A sports and travel show was being held at Cincinnati’s convention center in January 1974 and needed a worthy opponent for Victor, a wrestling bear. Jim LeClair, a young linebacker with the Bengals, was convinced to accept the challenge.

Jim was 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, compared to 6-foot-5 (when standing) and 457 pounds for Victor. According to an account in a Cincinnati newspaper, Jim was able to charge Victor, knock him to the mat and struggle mightily to pin the bear’s shoulders for a three-count.

LeClair and Viktor battled for 30 seconds, and then Jim stood up and the match was declared a draw — apparently, by Tommy Truesdell, Victor’s owner, who also declared this was only the bear’s second draw in 50,000 otherwise victorious matches.

LeClair’s wife, Betty, was at ringside with 2-year-old daughter Kelli. She watched calmly and then said, “I really thought Jim beat the bear.’’

Jim died on Monday in Mayville, N.D., after dealing with early-onset Alzheimer’s. He played linebacker at South St. Paul, Minnesota-Crookston and North Dakota, and for 12 seasons with the Bengals and two more with New Jersey Generals, and in the style of a guy who would wrestle a bear.

We certainly are allowed to suspect the disease and the football career are related.

South St. Paul athletes were raised with the odor from the stockyards and slaughterhouses wafting on the evening breeze. Doug Woog, the hockey man and Packers football standout, said the odor was worth three points against visiting football teams.

Jim Carter, a tremendous Gophers fullback and NFLer, was ahead of LeClair at South St. Paul.

“Jim’s an amazing story,’’ Carter said. “He was a scrawny kid on the ‘B’ squad that no one was talking about. And he wound up being a great, longtime linebacker in the NFL.’’

Steve Silianoff coached many greats at South St. Paul. Asked about LeClair in 1982, before the Bengals-49ers Super Bowl, he said: “He played for keeps, he was a hitter, but he wasn’t mean.’’

Good thing for Victor. The 50,000-match unbeaten streak would have been gone in 1974, if LeClair had been mean about it when the bear was on his back.

PLUS THREE

• Steve Silianoff died in 2005 at 83. He was in World War II intelligence, captained the football Gophers in 1947 and still had South St. Paul running the single wing until retiring in 1972.

• Jim Carter and the great Terry Abram were a defensive pair in hockey — and the Packers still didn’t win a boys’ state tournament.

• Ettinger Field, South St. Paul’s notorious football pit, is set to be refurbished. Really.

 

Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing sports@startribune.com and including his name in the subject line.