The '85 Bears: We Were the Greatest, page 1
Copyright © 2005, 2010 by Mike Ditka and Rick Telander
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All photographs courtesy of the Chicago Tribune except where otherwise noted
The game summaries, “Remembering ’85” interviews, and statistical appendices appeared previously in The ’85 Bears: Still Chicago’s Team, copyright © 2005 by The Chicago Tribune. Used with permission. Portions of the main narrative text appeared previously in the book, In Life, First You Kick Ass, copyright © 2005 by Mike Ditka and Rick Telander.
To those men on the field who made this all happen, and to the memory of the Old Man.
To the good life.
I want to thank all of those writers who documented the Bears’ run to the Super Bowl, particularly the columnists and beat reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times, whose old news clips were so valuable in my research.
I also got insight and information from these books: Halas by Halas, by George Halas and Arthur Veysey; Ditka: An Autobiography, by Mike Ditka and Don Pierson; Papa Bear, by Jeff Davis; It’s Been A Pleasure: The Jim Finks Story, by seven various writers; Ditka by Armen Keteyian; Singletary on Singletary, by Mike Singletary and Jerry Jenkins; and McMahon, by Jim McMahon and Bob Verdi.
Table of Contents
Chapter I: Where Are the Trucks?
Game 1: Balky Beginning Turns Out Well
Remembering ’85: Jim McMahon
Chapter II: We’ll Be Back
Game 2: Think This Is One-Sided?
Remembering ’85: Ron Rivera
Chapter III: Rope Burns
Game 3: McMahon’s McMiracle
Remembering ’85: Gary Fencik
Chapter IV: No Saints Here
Game 4: Electric Gault Lights a Charge
Remembering ’85: Dave Duerson
Chapter V: Bodyslams and All-Day Suckers
Game 5: Picked Up by a Pickoff
Remembering ’85: Dan Hampton
Chapter VI: A Dog on My Ankle
Chapter VII: Yolanda Is Waiting, Meester Deetka
Game 6: Payback Payoff: Memory Erased
Remembering ’85: William Perry
Chapter VIII: Sic ’Em Fridge, and the Premature Celebration
Game 7: Refrigerator in the Living Room
Remembering ’85: Emery Moorehead
Chapter IX: Hit Lists in Cheeseland, the Marvelous Mudslide, Halfway Home
Game 8: Every Phase Earns Praise
Remembering ’85: Richard Dent
Chapter X: Howling Sounds and Defenders from Another Planet
Game 9: Circus Stars: Perry, Payton
Remembering ’85: Willie Gault
Chapter XI: Traveling South, Near-Blows with Buddy, Monday Night Hell
Game 10: Against Fuller, Lions on Empty
Remembering ’85: Steve McMichael
Chapter XII: We Can Do Almost Everything, but Maybe We Can’t Dance
Game 11: Bears Destroy Dallas
Remembering ’85: Keith Van Horne
Chapter XIII: Headband Craziness, a Yuppie Who Likes to Hurt People, the Elephant in the Snow
Game 12: Numbers Add Up to an Even Dozen
Remembering ’85: Leslie Frazier
Chapter XIV: Cannons Don’t Fall out of Trees
Game 13: One and Only: Season Smudged
Remembering ’85: Otis Wilson
Chapter XV: Stick a Needle in This
Game 14: Ugly, but They’ll Take I
Remembering ’85: Tom Thayer
Game 15: Buddy System: Class in Session
Remembering ’85: Jay Hilgenberg
Game 16: Many Stars of This Show
Remembering ’85: Dennis McKinnon
Playoffs: Knocked Cold
Remembering ’85: Kevin Butler
Playoffs: Super Smooth Sailing
Remembering ’85: Buddy Ryan
Super Bowl: Mercy!
Appendix: 1985 Game Statistics
To me, it seems like only yesterday that the Mike Ditka Bears ruled the earth. Part of that is because during the amazing and amusing 1985 season, I lived next door to the team. The east property line of my yard was the west end line for the Bears’ practice facility in Lake Forest. A chain-link fence—with a number of large, rusty-edged, human-sized holes in it—a few ash trees, and some accidental buckthorn sprouts were all that separated my house from the gridiron.
My wife and I and our two baby girls had moved from a two-bedroom Evanston apartment in 1984, risking everything on a down payment and a strangling mortgage, heading farther north in the ‘burbs where things were cheaper and we could afford—strange as it may seem now with current real estate prices in this area—our first house. The 100-yard grass field next door was vacant when we arrived in the spring of 1984. It was called Farwell Field, I learned, and belonged to Lake Forest College. Remarkably, the Bears shared the field all late summer and fall with the mighty Division III Lake Forest Foresters, a band of cheerful, red-and-black-clad, nonscholarship collegians about the size of average high school players. The Foresters would tear up the field on Saturday afternoons against Beloit and Lawrence—really destroy the sod when they played in the occasional monsoon—and then the Bears would practice on the maimed surface the rest of the week. By late November the grass would be brown, clotted, and ruined. At the east end of the field was the low brick structure known as Halas Hall, with the large office window to the far south being that of young team president Michael McCaskey and the window to the north being that of young head coach Mike Ditka. In time I would realize that as I stood in our ground-floor bathroom when the leaves were gone, casually relieving myself, I could see into the working quarters of each man.
