There were 14 defensive players named to the NFL’s 1950’s all-decade team. Thirteen of them have been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So what did Joe Fortunato do wrong?
Honestly, nothing. In fact, throughout his 12-year NFL career, most of what he did was right.
Fortunato’s Hall-of-Fame credentials are just as impressive as the three other linebackers who joined him on that team and reached Canton: Sam Huff, Joe Schmidt and Fortunato’s teammate, Bill George. In fact, it was Fortunato who took over the signal-calling from George when George Allen came in to replace Clark Shaughnessy as the Bears’ defensive coordinator late in the 1962 season.
The following year Chicago had the league’s stingiest defense, giving up only 144 points on its way to an 11-1-2 record and a 14-10 victory over the New York Giants in the NFL championship game. Fortunato was a key member of that defense, which allowed only 9.6 points per game, held opposing quarterbacks to a 34.8 quarterback rating and led the NFL with 36 interceptions.
Fortunato was drafted in the seventh round in 1952 out of Mississippi State but did not arrive in Chicago until 1955 because of his military commitment. He became an immediate starter and soon was a fixture at the Pro Bowl, which he made five times.
He was also named first-team All-Pro three times and second-team three more. But perhaps his greatest accolade was that he was once named one of the NFL’s 300 greatest players as well as one of the seven greatest Bears’ linebackers of all-time. Such credentials certainly argue loudly for Hall-of-Fame consideration, which Fortunato never once received.
Fortunato was a playmaker with both speed and power. Known for his aggressiveness, he had 38 career takeaways back at a time when the ball was being thrown far less frequently than it is today. Despite that, Fortunato intercepted 16 passes and recovered 22 fumbles, many of the latter coming at his own making.
Fortunato is the type of Hall-of-Fame enigma that makes you scratch your head. How are 14 defensive players named to the 1950s All-Decade team, yet only 13 make the Hall? How does the one who missed only one game in 12 NFL seasons go unremembered while the rest are revered? And how does a player so disruptive that when he retired in 1966 he had more fumble recoveries than any linebacker in history go unnoticed by Hall-of-Fame voters for over 40 years?
The answer to those questions are lost in the great dustbin of time. Sadly, it appears Joe Fortunato has been as well. The question is why?
Was it because he played alongside George, who was considered one of the greatest middle linebackers in the game in those days? Was it because he spent much more time beating up his opponents rather than beating his chest?
We will never know, and that’s the shame of it.