The Chicago Maroons Were the First “Monsters of the Midway”

Football season is kicking off. For countless Chicagoans, that means another season of cheering for the “Monsters of the Midway” aka their beloved Chicago Bears. What many may not realize is that the “Monsters of the Midway” nickname did not originally refer to the Bears. It was the moniker for a different football team: the University of Chicago Maroons. 

These early titans of college football, lead by their legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, were once the hottest sports ticket in town. Yet today, they’re all but forgotten and their nickname has been appropriated. So what happened?

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The original “Monsters of the Midway” beat up on Northwestern in their 1905 game. Image via Wikimedia.

The Dawn of College Athletics

To start, we have to travel back to the 1890’s. The University of Chicago was founded at the start of the decade. It was instantly a globally prestigious institution. That’s mainly thanks to a huge influx of cash from John D. Rockefeller, naturally. And being right next door to the universally beloved 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition certainly helped, too.

In 1892, students from the university organized a varsity football team. (Quick aside: it’s worth remembering that college football then was truly an amateur sport. The grotesquely quasi-professional nature of the NCAA today is an abomination. Also, President Roosevelt had to intervene and change the rules of the game in the 1900’s because players kept dying on the field.)

In 1895, the leaders of several of the major universities from around the Midwest met in Chicago to form the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives. Popularly known as the Western Conference and then as the Big Ten, this was the first intercollegiate athletic conference in the US. The Chicago Maroons were founding members of the conference.

chicago maroons football 1905 monsters of the midway stagg field michigan game
The 1905 Chicago Maroons beat archrival Michigan 2-0 in the “Game of the Century.” Image via Wikimedia

The “Monsters of the Midway” Conquer the Big Ten

The Chicago Maroons were a national powerhouse in those early days. The team won seven Big Ten titles in football thanks to Coach Stagg’s coaching prowess and out-there recruiting practices. An article in Land Grant Holy Land lays out the details:

Stagg’s brilliance is responsible for many foundations of modern football, from revolutionizing practice (he was the first coach to introduce a tackling dummy), to his X’s and O’s mastery (he’s credited with inventing the man in motion, the QB keeper, the linebacker position and the Statue of Liberty play), player safety (hip pads and padding the goalposts), and even the concept of the Varsity Letter, with his exclusive “Order of the C”. Early college football teams could not keep up with Stagg.

chicago maroons football 1905 monsters of the midway stagg field michigan game program
The Bears even “borrowed” the trademark wishbone C logo. What a bunch of bums! Image via Wikimedia

The 1905 Chicago Maroons team beat their arch rival, the University of Michigan Wolverines, in the “Game of the Century.” The final score was 2-0. (lol) That win clinched a National Championship in a season where they outscored opponents 271-5. (!) It launched a decade of dominance in which the Chicago Maroons won another national title and three more conference championships. This is when their ferocious play earned the nickname “Monsters of the Midway.” The Chicago Maroons played at 50,000-seat Stagg Field. Originally named Marshall Field, after Marshall Field, it was all of two blocks from the Midway Plaisance. It’s now the site of the main campus library (and where Enrico Fermi oversaw the first man-made nuclear reaction). We’ve led countless custom private tours of Chicago neighborhoods past there.

No More Monsters of the Midway

Alas, the good times were not to last. Amid declining results and advancing age, Coach Stagg retired in 1932. The famed football program had been surpassed in the conference by bigger schools, like Michigan and Ohio State. Locally, public attention was turning towards the nascent Chicago Bears of the newly-formed NFL. Stagg Field, sad to say, was mostly empty on game days.

The Chicago Maroons had one last spell of brilliance, though. In 1935, their star player Jay Berwanger won the first-ever Heisman Trophy. In those days before different “platoons” played offense and defense, Berwanger played everywhere and did it all well. Hilariously, the Downtown Athletic Club said Berwanger was the “best player east of the Mississippi.” Despite being drafted #1 overall by the NFL, he never played a professional game with the Bears. He said he could make more money as a manager at a plastics factory. Definitely not the case today!

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The first Heisman Trophy, won by Jay Berwanger, on display in the Ratner Athletics Center. Image via Cole Camplese on flickr.

Only a few years later, University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins ended the varsity football program. President Hutchins saw academic success and athletic success as being wholly separate pursuits. And the team’s losing ways had diminished its value to the school. The University of Chicago and its Chicago Maroons dropped right out of the Big Ten in 1946.

With that, the original Monsters of the Midway were consigned to the dustbin of history. Varsity sports returned to Hyde Park decades later, but at a much lower level. Today, little remains of that era except the Heisman Trophy that greets visitors just inside the entrance of the Ratner Athletics Center.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


In business since 2010, Chicago Detours is a passionate team of educators, historians and storytellers. We applied a decade of experience as one of Chicago’s top-rated tour companies to become a virtual event company in 2020. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact about Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through custom tours, content production, and virtual events.


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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