Thursday, March 20, 2014

Monsters and Memories

The 1985 Bears were unforgettable. They were ferocious, colorful, and controversial and their defense was the best that I have ever seen.  Rich Cohen has written a book that does justice to that team and its legacy.  It is, quite simply, the best book about football that I have ever read.

The best sports books are never just about sports.  They are about life, about culture and about ourselves.  Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football is one of those books.  It is part Fever Pitch in the way that Cohen shares the joy, heartbreak and obsessions of a fan.  It is part Boys of Summer as he tracks down and interviews the broken, fading warriors, now 20 years retired.  It is also part history as Cohen retells the story of the Chicago Bears and its founder Papa Bear, George Halas, who practically invented the National Football League.  Even though Cohen is only writing about football, he manages to capture something of the energy, rhythms and history of 20th century America.  He traces the origins of this violent game, played by the children of immigrants in factory towns like Decatur, Canton, Akron, Muncie and Racine. This game would evolve into our national religion. 
Rich Cohen grew up in Glencoe Illinois, an affluent lakeside suburb of Chicago that was home to Ferris Bueller.  In 1985, Cohen was 17 years old.  It was the age of Reagan and MTV – a golden age for John Hughes movies but a miserable time to be a sports fan in Chicago.  The Cubs and White Sox were legendary losers.  Their last World Series wins had come in 1908 and 1917.  In hockey, the Blackhawks were competitive but they hadn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1961.  Hope had arrived on the hardwood in the form of Michael Jordan, but in 1985, he was still finding his air.  He was a rookie on a mediocre Bulls team.
Chicago’s most recent sports championship had come in 1963.  On a frigid day in December, just one month after JFK was assassinated, the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants 14-10 at Wrigley Field to win the NFL title.  The Bears were best known for their ferocious defense, the famed “Monsters of the Midway” (a nickname that actually originated with the University of Chicago football team coached by Amos Alonzo Stagg).  The Bears team of 1963 also featured an outstanding 24-year-old tight end, from the coal-mining town of Carnegie Pennsylvania.  His name was Mike Ditka.

After 1963, the Bears plummeted to mediocrity and despite fielding some of the finest players in NFL history – Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers and eventually, Walter Payton – they lost more than they won.  Things started to turn around in the early 1980s when defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan defense began building a solid defense, called the 46, after the number worn by safety, Doug Plank.  But the turning point came in, 1982 when George Halas hired Mike Ditka as head coach.   Ditka, the gum-snapping, sweater-vest-wearing, bullet headed martinet with the icy blue stare, brought a winning attitude and was the perfect symbol for Chicago.  Tough, unyielding, unforgiving and, on occasion, completely out of control.  He would turn things around.

Like Cohen, I also misspent my youthful passion rooting for a bad team, the NY Giants of the 1970s (and a worse one, the Mets).  For me, the rise of the Bears was fascinating to behold.  I had always admired the Bears.  Like my Giants, they had the old school mystique of a storied franchise that had fallen on hard times.  I loved watching those NFL Films clips of Butkus and the earlier Monsters of the Midway of the 1950s and 60s, their white uniforms covered in mud, their hands and forearms taped and bloodied.  The Greco-Roman columns at Soldier Field made them seem like gladiators.  Their breath in the frigid cold poured out of their facemasks like dragons breathing fire.

By the middle of the 1980s, the Bears started playing well.  It happened just as my Giants started playing well.  But in 1985 the Bears were better.  Better than anyone. The defense was frightening.  Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, Otis Wilson, Wilbur Marshall, Gary Fencik were magnificently brutal.  On offense, Walter Payton was past his prime but still a joy to behold, gracefully high-stepping through defenses, palming the ball like a toy, and, and lowering his shoulder to hit linebackers before they could hit him.  Then there was Jim McMahon, the rebel, rock star quarterback who broke the rules, swaggered and won.  And there was the media sensation, William “the Fridge” Perry and then the Super Bowl Shuffle.  The Bears were everywhere and for some reason, I absolutely loved it. 

They finished the regular season 15-1.  Then they embarrassed my beloved Giants in the Playoffs 21-0, and, if anything, the score made the game seem closer than it actually was.   OK, I may be biased and perhaps tad bitter about the memory, but I think Cohen pours it on a bit too much here.  Giant fans will wince when remembering how punter, Sean Landeta whiffed on a punt, leading to the Bears first touchdown.  Landeta says that a gust of wind misdirected the ball just before he was to kick it but Cohen doesn’t buy it.  He’s so taken with the mythology of the mighty Bears that he thinks that Landeta was so terrified of the Bear onslaught, that he couldn’t keep his eye on the ball.  But why?  Landeta was a punter, not a quarterback.  Yes, many players trembled before the mighty Bears, but punters don’t get hit.  In any event, it was a brutal loss, but I can forgive the Bears for this humiliation and I can forgive Cohen for making me relive it.  After all, the Bears humiliated everyone in 1985.  They beat the Cowboys 44-0.  They beat the Rams in the NFC Championship Game, 24-0, and they beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl 46-10 in what was then the most lopsided result in Super Bowl history.
For me, things got better. The Giants rebounded from this loss and won the Super Bowl the following year.  And since 1986, they’ve won three more.  But it has now been 28 years since the Bear’s Super Bowl win of 1985.  In that time, Chicago has moved forward with urban renewal and the Bulls, Blackhawks and even the White Sox have all won championships.  But the Bears have not.  Another generation of Chicago football fans has grown up knowing only frustration and the disappointment of close calls.  For them, the legend of the 1985 Bears looms larger than ever.

Cohen’s look back at the casualties, the retired and fallen players, is especially poignant.   Walter Payton died of a rare liver disease in 1999, but also struggled with drugs and depression after he retired.  The Bear’s hard-hitting All-Pro safety, Dave Duerson, committed suicide in 2011 at the age of 50.  He shot himself in the chest so that his brain could be studied.  Sure enough, researchers found he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the result of repeated blows to the head.  The symptoms include dementia, memory loss, aggression and depression.  Jim McMahon suffers from memory loss and is one of 75 retired players suing the NFL for allegedly failing to disclose what it knew about the dangers of concussions.  William Perry had problems with alcohol, gained weight and suffers from a disorder to the nervous system.

Cohen brings his skills as a journalist as he recounts his visits with the retired players.  There’s magic and real joy in the memories but the telling is also bittersweet. The tale of the retired athlete is often a sad one.  Most of us are just figuring things out when we reach our thirties.  But the professional athlete is finished.  Hopefully, he is smart with his money.  (Gary Fencik, the All-Pro “Hit Man” from Yale is an investment advisor.)  Many are not.  There is often physical pain, the toll exacted from the years of pounding.  Of course many find other paths and enjoy the fulfillment that comes with family and career.  But these are not the same as the rush, excitement and feeling of brotherhood that came on Sunday.

The reverence that Chicagoans have for Mike Ditka is the stuff of both legend and caricature.  Cohen takes us beyond the Ditka of Saturday Night Live and the State Farm commercials and helps us appreciate the man and understand why his bond with Chicago’s football fans was so real and so deep.  After the Super Bowl win of 1985, the Bears under Ditka enjoyed several excellent seasons, winning 4 division titles but they failed to make it back to the Super Bowl.  In 1992, the Bears went 5-11 and lost 8 of the last 9 games.  Rich Cohen was 24 and working in New York for Rolling Stone magazine when he learned that the Bears had fired Ditka.  When he heard the news, he left the building and sat down on the curb and began crying.  He knew that something was over and it wasn’t coming back. 

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