PART OF ’ 63 TEAM
Former Bears LB played alongside George, Butkus
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.”
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In 12 seasons with the Bears, Joe Fortunato was a three- time All- Pro selection and a fivetime Pro Bowl pick. | SUN- TIMES