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Why the 1985 Bears Were So Perfect for Chicago

In an excerpt from his new book, ‘Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football,’ Glencoe native Rich Cohen remembers growing up with a team that destroyed its opponents and captivated the city.

Illustration by Gluekit
Photography: (Payton, Ditka) Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune; (Perry) Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images; (Hampton) NFL photo/AP; (McMahon) George Rose/Getty Images; Illustration: Gluekit

The following is an excerpt from Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26), on sale October 29.

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.

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.

In the winter of 1986, in a manner I won’t bother to go into, I came into the possession of two tickets to Super Bowl XX. The Chicago Bears, the Monsters of the Midway, would play the New England Patriots in the Superdome in New Orleans. I was a senior in high school, and this was my first great Chicago team, the Bears having last won a title in 1963, half a decade before I was born. The Chicago Cubs had last taken the World Series in 1908, when my grandpa Morris was walking behind a mule in Poland.

I’d gotten permission to miss school to attend the game on the ruse that this would in fact be an informational visit to Tulane University with a side trip—“because I’ll be there anyway”—to the Super Bowl. But I found it impossible to secure passage. It seemed as if half the city, experiencing the once-in-a-generation delirium of victory, was heading south. Every seat on every flight was sold, as was every seat on every train.

When my parents refused to let me drive, I toyed with the idea of running away, lighting out, thumbing it. At the last moment, salvation came via a woman in my mother’s office who knew some people who had chartered a plane—they called it the Winged Bear—for the trip to New Orleans. It was jam-packed with big, mustachioed, bratwurst-eating superfans of the cartoon variety. I was at peace among them: seventeen, in possession of money I had not earned, decked out in regalia.

The Big Easy was an ocean of Bears fans, mingling and exchanging predictions. Everyone had a story: Some of us had followed the team for years, remembered Ditka as a player, and just wanted to live long enough to see one more championship; some of us were new to the team and believed this was how it would always be; some of us had been born in the desert and knew only this wandering life. But all of us fell upon New Orleans like parched rats, gulping down milk and honey.

I got to the Superdome an hour before kickoff. The stadium was a simulacrum of Chicago: Different sections represented different city blocks or neighborhoods.

I recently watched the television broadcast of the 1986 Super Bowl. I had not seen it because I’d been at the game—you actually see a great deal less in person than on TV, which is a predicament for experience collectors. Would you rather know what happened or how it felt? What struck me, all these years later, was the tremendous silliness of the production: the regal pomp of introductions, old heroes paraded out, officials in golden jackets, smoke machines, plastic grass, and sparkly things. It’s one of the reasons the Super Bowl is often a letdown—it’s lost in its own ribbons and wrapping.

The camera sweeps across the crowd: 70,000 people crammed to the rafters of the Superdome. I lean in as the shot lingers on some Bears fans. I remember where I was sitting that day, the section and the yard line, and am hoping to catch a glimpse of my 17-year-old self.

The first play was a handoff to Payton: He ran 7 yards. The second play went to Payton, too. He fumbled. New England recovered. A groan went up from those seats where the fans were dressed like Kodiaks. It was the old ache, the jinx, the disease. “Goddamn it all to hell,” said a man behind me, “it’s going to be the same story all over again.”

The Patriots kicked a field goal: 3–0. It was the last competitive moment of the day. As soon as the Bears defense got on, they began to terrorize Tony Eason. New England’s quarterback had been a star at the University of Illinois, six four, 212 pounds, a cannon for an arm. He was at the start of a seemingly long career. But the Bears had him spooked. “His eyes were bugging out,” said Dave Duerson. “He was terrified, really, every snap he was on the field. We were way inside his head.”

For a QB, playing against the 46 was like surfing: If you didn’t want to look like a fool, you had to get beyond the break, out into the calm water. But Eason spent the entire afternoon close to shore, where the rollers broke over his head. He was chased, knocked down, sacked. A nightmare, a humiliation watched by 127 million people.

Tony Eason is the only starting quarterback to go through the biggest game without a completion. Zero for 6, three sacks, a fumble. ESPN rated it the worst performance in Super Bowl history. When the Patriots offense came on the field late in the second quarter, Eason stayed on the bench. He was replaced by the veteran Steve Grogan, who had not played in two months. Eason watched from the sideline, helmet off, confused. He was Sonny Liston refusing to come out for the seventh against Cassius Clay.

He later claimed he’d had the flu. “Hell, what’s the boy gonna do?” Otis Wilson said sympathetically. “The Patriots ain’t blocking, and he’s got these big monsters coming down on him like mad hammers. Shit, give the ball to Grogan and let the old man take the beating.” Eason continued in the NFL for several more seasons, but he was never really the same. He’d been broken by the Bears. I recently tried and failed to track him down. At last reporting, 10 or so years ago, he was coaching basketball in Sacramento. He’s seemingly dropped off the grid. Twenty-five years have gone by and Tony Eason is still running from Richard Dent.

