Fortunato was one of NFL’s greatest players

Published 1:11 am Sunday, November 12, 2017

The National Football League lost one of its greatest linebackers last week, and sadly many modern sports fans did not notice. But then again some of the sport’s greatest observers have done the same for decades.

At the same time, Natchez lost a truly great man who became known for much more than his impressive, but often overlooked professional football career.

For Natchez people who knew Joe Fortunato, it is quite likely that even they do not have a true appreciation for the man’s football accomplishments.

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Fortunato died last week at age 87.

He played football for the Chicago Bears for more than a decade from the mid-1950s into the late-1960s.

But bafflingly, and sadly, he has yet to earn an honor than many, many people familiar with his career believe he greatly deserves.

He has not been inducted into the National Football League’s Hall of Fame.

To underscore how good Fortunato was on the football field, consider this. He was one of the 14 defensive players included in the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1950s.

But he is the only one who is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So what happened?

“People fall through the cracks,” said Don Pierson, a longtime pro football reporter for the Chicago Tribune. “I think that’s what happened here.”

Although Pierson never directly covered the Chicago Bears when Fortunato played, he did see him play, and he knew sportswriters who did cover Fortunato’s era.

“I talked to a friend of mine, Ed Stone, who preceded me and who did cover him,” Pierson said. “Ed must have covered him for five years, at least, and the thing he remembered the most was how quiet he was. And (he) really didn’t have any stories like you do with most players you cover.

“I think that’s really his legacy, he just played. This sustained excellence, steady excellence over the course of time gets overlooked.”

Pierson said in some ways Fortunato was overshadowed by teammates such as Hall of Famer Bill George.

“Joe is every bit as good as Bill, has all of the statistics that Bill compiled, but just didn’t get the notoriety,” Pierson said.

“There are some players that are just more magnetic; maybe they’re better talkers or more willing to talk or whatever,” he said. “Maybe Joe wasn’t like that.”

Pierson knows his stuff.

In addition to covering professional football for decades until retiring approximately 10 years ago, he also served for many years in the 1990s and 2000s on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

Pierson said the only time Fortunato’s name was considered for the Hall of Fame he understood that Fortunato was not all that interested in the honor.

“He wanted nothing to do with it,” Pierson said. “I think that’s consistent with his personality and really the way he played.”

The Chicago Bears legend George Halas, who coached the team during the majority of Fortunato’s 12-year career, summed up Fortunato.

The Chicago Sun-Times quoted the late Halas as saying:

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

Fortunato was clearly cut from a different cloth than many of today’s players who seem more worried about self-aggrandizement than winning or working as a team.

“I wish I would have covered him or knew him more,” Pierson said. “There’s no statute of limitations (on inclusion into the Hall of Fame). Often times, it’s a sad fact, once a guy dies, these guys take another look at him, because they haven’t seen him, they’ve never heard of it.

“The sad part about it is, if they get inducted at that point, they don’t get to enjoy it.”

Pierson said he plans to talk to some old friends who may be able to restart a conversation about Fortunato’s career and the possibility of his being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“I hope he does get another chance,” he said. “It’s sort of astonishing to me how he got glossed over.”
Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or