Thursday, January 29, 2015

Da Bears gave us a Super memory

     Read a story last week about the three sportswriters who have covered all 48 previous Super Bowls, and will be there again Sunday.
     Hey, I'm 1-for-48. I was there for the day, and the crowning, of Da Bears. It is the only Super Bowl I've seen live, and likely the only one I ever will see.
     It also was the only live Super Bowl for our son Jason, who was 11 -- nearly 12 -- that day at the Superdome in New Orleans. His recollection: "Sat in the end zone where The Fridge scored his touchdown."

A victory ride for Bears coach Mike Ditka (right) ... and
defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan (Chicago Tribune photo)

     Yep, "The Fridge" -- William "The Refrigerator" Perry, the 335-pound behemoth whose 1-yard TD run was one of the bizarre twists of a Super Bowl -- and a Bears team -- that was as wacky as any in history.
     The 1985 Chicago Bears were great ... and they were nuts. They were unique.
     It was one of football's greatest teams ever, nearly perfect (one loss in 19 games) and on Jan. 26, 1986, destroyed the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, the most one-sided Super Bowl to that point. The 46-10 score still is tied for second-largest margin, exceeded only by 49ers 55, Broncos 10, four years later.
     It was the Bears team of Iron Mike Ditka as head coach, the famed "46" defense that was equal to any defense in any Super Bowl, its brash and mouthy coordinator Buddy Ryan, the NFL's then all-time top rusher (Walter "Sweetness" Payton), the NFL's all-time quirkiest quarterback (Jim McMahon), a world-class hurdler/sprinter/receiver (Willie Gault), the Super Bowl Shuffle video ... and The Fridge, the largest but not really all-that-important parts of that awesome defense.
     Fridge was the circus act. That he scored, and Payton didn't, was a joke.
     The AFC champion Patriots that day were a huge surprise to be there. Let's say that the six-time Super Bowl participant Patriots of the 2000s were much more legit.
     I was 38 when I covered the game for the old Shreveport Journal; it was one of the smallest papers to have a representative there, so I didn't get a seat in the main press box. I was in the auxillary press box, which actually was a section of seats high up in the stadium and -- as I recall -- across the field from the main media area (I did get a seat there for several games I covered at the Superdome).
     It wasn't the media crush of today -- no Internet yet, not many TV or radio sports talk shows -- but there probably were 200 of us in that area, and one memory is that a couple of rows above me and to my right sat Chris Berman.
     ESPN was still young (maybe in its sixth year) and he was not yet the omnipresent Swami he would become, but he was already a loud and visible presence there.
     More media memories in a moment.
     A pregame memory: It was Super Bowl XX, so the NFL brought in all past the Super Bowl game MVPs: a great group including Bart Starr (who, representing the group, tossed the ceremonial coin), Joe Namath, Len Dawson, Joe Montana, some of my Cowboys heroes (Chuck Howley, Roger Staubach, Harvey Martin, Randy White) and our Woodlawn/Louisiana Tech hero, Terry Bradshaw.
     The game referee was Red Cashion, so we heard him drawl his trademark "First dowwwn!" several times that day.
     Ditka had been the star tight end of the last Bears team to win an NFL championship, in 1963 ... also a tremendous defensive team. He was a personal favorite because he came to the Cowboys late in his career and helped them reach two Super Bowls -- the awful loss to the Colts and then (finally) the long-awaited first championship when he caught a pass for the final TD against the Dolphins.
     Then he joined the coaching staff for nearly a decade -- the clipboard-throwing, screaming assistant coach. That he did not learn from Tom Landry, who must have rued those 15-yard penalties Ditka sometimes earned.
     When he returned to Chicago to take over as head coach before the 1982 season, he promised a championship. They delivered in four years.
     One huge reason, no question: Buddy Ryan was his defensive coordinator. He was already on staff and he had been part of the staff for the New York Jets' Super Bowl winners and three Minnesota Vikings teams that lost in the Super Bowl. He knew how to put the pieces together.
     So Ditka had Payton, one of the classiest and greatest running backs; McMahon, who made all the right plays that year at QB and led a productive offense; and that defense.
     They were big and strong and fast and quick, and overpowering. Mike Singletary was the most dominant middle linebacker in football and, to think, maybe not even the best middle LB in Bears history (that Dick Butkus guy). But those defensive names that year ... Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Wilber Marshall, Leslie Frazier, Otis Wilson, Gary Fencik, Steve McMichael, Dave Duerson, etc.
  (OK, I had to look up some of them.)
     They gambled fiercely, blitzing from everywhere and usually succeeding. They pulverized opponents, such as -- yikes -- the Cowboys. I do remember that 44-0 score -- Ditka's team beating The Man in the Hat's team.
     The only loss -- the only game that kept the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only unbeaten team in NFL history -- was a Monday Night Football loss to Dan Marino and the Dolphins in Week 13. McMahon was hurt and didn't play and at halftime of what became a 38-24 loss, Ditka and Ryan had a shouting match.
