August 19, 2022 4 min read
Photo Credit: Chicago Bears.
One of the first Geezer Jock stories was on Clyde Emrich, the long-time strength coach of the NFL's Chicago Bears. It set my bar high.
Clyde passed away last November. I'm just finding out about it. I wanted to run his story again from June 19, 2021.
By Ray Glier
The cans of cement he lifted as a 110-pound 15-year old, the weights he hoisted over his head in the ‘52 Olympics, the world records in lifting, Clyde Emrich said it was all savings for his “health bank” for a rainy day.
It’s a rainy day.
Emrich, 90, has colon cancer, but he won’t quit his job with the Chicago Bears. He doesn’t want to roll over in the morning and rest, or endure a sendoff in a big room. Why should he? All that weight training, 75 years of it, is sustaining him, and providing courage, so he can stay with the Bears.
“The doctors think it is helping me,” Emrich said of his decades of maniacal fitness. “The cardiologist said my heart is fine.”
I asked Clyde what he lives by every day. What gets him going?
What keeps him going is the Brotherhood of the Bears.
He was the NFL’s first official strength coach (1971) and he is still collecting a paycheck from the Bears by doing valuable administrative work, and providing insights into strength training for staff and players.
“What I live by every day is waking up thinking about going to work, going into Halas Hall,” Clyde said. “I couldn’t go in there for 15 months during the pandemic, and that was hard, but I woke every day thinking about going back. That kept me going.”
Emrich finally got back to Halas Hall last month. They will have to drag him out, but they won’t get any help from the 53 hefty players on the roster. Some have known him for just several seasons and they still wrap him in hugs when they see Emrich.
I asked Clyde about retiring.
“Retire?,” Clyde said, “No, hell no. Ray, don’t say that word around me. Please.”
George Halas himself, one of the founding fathers of the NFL and owner of the Chicago Bears, hired Emrich in 1963 to be a strength and weight-training consultant. Emrich was 32 years old and Halas saw promise in him for very obvious reasons.
Emrich was on the 1952 U.S. Olympic team as a weightlifter. He won four national titles and in 1957 became the world’s first man under 200 pounds to clean and jerk 400 pounds.
Clyde has an ascetic face, the look of discipline. You can see what Halas saw. Emrich is a squared-away guy and the Bears latched on to him and they wouldn’t let go of him, anymore than he would let go of them.
His first season with the Bears in 1963 they won the NFL championship. Halas leaned on Clyde for several years while Emrich trained some of the players in a downtown YMCA. Finally, in 1971, they hired him full-time and he became the NFL’s first official strength coach.
He was a fit for the Bears because his ego was small enough to fit in the toe of his sneaker, which means he always kept the organization first. That’s how you keep a job.
Clyde helped turn the NFL into what it is today, where big people beat up little people, in a rules-driven kind of way. You can see the influence of strength all across the field, not just in the thumpers along the line. There is all kinds of speed on the field today—the passing game has taken over—but don’t think strength isn’t still a part of the game.
“Strength makes you faster,” Emrich said. “The running backs and receivers would say to me when I first met them that the strength training would take away their speed. They learned. It increases speed.”
Emrich calls strength “horsepower.”
Emrich said the running back Payton, just 208 pounds, once deadlifted 625 pounds. The man had slick moves as a runner, but Payton was fierce in the weight room and that’s how he became great, Emrich said.
Clyde is fierce, too. Eight days before the Olympic competition started in Helsinki, Finland in '52, Emrich tore adductor muscles, the granite near his thighs.
He should have bailed right then because trying to do a split with a bar of weights with strained muscle in your thigh area is nuts. Clyde narrowed his wide grip and competed anyway. He finished 7th.
In 1953, he finished third at the World Championships, then second in 1954. In 1957, the year I was born, Clyde set two world records in weightlifting. Emrich quit the sport when he was 37 because steroids were rampant. He didn’t want to be caught up in it.
Two years ago, at 88, Emrich could deadlift 240 pounds. Now, he is just riding a stationary bike because the chemotherapy saps his strength. It is ironic that the IV for the medicine goes through a port in his right shoulder, the same shoulder that hefted hundreds of pounds of weights for close to 70 years.
I marvel how Clyde stayed employed in the NFL, which can be a ruthless business of men climbing over each other to get the next job.
He never over-stepped. Emrich was always demure around the facility and, after he gave up the position in 1991, he never made things uneasy for the strength coaches who followed him by giving lectures. Emrich helped run the Bears training camp, among other tasks, but inevitably, the strength coach and players gravitated to Clyde for tips on their own.
“I told the strength coaches that followed me ‘You’re the sheriff in town’,” Emrich said. “I would just be around for their meetings with players and they would say to me ‘You got anything to add, go ahead’.”
It’s why in Halas Hall they call it “The Clyde Emrich Weight Room.”
Clyde’s philosophy on strength is simple. Stay away from the herd on the glistening new weight machines and techniques. Stay old-school to get stronger.
“If you want to get stronger you have to lift heavier weights. Period,” Clyde said.
No one calls him Clyde much anymore around Halas Hall. He is called “Legend” and staff even made a “Legend” desk plate for him. He is slightly embarrassed by it.
You’re right, he shouldn’t be.
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