Of course, I didn’t know much about this yet. I worked for Sports Illustrated at the time, and I loved sports. But mostly I traveled for my stories. To Washington and San Francisco and Pittsburgh, places where they had real NFL teams and real heroes. I had heard the Bears lived next door to our new place, but my mom had actually found the house and told me about it while my family was vacationing in Florida, and I made the earnest-money payment sight-unseen. At any rate, in May when our burgeoning troupe—soon to be six of us—moved our few possessions into the old house on Illinois Road, nobody was in the big yard next door.
Who cared about the Bears, anyway?
The year before they had finished 8–8. In 1982, a strike-shortened misfire, they had gone 3–6. The year before that, 6–10. The year before that, 7–9. You threw in with the Bears at your own risk. They hadn’t won anything since 1963, three years before the Super B
Still, the Bears had this fellow named Payton. And they had a nostalgia-laden tradition. And starting in 1982 they had a new coach with fire in his eyes, a sometimes-frightening, sometimes-inspiring former All-Pro tight end by the name of Mike Ditka. He had replaced Neill Armstrong, coming straight from a special teams job with the Dallas Cowboys, apparently at old man George Halas’s request. Which made folks wonder if the acerbic, grumpy Papa Bear had finally gone around the bend. Special teams coaches didn’t become head coaches. Offensive coordinators did. Defensive coordinators did. Special teams coaches became not much of anything.
Ditka was a guy who broke racquets in rage when he played racquetball against Cowboys staff members like Dan Reeves and the great calm one himself, Tom Landry. Ditka made his Cowboys receivers run, and when they didn’t run right, he swore at them. He challenged them to fight. Right there, on the spot! He turned red. He turned purple. As an athlete he had been overwhelming in high school, dominant at Pitt, ferocious in the NFL. In 1983, his second year as Bears head coach, he had been so infuriated after a loss, he punched a filing cabinet with his right hand, breaking a bone in the process. At the next game he inspired his team by saying, “Win one for Lefty.” He was perpetually agitated, outspoken, a puffing volcano always on the verge of eruption. This was the head coach of the storied Chicago franchise, the granddaddy of the league? Help.
But, Ditka knew what it meant to be a Bear. For six years, starting in 1961, he had played like a maniac, on and off the field. He defined toughness and grit at the tight end position. Despite his Pennsylvania steel town roots and accent, he came to embody the soul of the black-and-blue division Bears along with two other striving souls—Gayle Sayers and Dick Butkus. Traded to the Eagles in 1967 and then to the Cowboys in 1969, Ditka played in two Super Bowls and was an assistant coach in two others. The idea of Ditka as a head coach seemed—what would you call it?—intriguing? What if his passion could be harnessed, focused, reproduced, and transferred like magic capes to all those players under him? What if…
Gradually the Bears began to make their presence known next door. There was a minicamp or two. And sometimes I would see Ditka in a golf cart on the edge of the grass, observing, gesturing, sometimes seated with oddball young quarterback Jim McMahon or even with the great, squirming Walter Payton himself. Sometimes I could hear Ditka yell. Sometimes I could see his orange or blue sweatshirt glinting through the bushes as he limped from drill to drill. He chewed gum constantly, as though his jaw had to move nonstop to compensate for the uncertainty of his football-ravaged hip joints. There were the usual practice noises—grunts, whistles, hollerings, pads cracking, the leathery thud of punts departing Dave Finzer’s and later Maury Buford’s foot and the four- or five-second delay before a reciprocating thud was heard as each ball touched earth.
Sometimes I would stand next to the fence and watch wide receiver Willie Gault sprint effortlessly after seemingly far-overthrown passes from McMahon and gracefully pull them in. Sometimes I’d watch the boring recognition drills conducted for the defensive unit by the taciturn Buddy Ryan. At the end of certain practices the Bears would work on their two-minute drill—a loud, frantic blend of chaos and creativity that often ended with kicker Bob Thomas drilling a hurried field goal that would arch over the antique goalpost, soar above the chicken wire that hung uselessly from rusting poles above the fence, and bounce off the roof of my house.
Some of those balls the Bears managers were able to find. Some stayed in my yard for, well… let’s just say a few of them still haven’t been returned.
I ran into Ditka a few times, sometimes after practices when I’d simply walk through a hole in the fence and have a chat with a player like Payton or Gary Fencik or, in years to come, new-draftee Jim Harbaugh. Indeed, it was Harbaugh who looked at my house and asked if I’d be willing to sell it. “Man, I could wake up, walk across the field, and be there for the meetings in two minutes,” Harbaugh would say wistfully. I pondered a deal. Maybe I could gouge the first-round pick. But where would we move?
Like most writers, I didn’t get too close to the head coach. Ditka was intimidating. He was in his mid-40s and except for the bad-hip, bad-foot hobble, looked like he could catch and crush the typical journalist with one paw. I have a photo of him holding my third baby, Robin, in his arms in 1988, tickling her under the chin, seated in the empty wooden bleachers next to the field. He was always civil enough, and always ready to sign autograph hounds’ souvenirs, but he was…Ditka.