     They did not like each other (but then, other than his family and players, did like Ryan?) This set up a storyline for the end of the Super Bowl victory.
     In the playoffs, the Bears shut out the New York Giants 21-0, then shut out the Los Angeles Rams 24-0. So who really gave New England much of a chance in the Super Bowl?
    The Patriots, like the Bears and Ditka, also had a Hall of Fame player as their coach, and Raymond Berry, who as a receiver made Johnny Unitas a pretty good quarterback (kidding), was one of the NFL's class acts. The man from Paris, Texas, and SMU brought the Patriots a long way that season.
     They barely got in the playoffs, with an 11-5 record giving them an AFC wild-card spot on a tiebreaker. But it was a talented team -- John Hannah and Andre Tippett were Hall of Fame players, and Stanley Morgan, Irving Fryar and Craig James were familiar names -- and they got to the Super Bowl by winning three road playoff games.
      No Patriots had won a playoff game in 22 years and the closest the Patriots ever got to a championship was a 51-10 loss to San Diego in the 1963 AFC title game. Not much of a history.
      The Patriots' QBs were the forgettable Tony Eason, who started the Super Bowl, and Steve Grogan, who replaced him. And here is one of the funny things about this game: New England had a 3-0 lead after just 1:19 -- the quickest lead in SB history. Payton lost a fumble on the game's second play.
      The Bears scored the next 44 points.
      Looked this up: Chicago set Super Bowl records for sacks (seven) and for fewest rushing ayrds allowed (seven). Seven yards on 11 runs; think New England just conceded it was not going to run the ball? At halftime, when it was 23-3, New England had minus-19 total yards. It finished with 123 -- a bonanza.
      Payton ran 22 times for "only" 61 yards and -- notably -- did not get into the end zone. No, Ditka had been using "The Fridge" all season as a short-yardage battering ram, and it had worked. In this game, Fridge was going to try a pass and got smothered. But late in the third quarter, with the Bears on the Patriots' 1, he scored.
      It was a pigheaded and thoughtless call by Ditka, who could have let Payton score in the most important game of his brilliant career. But Ditka -- not yet the TV commentator/ad pitchman of future years -- was all for showing off.
      But showing off, that was McMahon's speciality -- his crazy punk hairdos, his fiery on-field demeanor (he argued with Ditka, teammates, refs, etc.), his out-of-whack off-the-field antics, his "message" headbands and, the week of the Super Bowl, his comments about calling New Orleans "sluts" and then mooning a helicopter above the Bears' practice field.
      (A story about those incidents prompted Ed Cassiere of our sports staff at the Shreveport Journal to write this award-winning headline: "No if, ands, or sluts about it.")
      A media memory: When McMahon came sauntering into the interview room post-game, wearing his usual dark shades, he was instantly surrounded by about 300 media people. That was a sight.
      Another memory: Ditka, too, was besieged by reporters. But so was Ryan, who soon was leaving to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. In an unforgettable postgame scene on the field, Ditka was given a ride of his players' shoulders ... but, only a few paces behind, so was Ryan.
      They did not embrace each. They did not hold a joint news conference.
      The Bears, in subsequent regular seasons, went 14-2, 11-4 and 12-4, but they lost to the Redskins in the playoffs twice and the 49ers once ... and that group, that fearsome defense, McMahon and Payton, never got to another Super Bowl. Injury luck wasn't the same, and neither was the aura.
      Maybe Ryan did give them that extra edge. But was he lovable? No, no, no.
      One final media memory: After the game, Payton sat on a podium and faced wave after wave of reporters, Most of the questions were about The Fridge's TD and how Payton felt about it. I got close enough to hear the questions and answers, and he stayed calm and just kept saying how happy he was to be on a championship team.
      It was quite a team and quite a day. Like Payton, I was happy to be there, and it was a good memory for our Jason.
      Payton died far too soon; I'm glad to be able to write about Super Bowl XX 29 years later.


  1. From Tommy Youngblood: Read a good book about that team, "Monsters."

  2. From Chuck Baker: I remember that team well. Our daughter Jennifer was born in the middle of the game when the Bears thrashed your Cowboys.

  3. From Jimmy Russell: I remember this. One thing I hated for Peyton is the Bears never gave him the ball near the goal line so he could have a Super Bowl touchdown. Ditka later said he did not realize it or think about it.

  4. From Ron Hill: I was not aware you had covered that game. We were living in New Jersey (across the river from Philly) and the Patriots hit the brick wall against this team. ... The following year, Buddy Ryan coached the Eagles. [He was there] for a few years and only made one divisional playoff game during his tenure. He was quite a character! The Bears had a good, talented team that year. It was an interesting season to follow.