“Boys, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is, give me three years and we’re going to be in the Super Bowl. The bad news is, half of you ain’t gonna be here to see it.” – Mike Ditka after his first day of practice as the head coach of the Chicago Bears in 1982.
You can make the argument the 1985 Chicago Bears couldn’t beat the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers or the 1989 San Francisco 49ers or the 2004 Patriots or some old-timey team from the leather-helmet era in a single game — but if you try to make the argument there was ever a team more dominant, more colorful, more entertaining, more memorable than those ’85 Bears over the course of a full season, well, I eagerly await your nomination.
Come on. Not only did the Bears have arguably the greatest all-around player in NFL history in Walter Payton, and his fellow Hall of Famers Dan Hampton, Mike Singletary and Richard Dent, they also gave us the Fridge, the Punky QB, the “Super Bowl Shuffle,” the “Superfans” bit on “Saturday Night Live” and of course:
The story of the 1985 Bears has been chronicled in numerous books and via documentaries such as the excellent ESPN “30 for 30” episode from 2016, but there’s never been a more impressive lineup of interviewees, from former players to the likes of President Barack Obama and Bill Murray, than the one assembled for director Scott Prestin’s “ ’85: The Greatest Team in Football History.”
This is essential viewing for any Bears fan, and for that matter any football fan.
Sadly, of course, the great Walter Payton, Dave Duerson and defensive guru Buddy Ryan are no longer with us, but nearly every surviving key component of the 1985 team appears in the film (excepting William Perry, who has battled serious health problems over the years). Mike Ditka, Jim McMahon, Dan Hampton, Willie Gault, Dennis McKinnon, Gary Fencik and a host of others weigh in with golden memories and often hilarious anecdotes.
We also get a recap of the era leading up to the mid-glory days, when the Bears were among the worst teams in football. Otis Wilson and Mike Singletary recall fans booing players not only at Soldier Field, but even when they walked into restaurants.
“Walter said, ‘This is what happens when in Chicago when you don’t win,’ ” says Wilson.
Offensive tackle Keith Van Horne remembers a time when “our own fans would dump beers on our head. They built a canvas over the tunnel to protect us. The fans burned a hole through the tent so they could keep throwing stuff at us. Then they put up a STEEL one up, and you could just hear stuff bouncing off the thing…
Bill Murray talks about the perennial disappointment of being a Bears fan: “You’d come out of church in a state of grace, you’d had communion — and the Bears would already be down 13-14 points. … God, you know, what’s the deal!”
But the culture started to change after Dikta was hired as Bears head coach in 1982 (he had sent a letter to George Halas applying for the job), and the Bears started to accumulate young, talented players — particularly on defense.
Former Giants QB Phil Simms said he’d never seen a more intimidating defense. Duerson, among others, would come up to the line of scrimmage and literally bark at him.
“They were as good a defense as I ever played against, maybe ever to play the game,” recalls former Dolphins great Dan Marino.
And of course that 1985 team featured William “Refrigerator” Perry, who became a national sensation after Ditka put him in the backfield in goal line situations, first as a blocking back, then a ball carrier and even as a receiver.
“ ’85 Bears” does a fine job of chronicling the Fridge’s ascension to instant celebrity — as well as Jim McMahon’s rebel status as the “Punky QB” (“He looked like he came out of some teen movie, like he was Sean Penn in ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ ” says Obama), the making of the brazen and fantastically cheesy “Super Bowl Shuffle” video (filmed and released well before the Bears were even in the postseason), and the origins of the “Superfans” characters.
As Robert Smigel tells it, he and fellow writers Bob Odenkirk and Conan O’Brien kept pitching the characters to Lorne Michaels, who had zero interest in greenlighting the bit until lifelong Bears fan Joe Mantegna was a guest on the show and wanted to do it.
By that point, the Bears had become a huge draw, not just in Chicago but wherever they played.
“We were truly a carnival act on the road,” says Hampton.
Despite all the distractions, including a wild week in New Orleans leading up to the Super Bowl, the Bears remained an unstoppable force on the field, all the way through a 46-10 dismantling of the overmatched Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
My only quibble with the film: There are so many top-line interview subjects telling so many great stories, the highlight clips are too infrequent and too brief. I would have loved to see more extended scenes of that magnificent team in action, perhaps with real-time play-by-play from the announcers of the time.
Still. This is a great time capsule about a team that dominated the sport for one season, and then fell apart all too quickly due to a variety of factors.
“In some ways that team was like a comet across the sky,” says Obama.
Bill Murray: “That was such a dominant event, I’ve never thought of Chicago as the Second City ever again and I don’t think a lot of people ever did again. What [the Bears] did said [about Chicago]:
“ ‘Be careful, because we can do anything. Anything.’ ”
Fathom Events and Screen Media Films present a documentary directed by Scott Prestin. No MPAA rating. Running time: 130 minutes. Screens at 7:30 p.m. Monday at local theaters. See fathomevents.com for details.