“We call him ‘Sybil,’” Jim McMahon would write in his biography, McMahon, “after the girl in that movie. You know, the one who had all those different personalities? Mike will be calm one minute, then throw a clipboard the next. People don’t understand that, but we do. The players figure he’s just going from one stage to another. He’s merely ‘Sybilizing.’”
One summer a few years later workmen were at our house, adding a new bedroom and putting skylights in the two second-floor bathrooms. One of the carpenters was sitting on the exposed rafters of the open roof, looking down at the field and the practice session below. I knew he was a Bears fan, and I could hear him yell at Ditka—something about how stupid it was to trade away safety Dave Duerson. I heard muffled yelling, and then the carpenter came swinging down fast from his perch, looking terrified. What happened?
“Ditka yelled at me,” he said, pale as drywall.
What did he yell?
“‘Use your hammer, not your mouth, jackass!’” While writing this book I took a break to see the soccer comedy movie, Kicking and Screaming, starring Will Ferrell and Robert Duvall as kiddie coaches and Ditka as—of course—himself. Enlisted by Ferrell as his assistant, the cigar-chomping Ditka screams on the first day to the assembled 10-year-olds: “I’m not just coaching soccer, I’M BUILDING MEN!”
This guy wasn’t like Vince Lombardi or Landry or Chuck Noll or Joe Gibbs. Well, maybe there was a bit of Lombardi fury in him. But Ditka was unique. Unlike many high-profile coaches, he had been a great player. He was high-strung and ornery, unpredictable as a weather vane, and no one had ever considered him a brilliant tactician. But then, his actions were so loud and dramatic nobody much looked at his tactics. He had made so many impetuous mistakes in his life—in judgment, in execution, in choice—that he seemed to be constantly recreating himself out of penance or disgust or boredom into a new, more considerate, more actualized form of human. But through it all he pretty much stayed the same, and he always seemed able to grin at himself.
In his 1992 book, Monster of the Midway, Armen Keteyian wrote that Ditka “is some sort of cultural aberration—at once the best and worst his town [Chicago] has produced.” It is true Ditka has always carried the positives and the negatives of intense desire with him like twin briefcases, one in each hand. But if he seemed dangerous and threatening long ago, time has softened those ridges. He now is, without argument, Mr. Bear. He has pointedly stayed in Chicago after his football career. (Unlike, for instance, Butkus.) Please forget that brief nonsense down there as the New Orleans Saints head coach. (Lord, who else but Ditka would pose for a magazine cover as the groom in a wedding photo with Saints bride/tailback Ricky Williams?)
Ditka has a looming presence that shocks people who stumble into his path. No one could possibly mistake him for anyone but who he is. That head, that brow, those eyes, that walk, that mustache.
Twenty-five years have gone by since the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl. In 1984, my first year in the neighborhood, they showed promise. They beat the evil Los Angeles Raiders for one thing, and they finished a surprising 10–6. They even won a playoff game, the first Bears team to do so in more than two decades.
Then in 1985, not only did they make it to Super Bowl XX, they snatched the champion’s mantle and toyed with it and danced on its fabric like maniacs. It was Ditka’s pinnacle. It was his fulfilled team. At its crescendo, that 1985 squad was, almost without question, the best NFL team ever. And it
I was next door during all of it—except when I was on the road observing the team—stunned like everyone else. To sit down two and a half decades later and have the man himself reflect on the journey has been entertaining, to say the least. We did most of the tapings in Ditka’s own restaurant on—where else—Mike Ditka Way, in downtown Chicago. Some we did in the lounge at Bob-o-Link Golf Club in Highland Park, Ditka’s home away from home. The tapes are littered with nightclub noises, plates crashing, vacuum cleaners roaring, toasts being proposed, the voices of autograph hounds, singing by impassioned Sinatra devotee John Vincent, wild laughter, shrieking, horrible jokes, pointless digressions, Ditka occasionally bellowing above the din, “Knock it off!” and they are, as you might guess, remarkable.
I couldn’t bring Da Coach live to everybody’s doorstep. But I captured his thoughts on that classic journey of yore, the one that seems so recent yet recedes daily like a plume of blue cigar smoke over an old oaken bar.
—Rick Telander, July 2010
Where Are the Trucks?
The crowd was huge, half a million strong, and the plumes of condensed breath that came from the multitude of cheering mouths dissipated instantly in the stiff breeze. It was January 27, 1986, and downtown Chicago was frozen like a block of dry ice. The temperature was 8 degrees, with a windchill of 25 below zero. But the adoring masses were out to greet the returning heroes, direct from New Orleans, weather be damned. People barked like rabid dogs. They pounded their mittened hands in joy.
Less than 24 hours earlier the Bears had destroyed the New England Patriots in the Superdome 46–10, the largest margin of victory in any Super Bowl to that date. It wasn’t a whipping; it was a humiliation. Consider, for instance, that starting Pats quarterback Tony Eason played all the way into the third quarter yet did not complete a pass.