Meanwhile, the Bears were scoring. McMahon ran for a touchdown and, later, for another. The Fridge scored; ditto Suhey. McMahon completed 12 passes for 256 yards.

It was 23–3 at halftime. The only question was Payton: Would he score, or had he waited all these years to come away with nothing? The potential embarrassment for Payton—who took these things too seriously—was sharpened by the fact that the Bears kept putting up points. Even the backups were getting touchdowns. Fans would later point to a specific play as the lost opportunity, the moment Sweetness should’ve scored.

The Bears had the ball on the New England 1-yard line: Payton lined up in the backfield beside Fridge, who everyone assumed would be the blocker and lead the way in. McMahon faked to Payton but gave the ball to Perry, who bulled his way across. This play call was unfairly said to show Mike Ditka at his worst: By going with the novelty instead of the runner who’d carried the team for years, he was serving only his own legend.

Late in the fourth quarter, the Bears pulled their starters, including Payton. He sat alone on the bench, helmet off, sad face gleaming. The final score was 46–10. It was the most lopsided contest in Super Bowl history. The Patriots gained just 7 yards on the ground.

When the game ended, several players hoisted Ditka on their shoulders and several others hoisted Buddy Ryan. The coaches were carried off side by side, each borne away to his own destiny.

Payton headed straight for the tunnel. He went through the locker room like a shot, past the tubs filled with Champagne, past the commemorative T-shirts, past the TV boys setting up for interviews, past Bob Costas loitering among the cables and gaffer tape. Payton threw his helmet into the lockers—bang!—went into a utility closet, locked the door, and fell to his knees and wept. A handful of people gathered outside—Payton’s agent, the team’s PR chief. They begged him to come out. He moaned. When told his contract required him to give interviews, he shouted, “I ain’t no damned monkey on a string.”

At first, Ditka was confused—I mean, hey, we just won the goddamn Super Bowl!—but he eventually came to understand Payton’s anger. “That was probably the most disturbing thing in my career,” Ditka is quoted as saying in Never Die Easy: The Autobiography of Walter Payton. “If I had one thing to do over again, I would make sure that he took the ball into the end zone.”

“He played for so long and had been the Chicago Bears for so many years and to see him not get into the end zone, it had to hurt,” said McMahon. “But I don’t think anyone recognized it during the game. I know I didn’t. One of the touchdowns I scored was a play designed for Walter, but I spotted a hole and went in.”

I’m with the Buddhists on this one: It does not matter who scored the points, only that the points were scored. The fact is, the Patriots’ plan was built around stopping Payton. In such an instance, no matter what Ditka said later, the wise course was to use the star as a decoy, fake the pitch to Sweetness but give the rock to Fridge. Yes, Payton wanted to score. And Butkus and Sayers wanted to play for a championship. And Luckman wanted to quarterback in the era of big money. And Grange did not want to rip up his knee. And Halas wanted to live long enough to see the Bears win a Super Bowl. In fact, Halas didn’t want to die at all.

I stayed in the stadium after the game. “The Super Bowl Shuffle” was being played over and over again on the scoreboard. When you get old, you mock the passions of your youth: You mock Peter Frampton, you mock bolo ties, you mock Arthur Fonzarelli. But I will never mock “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”

Long after Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan had been carried off the field, I was still in the stands, my arms around total strangers, singing at the top of my ecstatic being. As I screamed the last verse, I had a moment of clarity. So this is why people suffer through mediocre season after mediocre season, I thought. So this is what’s on the other side of all that losing. It’s not just the victory. It’s being among the winners, sinking the humdrum concerns of your life into a raucous crowd, being welcomed by the mob.

I’ve been an oddball all my life. I have often felt separate and alone. Standing in that crush in the Superdome was the first time I experienced total acceptance. At that moment, I knew Bears fans all over the world were feeling the exact same way. It’s what the doughboys must have experienced on Armistice Day.

But what happens when you have a dream and that dream comes true?

Ditka later recalled the sense of anticlimax that washed over him almost before the game was over—it was like coming off a mountain.

You wake the next morning happy but sad and empty and without purpose. “Peggy Lee sang a great song, ‘Is That All There Is?’ ” Ditka wrote in his autobiography. “And it really felt that way. The game can never match what they build it up to be.”

This feeling of melancholy, this loss of altitude or inspiration, it’s not only felt by players and coaches. Fans experience it, too. I got up early the next day with a pit in my stomach. What now?

I had gone out full and would return empty. I packed in silence, caught a cab to the airport, and got back on the Bears charter, but the exuberance was gone. We flew home in silence. The superfans were sunk in their own girth. Even their mustaches seemed sad. It was the feeling you get on Sunday night after a long weekend times a billion. I looked out the window. What is this life? I asked myself. What does it mean? Why does every minute pull me away from everything I love?

