PART OF ’ 63 TEAM

For­mer Bears LB played along­side Ge­orge, Butkus

Chicago Sun-Times - - BULLS BEAT - BY MARK POTASH Staff Reporter Email: mpotash@ sun­times. com

Joe For­tu­nato wasn’t just over­shad­owed by the Bears’ his­toric le­gacy of lineback­ers, he was part of it.

The Mis­sis­sippi State prod­uct played next to Hall of Famers Bill Ge­orge, Ge­orge Con­nor and Dick Butkus and tu­tored rookie Doug Buf­fone. But he also was a five- time Pro Bowl line­backer and three- time All- Pro who called de­fen­sive sig­nals for the Bears’ 1963 NFL cham­pi­onship team.

For­tu­nato played 12 sea­sons with the Bears from 1955- 66, died Mon­day at 87 in Natchez, Mis­sis- sippi.

“Joe For­tu­nato was not only a great player for the Chicago Bears, in­clud­ing be­ing a part of our 1963 cham­pi­onship at Wrigley Field,” chair­man Ge­orge McCaskey said in a state­ment, “he was a key fig­ure in one of the great­est line­backer trios in Bears his­tory along­side Hall of Famer Bill Ge­orge and Larry Mor­ris. The Chicago Bears fam­ily ex­tends our con­do­lences to the For­tu­nato fam­ily on the pass­ing of Joe.”

For­tu­nato, who grew up in Mingo Junc­tion, Ohio, was a full­back at Mis­sis­sippi State who av­er­aged 6.1 yards per carry in 1952. He was drafted by the Bears in the sev­enth round ( 80th over­all) in 1952. He spent two years in the army at Fort Ben­ning, Ge­or­gia, be­fore join­ing the Bears at 25 in 1955.

The 6- 1, 225- pound For­tu­nato was a starter for all 12 of his sea­sons with the Bears — be­gin­ning in 1955 on the left side, with fu­ture Hall of Famers Bill Ge­orge in the mid­dle and Ge­orge Con­ner on the right side. He started next to Butkus in 1965 and 1966.

He made his first Pro Bowl in 1958. He also made it in 1962- 65, with All- Pro recog­ni­tion in 196365. But he suf­fered a knee in­jury in 1966, giv­ing way to Buf­fone, a rookie from Louisville.

“I learned from Joe For­tu­nato. I knew ex­actly what I had to do,” Buf­fone told the Sun- Times in 2012.

At the time of his re­tire­ment, For­tu­nato was cred­ited with an NFL- record 22 fum­ble re­cov­er­ies — tied with Hall of Fame de­fen­sive end Andy Ro­bustelli of the Rams and Gi­ants. He scored three touch­downs in his ca­reer, two on de­fense and one as a full­back — in­clud­ing a 24- yard re­turn of a Johnny Uni­tas fum­ble in 1966. In 1963, For­tu­nato’s in­ter­cep­tion of a Uni­tas pass helped seal a 17- 7 vic­tory en route to the NFL cham­pi­onship.

For­tu­nate stayed with the or­ga­ni­za­tion for two sea­sons af­ter his play­ing ca­reer ended. He be­came the Bears’ first press- box “spot­ter” in 1967. But he left the or­ga­ni­za­tion in 1969 af­ter a staff shakeup un­der Jim Doo­ley, who had suc­ceeded Ge­orge Halas as coach.

“He was not only an un­selfish team player and one of the great cor­ner lineback­ers,” Ge­orge Halas said at the time, “but also a gen­tle­man and gen­uine credit to pro foot­ball and the Bears.”

Fol­low me on Twit­ter @ MarkPo­tash.

In 12 sea­sons with the Bears, Joe For­tu­nato was a three- time All- Pro se­lec­tion and a five­time Pro Bowl pick.

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