game—well, I can just say, the disappointment is tremendous.”
However, a look at Gene’s life shows the kind of success that movies are made of. A Washington, D.C., native, Gene grew up playing ball in the city streets. “Morning, noon, and night,” he says. “Baseball in the summer and football in the fall. It’s all I ever wanted to do, to play ball.”
“Baseball in the summer and football in the fall. It’s all I ever wanted to do, to play ball.”
At Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C., Gene excelled in three sports, receiving all-city honors in basketball and football, and enjoying an undefeated junior and senior year of high school track. When he ran the 220-yard, he was one of the world’s fastest runners. His athletic success continued at the University of Virginia, where he enjoyed success in both football and track while earning his bachelor’s degree in commerce. “I never would’ve been able to have a college education without an athletic scholarship,” he said, “and I didn’t take that gift for granted.”
In 1951, he competed in the College All-Star football game, held at Soldier Field before 105,000 spectators. But his world-class speed caught the eye of the Olympics board. In 1951, representatives from the U.S. Olympic Committee came to visit him, asking him to put his football plans on hold and try out for the 1952 Olympic track team.
“I told them, ‘I’m really sorry you made this trip, because I’m going to play football.’”
Gene was a first-round NFL draft pick, 12th pick overall, in 1951. “When you’re a first-round draft choice, you were expected to contribute. A lot of number ones don’t, or it takes them a few years. But in my rookie season, I played both offense and defense, and I led in receiving and pass interceptions in the same year. I ended up making the All-Rookie team in both offense and defense.”
It was after that rookie season that he met his wife Doris on a blind date. “I’m sure glad I said I would go,” he says fondly of the night they met. Despite both being D.C. natives and graduates of the same high school (two years apart), they’d never met before mutual friends set them up. “We dated 4 months, and then we married,” he says, a marriage that produced 3 daughters and lasted 60 years until Doris’s death.
Despite knee injuries and missing a season during his stint in the Navy during the Korean War, Gene enjoyed a successful football career that included two Pro-Bowl appearances.
“The team was always great to me. My contracts were very high compared to the rest of the league,” he says. But in the days before blockbuster contracts, athletes worked “normal” jobs in the off-season. For Gene, that was working in the steel industry in Chicago.
After his retirement from football, he stayed in the metal industry, finding success in management. But when the company he worked for came under new ownership, Gene decided to take the brave step of using his knowledge and contacts in the industry to start a new company in Chicago Heights: Tri Alco.
“I’d been in the industry for 17 years and had contacts all over the country. I thought, I know this business. I’m going to give it a try.’ And the good Lord was with me. I started that business with $30,000, and when I retired 35 years later at age 76, we had $50 million in sales.”
He’s proud of his professional success. “We did some neat things,” he says. “We got a contract with Toyota, and the aluminum in every single steering wheel in every single Toyota car came from us. I retired in 2005, but even today, they’re still the 100 percent supplier to Toyota.”
“The good Lord blessed me with all of this. The only thing I can take credit for is not blowing it, and developing what ability I was given. But it’s all from the Lord.”
In addition to his athletic, personal, and professional success, Gene has been an active member of First United Methodist Church of Crown Point, where he has served in various capacities: Chairman on the Council of Ministries, Chairman of the Administrative Board, member of the finance and endowments committees. Presently, he is Chairman of the Scholarship Committee, a group that awards scholarships to high school seniors in the church youth group who are active in church, extracurricular school activities, and community service, while maintaining a high grade-point average. His service to his church and to the Lord are priorities to Gene.
“Let’s put this in perspective,” he says. “The good Lord blessed me with all of this. The only thing I can take credit for is not blowing it, and developing what ability I was given. But it’s all from the Lord.”
He also speaks highly of the Chicago Bears as an organization, particularly the Halas and McCaskey families, who have been team owners since the Bears began. Gene received a raise and a bonus every year, and still receives an annual birthday present. But he speaks with special fondness about the organization’s treatment of former players.
“Every year, I get a letter from the Chicago Bears wanting to know if I have any financial problems, or if I know of any players who had financial problems. They have a fund set up to help ex-Bears. They’re so good to ex-players. It’s absolutely amazing. I’ve known Virginia McCaskey since I played, and that family is the most generous family I’ve ever known.”
Gene will always think of the Chicago Bears as family. Over the years he attended several Bears’ Alumni parties, where he enjoyed seeing his old friends, and where his wife would look forward to seeing some of the best friends she ever had—fellow Bears’ wives.
“Things were different when we played. Today, with free agency—I couldn’t tell you who played for the Bears 4 years ago. When I played, you played for your team for a long time. We were a family, and we stayed a family long after we stopped playing football.”
He has met most of the Bears players over the years, including the beloved 1985-86 Super Bowl champs. “Walter Payton was an exceptional player and person. He was so humble, and I couldn’t get over that this tremendous athlete was such a little guy. But the whole team was a good bunch of guys.” And while he no longer attends Bears reunions any more, he still enjoys the memories of being a part of those gatherings, where the one thing everyone had in common was belonging to this historic franchise.
“We were a family, and we stayed a family long after we stopped playing football,” Gene says about being a part of the Chicago Bears family.
These days, he enjoys watching the Bears from his home at Park Place. His favorite player is Khalil Mack, but he’ll be keeping an eye on all of the Chicago Bears. After all, they’re a part of the family now.
For more information on the retirement living that Gene enjoys at Park Place of St. John, contact us at (219) 351-5200 or PPSJ@provlife.com.