UP AND THEN WAY DOWN IN '84
Aggression was a weapon which Mike Ditka believed in. During the 1960s, he had been a relentless tight end for the Chicago Bears. Now, at age 45, he was in his third year as their combative head coach. Thus he viewed the next football game as more than a game. It was a litmus test to see just how ferocious his 1984 Bears were.
It was the first week of November and they were getting ready to play the Los Angeles Raiders. Even in a league understood to be violent, the Raiders were historically the biggest bullies. They were also the defending NFL champions, having dismantled the Washington Redskins 38-9 in the previous Super Bowl. The 1984 Bears were a pretty good football team trying to figure out if they could be great.
"If you want to defeat your opponent, you got to out-hit him," says Ditka. "People say, 'Well, you need to out-think him.' No! You gotta out-hit him. That's what football players understand. It's like a boxer. You hit him in the nose enough times he's gonna respect you. The Raiders were always a physical football team, and that's what we talked about before the game. I said, 'We're going toe to toe with these guys. It's gonna be a heavyweight match, and we're gonna slug with them.'"
On November 6, 1984, the Bears mauled the Raiders 17-6. This being Chicago, it was windy and cold on that Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field. This being the 1984 Bears, the offense did just enough, led by its beloved warrior Walter Payton, who gained 111 yards and scored both of his team's two touchdowns. On defense, the Bears made the Raiders look weak and confused, forcing 3 interceptions and 2 fumbles and sacking the Raider quarterbacks 9 times. Read that again-9 times- because it doesn't happen too often. The single-game NFL record is 12, which is held by five different teams, including the '84 Bears, who did it later that season against the Lions.
Against the Raiders, it seemed as if the Bears competed against each other to see who could beat the snot out of the quarterback first. First they fractured Marc Wilson's arm and knocked him out of the game. Then they knocked out his replacement, David Humm, with a knee injury. Wilson was forced to reenter the game and found himself getting knocked out a second time. Curry Kirkpatrick, writing for Sports Illustrated during his heyday, was deeply impressed. "So brutal was the Bear onslaught that Al Davis was seen covering his face with his hands. Just breathe, baby."
The NFL's closest observers were also starting to see that the Bear offensive line had become increasingly nasty in its own right. Kurt Becker started that game at right guard for Chicago. A six-foot-five, 280-pound Michigan graduate with a maniacal streak, he frequently tangled that Sunday with future Hall of Fame lineman Howie Long, who later told Sports Illustrated he finally screamed at Becker, "I'm going to get you in the parking lot after the game and beat you up in front of your family!"
Becker says Long tried to follow through on his threat. "Howie was out of his mind by the end of the game," he recalls. "He tried to come into our locker room and confront me. Then he wouldn't get on their team bus. He was looking for me in the parking lot."
Years later, Emery Moorehead, Chicago's multitalented tight end, ran into the great Raider running back Marcus Allen, and they began reminiscing about the day the '84 Bears made the '84 Raiders look soft.
"Marcus said, after we knocked out both of their quarterbacks, they wanted to put in Ray Guy, their punter, because he was supposed to be their emergency quarterback," says Moorehead. "But Guy refused to go in. Then all of them were arguing at halftime about who was going back in-was it gonna be David Humm or Marc Wilson? Nobody wanted to go back in. That's how intimidating our defense was then. You can't even hit guys today the way our defense hit them. You'd be suspended."
Ditka, who doesn't joke about this kind of thing, says the 1984 win against the Raiders "was the most brutal football game I've ever watched. Did you see how many guys they were carrying off the field for both teams?"
In the second quarter, the Bears lost their own starting quarterback, Jim McMahon, when he scrambled away from the pressure and ran for a first down before getting pinned between two Raiders. On the CBS telecast it looked fairly benign, but in reality one of the Raiders had struck McMahon in his side with a helmet. His offensive teammates told him to leave the game. He refused and remained for three more plays, but at halftime he had trouble breathing. McMahon tried to play again in the third quarter, and this time his offensive linemen ordered him to the sideline.
"Jim got hit in the kidney, and it came over the bone in his rib cage and his kidney got lacerated," says McMahon's longtime agent Steve Zucker. "I was in the stands, and I met him in the locker room. He was pissing blood, I mean pure blood, and he was in intense pain. He was in agony."
