Chet Bulger, a Rumford native who became a top lineman on the last Cardinals team to win the NFL championship, died Thursday at his Fairfax, Va., home. He was 91.

Bulger died from natural causes, said De La Salle Institute, the school in Chicago where he coached and taught for three decades.

Bulger played in the NFL from 1942-50, starting with the Chicago Cardinals during the era of leather helmets and two-way linemen and spending his final season with the Detroit Lions.

In 1947, he helped the Cardinals beat the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21 for the NFL crown. The Cardinals lost the 1948 title game to the Eagles 7-0, then did not play for the championship again until reaching this year’s Super Bowl. They lost the Feb. 1 game to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bulger always bled Cardinal red, from the day they drafted him in 1942 on through their relocations to St. Louis and Arizona. But he always kept Rumford in his heart, too.

In a pre-Super Bowl interview with the Sun Journal, he noted that in 1946, Chicago Bears owner and coach George Halas offered $20,000 for Bulger’s contract. Cardinals owner Charles Bidwill, father of now owner Bill Bidwill, told Chet he would split the money with him if he’d agree to go to the cross-town rivals.

“I said, ‘No, I’ll go back to Maine.’ I didn’t want to play for anybody but the Cardinals,” he said. “I liked George as a person, but I didn’t want him as a boss. His players used to tell me he threw nickels around like they were manhole covers.”

Bulger wasn’t in football for the money. Nobody was back in the 1940s. Pro football still played second fiddle to the college game in those days. The Cardinals sometimes played in front of smaller crowds than the ones Bulger played in front of at Stephens High School in Rumford, he noted.

Football rules at Mountain Valley now, but it was big in the River Valley back then, too. Elizabeth Bulger, his mother, loved it as much as anyone.

When he was a sophomore, Bulger recalled in the interview, he played a game against South Portland with crushed ribs. The doctor told him the next day he was done playing for the season.

His mother told him he wasn’t.

“My mother made me go back up and change into my practice clothes and I went on the football field and the coach said, ‘You can’t play ball with busted ribs,'” a laughing Bulger said then.

Bulger said he hadn’t given much thought to football after high school. His track coach at Stephens got him a track scholarship to Auburn University in Alabama. He walked on for football.

He didn’t think he’d play beyond college until the Cardinals sent him a letter after graduation telling him he was drafted, he was their property.

He started out as a right tackle, but when the Cardinals drafted University of Georgia superstar Charley Trippi in 1947, they moved Bulger to left tackle, Trippi’s side. They scored 45 points in their first game, against the Detroit Lions and rolled to the championship from there against the Eagles, 28-21. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Bulger, an All-Pro that season, helped spring Trippi for a 44-yard touchdown run and Elmer Angsman on two 70-yard TD runs.

The Cards were even better the next year, averaging 33-points per game, but Philly got its revenge, taking advantage of a snow-covered field to win the championship, 7-0.

Bulger calls that game the one that got away.

“It’s like the big walleye I lost up in Canada. I’ll never forget it. It was the biggest one I ever saw. I had a cheap reel on it. It ended up in the bottom of the lake,” he said.

Mainers might consider Bulger the one that got away. After one year with the Lions, he retired in 1951 and returned to Chicago, where he became a teacher at De La Salle Institute. He taught and coached there for more than 30 years. In 2007, the school honored his contributions by naming its main athletic field after him.

While he lived in Virginia, his heart still belonged to Rumford, he said, and he held a soft spot for Falcon football. He’s heard of the exploits of Fitzpatrick Trophy finalist Justin Staires from family back home. He sent quarterback Cam Kaubris, a cousin, John Wooden’s book “Pyramid of Success.”

“Just give a kind word to the people of Rumford for me. I’m so proud to have played for that high school,” he said in the pre Super Bowl interview. “To this day, I believe all of my success rested with the coaches I had there.”

Bulger said he would root, as expected, for the Cardinals to trounce the Steelers in the big game. It didn’t happen. Arizona lost to Pittsburgh 27-23.

Ironically, in 1944, the Cardinals and Steelers merged their franchises for one year, splitting home games in Chicago and Pittsburgh. The combined team went 0-10, and drew the nickname of the Car-Pitts, as in, every opponent walked right over them.

“We were terrible,” Bulger said last month. “You’d get beat so bad, you’d cry.”

Bulger scored seven points in his NFL career, kicking an extra point in 1943 and returning a fumble for a touchdown in 1945.

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