Author and Chicago native Rich Cohen's latest book is about the 1985 Bears, called Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football. Cohen's webpage describes self describes him this way :Rich Cohen, a New York Times bestselling author...where he died with the Cubs and was reborn with the Bears. He has written ten books and a host of magazine articles for, among others, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, and Vanity Fair, where he’s a contributing editor. Cohen has won the Great Lakes Book Award and the Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award, and his stories have been included in The Best American Essays and The Best American Travel Writing. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and three sons, but is plotting his return to Chicagoland.
Rich and I graduated from New Trier together and attended the same synagogue growing up. He has generously listed the three things that stood out about the 1985 Bears. Here are those aspects in his own words.
1. They were connected to the origins of pro football.
If you want to pick date the Bears, a team that slogged through much of the 1960s and 1970s, began their rise to the near perfection of 1985, it would probably be 1982 when Mike Ditka was named as the team’s head coach. Ditka had been hired by his first pro coach, George Halas, who filled the sky above the Chicago of my youth, with his sharp eyes and lantern jaw. It was Halas who taught Ditka the game and its ethos. (“The first thing [Halas] said, and I will always remember this, was, ‘Tell me about your coaching philosophy,’ Ditka recalled years later. "I said, ‘Coach, what do you want me to do? Bullshit ya? My coaching philosophy is the same as yours: I want to win.’”) In this way, the '85 Bears formed a direct link to the origins of pro football, as Halas had not been merely a founder of the NFL but one of the Bears early stars, a gritty player who, one afternoon, and it had to be a great day in his life, stripped the ball from Jim Thorpe, the first pro football star, then playing for the NFL’s strangest franchise, the Oorang Indians. (More of that in my book Monsters.) Thorpe was carrying the ball, plunging into the pile. Halas put his head into the big man’s stomach. You could hear the wind leave his lungs: OOF! The dark face scowled as the ball came lose and bounded across the field. Halas picked it up, made one cut and was gone, with Thorpe behind him. “I ran faster and faster but I sensed he was gaining,” Halas wrote. “I could hear the squishing of his shoes in the mud. When I could almost feel his breath, I dug in a cleat and did a sharp zig. Thorpe’s momentum carried him on and gave me a few feet of running room. He narrowed the gap. I zagged. Just short of the goal, Thorpe threw himself at me and down I went, into a pool of water. But I slid over the goal. No professional had run 98 yards for a touchdown. None did so again until 1972.” In other words, Ditka played for Halas, who stripped the ball from Thorpe, who learned the game at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School from Pop Warner, who created many of the plays that still define the game.
2. Their innovations came on the defensive side of the ball.
With a few important exceptions, most of the great NFL teams are remembered for the way they moved the ball. As Jesus said, You shall know them by their offense. This was certainly the case with the great dynasty of the 1980s, the San Francisco 49ers, a team defined by quarterback Joe Montana and coach Bill Walsh—wouldn’t it have been cool if it had been quarterback Bill Montana and coach Joe Walsh?—that deployed a magnificent array of weapons in a usually successful attempt to first devastate, then demoralize, then run-up. For my entire childhood, the Bears offense had been one dimensional. Payton right, Payton left, Payton up the middle. This did not change much after Ditka took over. I mean, you’ve got the greatest back in history, you use him. What did change, or had been changing even before Ditka arrived, was the defense, which, devised in a fit of frustration by Buddy Ryan, came to be known as the 46, as that was the number worn by brilliant, hard-hitting Safety Doug Plank, who played in the middle and made the wheels go round. I can go into a lot of technical, diagram drawing about the 46, but suffice to say it was Buddy’s way of fulfilling an old playground fantasy: why spend all day chasing receivers when you send every crazy fucker—Dent, Wilson, Hampton, Fencik, McMichael, etc.—in a mad dash for the quarterback. The ‘85 Bears fielded the best defense in history, shutting down and shutting up everyone—except the Dolphins—including Walsh, Montana and the 49ers, a team the Bears beat in week six. After that game, Walsh told reporters, “You describe it—please. Use any adjective you want. I’ll say it was intense and ferocious. They gave us a good, sound beating.” As Plank told me, “What’s football? It’s chess. Tackle chess. And what’s the quarterback? He’s the king. Take him out, you win the game.”
3. They laughed in the face of the jinx.
Throughout my childhood, I was haunted by the fear of the jinx. The Cubs had last won the World Series in 1908, when my grandpa Morris was walking behind a mule in Poland. The Blackhawks had not gone all the way since the early 1960s, ditto the Bears—a million years before I was born. Worse, these teams seemed hexed and bollocks-ed, spiritually twisted. There was the curse of the Billy Goat and the Ernie Banks things, but there had also been jinxes of the more classical, counting-your-chickens-before-
they-hatch variety. Just one year before the Bears made their run, the Cubs were the rage. The '84 Cubs seemed among the best ever, the team of the all animal infield: Bull, Ryno, Bowa, Penguin, Trout. And Sutcliffe. And Eckersly. And Jody. I could go on. In the middle of the summer, seemed like August, a handful of players on that team, who knows why, released a country single called “Men in Blue.” It included the line, “There’s been a lot of talk about lights in Wrigley park/ We don’t care, we make it there, we’ll play it in the dark.” The chorus went: “As sure as there is ivy on the center field wall/ the men in blue are gonna win it all.” The last time I looked, there is ivy on the center field wall, but the Cubs did not come close to winning it all. They lost in the playoffs to the Padres—Fuck you, Steve Garvey—who were crushed by the Tigers in the World Series. And in case legalistic readers are wondering, No, the Tigers did not wear blue, nor in any way could be described as men in blue. This fiasco seemed to put the recording of boastful nothing-can-stop-us-songs on top of the NO list. Yet, that’s just what the Bears did with the Super Bowl Shuffle. The fact that the video for that song was shot the morning after the team lost its only game of the season only underscored the point: we put no truck in jinxes, a sentiment the Bears backed up by not losing another game. That team made me a monotheist. They drove superstition from my life. As Ditka suggested, winning is not a matter of hexes. It’s a matter of determining who will be the hitt-ors and who will be the hit-ees.
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