When asked now if he was scared, McMahon doesn't say yes, and maybe he wasn't. According to several teammates, McMahon was never afraid of anything. But he does say, "I could have died. It was an internal organ, so it ain't no joke."
Adds McMahon, "They wanted to remove it, but I knew my career would be over. The bottom part of it was gone, and it was cut in about five places. It was bleeding for two days. The doctor told me, 'Look, you're gonna die if we don't cut it out.' I said, 'You can't cut this out, you cut it out and I'm finished. Just keep giving me the morphine and leave me alone.'
"That's what he did. I told him I'd sign a waiver, he wouldn't be responsible, but he wasn't cutting that out of me. On Tuesday night, they came in and gave me a transfusion because they said they had to operate on Wednesday. I said, 'Just give me until the morning, and if it's still bleeding you do what you have to do.' Overnight this thing just started closing up by itself. The doctor still doesn't know how the hell it happened. I've had my knees, my shoulders, my ribs, and everything else blown up. But I never felt anything like that in my whole life."
McMahon spent the next ten days in the hospital. Right after the Raiders game, Bears trainer Fred Cato told reporters, "At this point, I will say he will play again this season. But he will miss four weeks. There was no rib damage, no other organs were injured, but there was a lot of pain, and he did urinate blood. On the positive side, he didn't rupture the kidney, which could have ended his career."
Cato turned out to be wrong about McMahon returning after a month. For Mc Mahon, the '84 season had just ended. And just that abruptly the Bears lost their momentum. They were 7-3, but now it seemed less likely that they would keep winning enough to make the playoffs. If they did qualify for the postseason, their quarterbacks would be Steve Fuller and Rusty Lisch.
"That [injury] was significant," says Ken Valdiserri, the Bears' director of public relations. "We were just coming into our own, and this put us in a position of not having any continuity. It was symbolic of Jim's career from an injury standpoint, and it was symbolic of his reckless play. I think what we saw there was a guy who was reckless with the way he played the position."
Nobody ever questioned the toughness of Jim McMahon. While the Raider quarterbacks were trying to stay on the sidelines, he had internal bleeding and was arguing with his linemen to stay in the game. But questions about why he was injured so often persisted throughout his eight seasons in Chicago. Was he truly reckless during games? Or, at six-foot and 190 pounds, did he simply sustain the injuries that came inevitably from playing such a hazardous position? Off the field, did he drink too much, take poor care of his body, not get enough rest?
"That was the rumor, that he lived too wild," says his agent Zucker. "I don't think that was real. Jim was not a big guy, and he played like a wild man. That's why his teammates loved him. He threw everything out there. He had no fear."
"Jimmy Mac was a linebacker playing the quarterback position," says All-Pro safety Dave Duerson. "He would win at all costs, including giving up his body. If we needed a yard to get a first down, Mac was going to get that yard. He wouldn't run out of bounds. He wouldn't slide. He laid it on the line."
And yet, Valdiserri says, "if McMahon took better care of himself, he would have been on the field more. It was a combination of the way he played the game, recklessly, and living his life recklessly off the field. He was reckless in every phase of his life. When he was in good shape, he was in good shape. But he wasn't in good shape for a long portion of his Bears career."
Different people saw different things in McMahon-and he himself will weigh in later on this-but everybody agreed that his health had an enormous impact on Chicago's chances of winning from week to week. In one remarkable stretch from late 1984 through 1988, the Bears went 35-3 in regular-season games with McMahon as their starter. But during that same span, he was sidelined for a month or more four different times.
Thus, going into the 1985 season, this was one of the NFL's prominent story lines: if Jim McMahon could stay healthy, the Chicago Bears could go to the Super Bowl.
For now, in '84, after the Raiders game, he was replaced by his sometimes efficient, always cautious, mostly boring backup, Steve Fuller. If Fuller went down, the third-string quarterback was Rusty Lisch, who had once started at Notre Dame in front of Joe Montana until Irish coach Dan Devine came to his senses. Lisch was quiet, sensitive, pious-the anti-McMahon. Once, when Chicago played on Monday Night Football, Ditka went ballistic as Lisch returned to the sideline after an interception. McMahon and Fuller were used to Ditka's profane eruptions, but Lisch, who rarely got playing time, seemed offended. The next time Chicago's offense went on the field, Lisch stayed there on the sideline, looking miffed. "I don't think I can go back in after the way you talked to me," he told Ditka. Rather than pummel his quarterback in prime time, Ditka unballed his fist and told Lisch he had only been kidding.
