By Ron Kroichick Courtesy Of The San Francisco Chronicle
Updated: February 23, 2006

The ‘Jackie Robinson’ of the Bears Ex-Pacific Star A Target Of Abuse

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.—George Halas, legendary owner and coach of the Chicago Bears, did not exactly mince words. Soon after Halas selected Eddie Macon, a fleet running back/defensive back from the College of the Pacific, in the second round of the 1952 NFL draft, he told Macon, “I want you to be my Jackie Robinson.”

Five years earlier, Robinson had shattered baseball’s color barrier with a famous mix of courage and self-restraint. On a smaller scale, Macon would follow a similar path as the Bears’ first African American player.

“Halas was sending me a message by saying that,” Macon said. “He knew there was going to be a lot of bigotry. … There were going to be a lot of things I’d have to endure, and I couldn’t lash back.”

Today, as the 49ers visit Chicago to play the Bears, it’s worth remembering Macon’s historic link to one of the NFL’s most storied franchises. Macon, 78, lives in Daly City, still works as a ship clerk and is struggling to cope with the death of his only son earlier this year.

He was a pioneer throughout his long-ago football career, as the first African American player at Pacific and the first to play in the Sun Bowl. Along the way, he encountered many of the same racial obstacles as Robinson and other black athletes of that era.

Macon was mostly accepted at Pacific, but he also recalled the team’s trip to Baton Rouge for a big-payday game against mighty LSU in 1951. Macon, originally told he could play, arrived in Louisiana and learned otherwise; the Deep South was not ready to watch an African American play football.

Pacific’s coaches whisked Macon out of the team hotel and took him to a black church. He ended up spending the night at the home of a black funeral director.

The next day, Pacific’s traveling party went sightseeing in New Orleans. Three restaurants refused to seat the group, given Macon’s presence. Finally, one establishment allowed the visitors to eat in a banquet room, as long as Macon used a back entrance and took the freight elevator.

“You never get used to that,” he says now. “It’s demeaning.”

His three years at Pacific also included plenty of pleasant memories — helping the Tigers to an unbeaten season in 1949, returning a punt 100 yards for a touchdown in 1950 and playing alongside quarterback Eddie LeBaron. Macon averaged 18.9 yards per punt return in college, among the best marks in NCAA history and slightly better than a UCLA player named Jackie Robinson.

Macon’s two seasons with the Bears produced another memorable punt return — a 63-yarder against the Redskins on which Macon dashed back and forth across the field — but also some racial incidents. The NFL had some African Americans in the 1920s but banned them from 1933 through 1945, then reintegrated in ’46 under pressure from the rival All-America Football Conference. UCLA’s Kenny Washington was the first black player to sign in the post-World War II era, with the Rams.

Six years later, as the first African American on one of the league’s most prominent teams, Macon was a magnet for abuse. Detroit Lions players were especially nasty, twisting his leg under the pile and taunting him with racial slurs.

Macon faced similar indignities off the field. When the Bears landed at Midway Airport, Macon’s teammates went one way and he headed the other. He lived at a local YMCA, where he could not use the swimming pool.

“I couldn’t change the system, so I accepted it,” Macon said.

He also bucked the system in 1954, fleeing Chicago to play in Canada, where his college coach, Larry Siemering, had moved. Macon later tried to return to the NFL, but no team would sign him. Macon said Halas used his considerable influence to “blacklist” him for bolting from the Bears.

Macon ultimately signed with the Raiders in 1960. He played one season in the upstart American Football League, commuting to practices from his home in Stockton, before retiring.

“I have some regrets because my livelihood was taken away from me,” Macon said of leaving Chicago in ’54. “But I’ll remember blazing the trail, being the first black player on the Bears. Nobody can take that away from me.”

Even now, as he nurses the aches and pains of aging, Macon’s voice booms with energy. His upbeat nature dims only when talking about his namesake: Edwin Macon Jr., the youngest of five children, died July 1 while in a San Francisco jail on a domestic violence charge. He was 44.

Macon’s wife of 60 years, Jessie, is bitter about Eddie Jr.’s death, because he repeatedly asked to go to a hospital — and instead was sent to an isolation cell — in the hours before he died. An autopsy concluded Macon Jr. died of a cocaine overdose; it also found he had an enlarged heart, a kidney infection and mild pneumonia, officials told The Chronicle in August.

Jessie Macon remains openly angry about her son’s treatment, but her husband strikes a tone of sadness. Eddie Macon keeps a photo of his son on his dresser in Daly City. He sees it every morning when he wakes up.

“I’m trying to get closure,” Macon said, “but it’s kind of hard to do that.”