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Photography: (Payton, Ditka) Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune; (Perry) Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images; (Hampton) NFL photo/AP; (McMahon) George Rose/Getty Images; Illustration: Gluekit
For me, Chicago will always be as it was in the mid-1980s. That was the city as I loved it, the world at noon. It was Greektown and Wrigley Field and beers at the Checkerboard Lounge.
It was days at the beach and nights on the toboggan and house parties in Winnetka. It was Howlin’ Wolf and red-hots at Big Al’s and frosty malts and denim jackets and girls in penny loafers and stone-washed jeans. Every other place is measured against the city when the world was whole. That’s when I was young and my parents were young and my brother and sister were home and we huddled together when the big snows came.
Chicago was the center of everything. It’s where John Hughes set all those movies, where the Belushis lived like shambling comedic saints in Wheaton, where Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows played at Biddy Mulligan’s on Thursday nights.
The city had shaken off the torpor of the 1970s: Jane Byrne was gone, Harold Washington was going. We would soon hand our fate to another Daley. It was the start of a renaissance that continues, the rebirth of the greatest city. New York has one foot in Europe. Los Angeles is a collection of suburbs. Miami is café con leche. New Orleans is drunk. San Francisco is beautiful vistas and empty streets. Boston is ancient.
But Chicago is America. The ’85 Bears seemed to symbolize the city in its resurgence, the reawakening of the beast after a funkadelic slumber.
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The ’85 Bears developed a special bond with all their fans but most powerfully with the sorts of superfans who filled the West Side taverns. It was not just that they won—they went 15–1 in the regular season—but how they did it. With personality, style. This was the team of “The Super Bowl Shuffle”—and it was made of characters.
Like the Beatles, there was a Bear for every sort of fan: Jim McMahon, the Punky QB, for the cocky daredevils. Walter Payton, Sweetness, the great running back, for the aficionados. William Perry, the Fridge, the gap-toothed 325-pounder, for big tall men. Dan Hampton, Danimal, the ferocious defensive tackle, for band geeks filled with secret violence. Mike Ditka, the coach who actually looked like a bear, for lovers of Patton-like rhetoric and the military boot. The offense was good but the defense was vicious: the famed 46, a concussion machine that swarmed and confused and beat other teams bloody.
They played with a gleeful excess that seemed a perfect expression of the city—its character, its toughness, its heartbreaks, its history. The riots at the Democratic National Convention, the El Rukn street gang, Steve Goodman singing “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” Mayor Richard J. Daley scolding reporters (“The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder”), Bill Murray playing golf on the par-3 in Winnetka, the South Side blues bars, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Rosa’s, “Kup’s Column,” Royko, Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray, the Pump Room, Second City, the lake in the summer and the lake when it’s a sheet of ice, Studs Terkel and Sid Luckman and George Halas’s modern T-formation—it was all captured in the style of that team.
The ’85 Bears were the revenge fantasy of suffering fans, a dream of violence, sacks, and knockouts. On Sundays, the object was not merely to stop the other guys but to devour their ranks and dement their leaders.
Now and then, when a Bears linebacker hit a quarterback just right, you could see his eyes roll back and his brain shut down and his inner light dim the way the lights in the pinball machine dim when hip-checked into tilt. At night, as I tried to fall asleep, I would recite the names on the roster—Butler and McMichael and Richardson and Dent—as Yeats recited the names of the heroes of the Easter Rising. Never again would I identify with a team in that way. And it was not just me. It was everyone.
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