So the Chicago Bears are playing the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football tonight. This inevitably means that I’ll have at least one or two memories about my favorite sports team of all time, the 1985 Chicago Bears. And today, those memories come with an acknowledgement of their cost.
Across the nation, but especially in the Chicagoland area, a large cohort of middle aged men (and some women, too!) carry with them a fierce, nostalgic devotion to a football team that has etched a permanent place in their hearts and minds. That devotion can be activated in a millisecond, whenever names like “Payton,” “McMahon,” “Ditka,” “Singletary,” “Danimal,” “Mongo,” or “The Fridge” are uttered, or when a sports broadcast plays a snippet of a very bad rap video, “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”
The 1985 Chicago Bears are regarded as one of the top two or three teams in National Football League history. They dominated the regular season with a 15-1 record. They then trounced the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants in the playoffs, before thoroughly, utterly flattening the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. It’s not just their won-loss record that matters; it’s how they won, with a tightly controlled offense and the most dramatic, overpowering, fun-to-watch defense the game has ever seen.
It’s a team that gave back to the Windy City its swagger, years before Michael Jordan would lead the Bulls to six NBA championships. It’s a team full of memorable characters and stories.
A memorable year for me, too
Memories good and bad rarely stand in isolation. I have no doubt that my devotion to this team connects to where I was at that time in my life. I had just graduated from NYU Law School, and I was fulfilling my wish of working as a public interest attorney, practicing at the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan.
I shared an apartment in Brooklyn, earned a little over $20,000 (not much even by 1985 standards, especially in New York), and was absolutely smitten with the wonders of New York City. It was a rougher town during those days, and the decade was marked by a high crime rate and the arrival of crack cocaine. But one could still enjoy city life on a meager budget.
In the meantime, my longstanding affinity for Chicago sports teams — having grown up in Northwest Indiana — had not disappeared. By following the newspapers and Sports Illustrated, and by watching the Bears games that were televised on the East Coast (via a foil-enhanced black & white TV set), I watched that magical season unfold.
In addition to collecting the stuff pictured above, somewhere in a storage trunk I’ve saved the Chicago Tribune edition from the day after the Super Bowl victory. One of the headlines is etched in my mind: “Bears Bring It Home.”
Nowadays, however, I wrestle with my love of that team and the fates of many of the players who were part of the dream season. For example:
- Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton died at an early age, and it is very likely that the way he punished his body throughout a long career had something to do with it.
- Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson started to suffer the effects of concussion-related brain degeneration. He committed suicide, with a request that his brain be autopsied to help determine the effects of football-related injuries.
- Star quarterback Jim McMahon is a lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL concerning concussions and cognitive impairment.
It’s not easy, is it? In return for gridiron glory and an NFL paycheck, these players are paying with their lives. They gave us memories to last a lifetime, but the tradeoff has become increasingly disturbing.