I went back to Glencoe. I finished high school. I finished college. When I was offered a job in New York, I went to my friends and told them that I would take this job but only for a time because I did not want to live on the East Coast. I wanted to spend my life in the city I loved, and, in case I got turned around, they had to remind me, otherwise I would be unhappy even if I thought I was happy. They promised to remind me, but of course they forgot.

I got drunk in New York and made a fool of myself on innumerable occasions and met the love of my life and got married. I wrote a book, had a kid, then another, then wrote another book, then had another kid, then moved to Connecticut, then, just like that, I was 40, then I was even older than 40. In that whole time, the Bears never did win again. I missed Chicago but I did not go back. Nor did I get answers to the questions I had asked myself on the plane that day. I had come home after the Super Bowl and lived my life, hopeful that things might work out for me as they had worked out for the Bears. Fencik, McMahon, Hampton, Ditka, McMichael, Payton, Perry, Marshall, and Gault—they had cured me of the defeatism of the Cubs fan. They had saved my life.

Where Are the ’85 Bears Now?

By Adam Doster

OFFENSE

Mike Ditka, Kevin Butler, Jim Covert, Willie Gault, and Jim McMahon
THEN AND NOW: 1. Mike Ditka 2. Kevin Butler 3. Jim Covert 4. Willie Gault 5. Jim McMahon  Photography: (Ditka then) Ed Wagner/Chicago Tribune; (Ditka now) Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune; (McMahon then) Paul Spinelli/AP; (McMahon now) Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune; (Butler then, Covert then, Gault then) NFL photo/AP; (Covert now) courtesy of The Institute of Transfusion Medicine; (Gault now) courtesy of Willie Gault; (Ryan then) Ed Wagner/Chicago Tribune

Mike Ditka, age 73
Head coach
Now: ESPN personality; restaurateur; celebrity spokesman

Mark Bortz, 52
Left guard

Now: A hunting enthusiast last known to be living in rural Illinois

Kevin Butler, 51
Kicker

Now: Radio analyst for the University of Georgia

Jim Covert, 53
Left tackle

Now: CEO of The Institute for Transfusion Medicine

Willie Gault, 53
Wide receiver

Now: Masters sprinter; occasional actor

Jay Hilgenberg, 54
Center

Now: Codeveloper of the Club at Strawberry Creek in Kenosha

Dennis McKinnon, 52
Wide receiver

Now: CEO of Bearly Active Productions, a promotional services company

Jim McMahon, 54
Quarterback

Now: Operator of Swang Wear, a golf apparel company

Walter Payton, deceased
Running back

Died in 1999 from a rare liver disease

Matt Suhey, 55
Fullback

Now: Co-owner of Walter Payton Power Equipment; executor of Payton’s estate

Tom Thayer, 52
Right guard

Now: Radio analyst for the Bears Radio Network (WBBM-AM 780)

Keith Van Horne, 55
Right tackle

Now: Retired radio personality

DEFENSE

Buddy Ryan, Gary Fencik, William Perry, Mike Singletary, and Otis Wilson
THEN AND NOW: 1. Buddy Ryan 2. Gary Fencik 3. William Perry 4. Mike Singletary 5. Otis Wilson
 Photography: (Ryan now) Brian Garfinkel/AP; (Perry then) NFL photo/AP; (Perry now) Jim Prisching/Chicago Tribune; (Fencik then) Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune; (Singletary then) Bob Langer/Chicago Tribune; (Singletary now) courtesy of Minnesota Vikings; (Wilson then) NFL photo/AP; (Wilson now) Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune

Buddy Ryan, age 82
Defensive coordinator

Now: Retiree; raises racehorses on a Kentucky farm

Maury Buford, 53
Punter

Now: Owner of Buford Roofing and Construction in the Dallas area

Richard Dent, 52
Defensive end

Now: CEO of RLD Resources, an energy and telecom company

Dave Duerson, deceased
Strong safety

Committed suicide in 2011; posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy

Gary Fencik, 59
Free Safety

Now: Business development head at Adams Street Partners, a global private equity firm

Leslie Frazier, 54
Cornerback

Now: Head coach of the Minnesota Vikings

Dan Hampton, 55
Defensive end

Now: Cohost of Pro Football Weekly, a nationally syndicated radio show

Wilber Marshall, 51
Linebacker

Now: Suffers from degenerative arthritis and lives on permanent disability in suburban Washington, D.C.

Steve McMichael, 56
Defensive tackle

Now: Coaches the Chicago Slaughter (Indoor Football League)

Emery Moorehead, 59
Tight end

Now: Agent at Koenig & Strey in the North Shore

William Perry, 50
Defensive tackle

Now: Corporate events speaker; TV personality; diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome in 2008

Mike Richardson, 52
Cornerback

Now: Released from prison in 2010; convicted more than 20 times on drug charges

Mike Singletary, 54
Middle linebacker

Now: Linebacker coach of the Minnesota Vikings

Otis Wilson, 55
Linebacker

Now: President of the Otis Wilson Charitable Association

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