Fortunato recalls good old days

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Meet Joe Fortunato &8212; a living legend.

It&8217;s been over 40 years since Fortunato suited up as a member of the Chicago Bears, but it seems that no one has forgotten about his days as one of the greatest linebackers ever to play the game of football.

The Chicago Bears certainly haven&8217;t forgotten.

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Against a wall in Fortunato&8217;s office lies a giant poster, with his photo and signature alongside other Bear&8217;s legends such as Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary.

The poster was created to recognize the six greatest linebackers to ever play for the club.

But that is just one of the many pieces Fortunato has memorializing his career. There are game balls from world championship games, back before they became the spectacle that is the Super Bowl. There is another poster commemorating Fortunato&8217;s being named to the NFL&8217;s all-time 300 greatest players list. There are plaques commemorating his induction into the SEC and college football halls of fame, and the list goes on. And though there is a patina on many of the items, it is the memories that Fortunato holds dearest.

&8220;My greatest honor was when I was nominated by my fellow players as defensive captain in the 1966 Pro Bowl,&8221; Fortunato said. &8220;Johnny Unitas was the offensive captain and Vince Lombardi was the coach. That was a real honor because it was given to me by the guys I played against.&8221;

The moment holds a highly esteemed place in Fortunato&8217;s heart because it was also near the end of his career and a fitting tribute to a player who, in thirteen seasons, missed only one game due to injury and at the same time played every down with reckless abandon. Fortunato recounted how Lombardi put his arm around him and told him after the game that he was proud of him.

It&8217;s stories like that one and his trademark magnetic smile that makes Fortunato such an engaging individual.

Though he&8217;s bashful of his accomplishments, he doesn&8217;t hesitate to give his opinion on such topics as today&8217;s multi-million dollar superstars like Terrell Owens.

&8220;I would have liked to have played against him just so I could have laid a hit on that son of a gun,&8221; Fortunato said. &8220;Back in my day that sort of thing got sorted out on the field.&8221;

One of Fortunato&8217;s favorite stories is when he first started playing and was in a bit of a financial strait. As the story goes, Fortunato scheduled an appointment with team president and coach George Halas.

&8220;I asked him if I was going to make the team and told him about my financial troubles,&8221; Fortunato said. &8220;He told me &8216;Kid, I think you&8217;re going to make it,&8217; and handed me a check for $500.&8221;

Fortunato found out that the money wasn&8217;t a signing bonus when Halas deducted $100 from each of his first five checks.

It goes without saying that things were different back then, and that&8217;s part of what brought Fortunato to Natchez. His first wife was from the area and in the off-season Fortunato would come down here for her. Back then NFL players&8217; checks were nowhere near what they are now, and many players had to work extra jobs in the off-season just to make ends meet. That is how Big Joe&8217;s Oil Company came to be.

Now Fortunato&8217;s time is spent managing that company he started long ago and enjoying life&8217;s simpler pleasures such as his marriage, and fishing.

The only thing missing is the one accolade that Fortunato never received, an induction into the NFL Hall of Fame.

During his 13 year career, Fortunato missed one game, won two world championships, was named All-Pro seven times, and played in five Pro-Bowls.

You would think all those achievements would warrant a spot in Canton, Ohio alongside the game&8217;s other greats; but, sadly, induction into the Hall of Fame is a highly political process and no one knows whether or not Fortunato will ever make it.

&8220;If George Halas was alive today, there is no way he would let them keep me out,&8221; Fortunato said. &8220;I just hope they let me in before I&8217;m dead.&8221;