By early November 1984, especially coming off the big physical win against the Raiders, Ditka should have felt more secure in his job. The Bears were now 7-3, and the way they won, says offensive tackle Keith Van Horne, "started to set the foundation for '85. The Raiders were the defending Super Bowl champions, and it was a statement game. Let's see if you really belong. That game showed we belonged."
But Ditka did not feel safe. In the final year of his three-year contract, he still couldn't tell where he really stood with management. In 1982, his first year as a head coach at any level, the Bears had gone 3-6 during the shortened season when the NFL players walked out on strike. In 1983 Chicago went 8-8 and won five of its last six games to narrowly miss the playoffs. Nonetheless, in 1984 McMahon told Sports Illustrated before the first game, "We all know Mike's job is on the line."
By then the legendary George Halas had died. Ditka had been hired by the Bears' longtime owner and president, who had also been Ditka's coach when Ditka ran people over as a fire-breathing tight end in Chicago. Halas died of cancer at age 88 on October 31, 1983. His 39- year-old grandson, Michael McCaskey, was announced as the team's new president 11 days later. By the time the 1984 season started, McCaskey was telling reporters that he wouldn't "review" Ditka's status until the season ended.
On November 19, 1984, two weeks after the Bears beat up the Raiders, Ditka blurted out on his local radio show, "You've got to understand that I didn't come here hired by the people who own the ball club now. And there probably is a good chance that I probably won't be back next year."
Many Chicago fans scoffed, figuring it was just Ditka being Dikta by calling out Mike McCaskey in front of the entire goddamn city. There were other fans who believed Ditka might actually not return and suspected that McCaskey, a graduate of Yale and later a Harvard professor, wanted someone more corporate and polished than the hot- tempered SOB currently roaming the sidelines in Chicago.
"I can honestly tell you from the bottom of my heart, I never worried for one minute about my job with the Chicago Bears," Ditka says. "I was gonna come, I was gonna go. That never bothered me. I wasn't coaching for money at that time. When I took the job, I was one of the lowest-paid coaches in the league. When I quit, I made good money, but that wasn't what it was about. The most important thing was to be the Chicago Bears coach and fulfill a dream, an ambition."
That's what Iron Mike says now. In his 1986 autobiography, Ditka, he wrote that "winning and not knowing anything started bothering me a little bit." As for McCaskey, he later told Sports Illustrated, "Mike was my grandfather's choice as coach.
I wanted the future coach to be my choice. I needed time."
The Bears finished the 1984 regular season at 10-6, winning their first division title since 1963, which was also the last time they won a NFL championship. Then, on December 30, 1984, Chicago went into deafening RFK Stadium and upset the Washington Redskins 23-19 in the first round of the NFC playoffs. Payton ran for 104 gritty yards, threw a touchdown pass on a reverse, and delivered a crushing block that broke cornerback Curtis Jordan's shoulder. Fuller played well for three quarters before the entire offense took a siesta. The game was saved by Chicago's attacking 46 defense, which frustrated John Riggins, flustered Joe Theissman, and bailed out the faltering Chicago offense by repeatedly holding off Washington in the fourth quarter.
After the Bears had won their first playoff game since 1963-back in the glory days when Ditka played for Halas-Ditka grandly told the press, "I just think it's time for the city of Chicago to take a bow."
The next week McCaskey announced that he would extend Ditka's contract by three years. Given that the Bears were now preparing for the NFC title game in San Francisco, Ditka calls McCaskey's timing a "distraction." He says he told
McCaskey they should just wait until after the season. But suddenly the boss seemed eager to prove how much he valued the coach, and the new deal was inked on January 2. Did that make McCaskey a front- runner? Of course it did, but it was still an important moment in Ditka's career. The three-year contract extension-along with the momentous wins over the Raiders and Redskins-helped quiet the critics who had questioned his inexperience and self-control.
Next came the team's biggest game in a generation. If the Bears could win at San Francisco in the NFC championship on January 6, they would advance to the team's first Super Bowl.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Da Bears!: How the 1985 Monsters of the Midway Became the Greatest Team in NFL History
by Steve Delsohn
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