The 1985 Bears and the cost of greatness

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What would you give to be a Super Bowl champion?

What would you sacrifice to be even more than that — a certified hero from perhaps the most-talked-about and revered Super Bowl championship team in NFL history?

The 1985 Bears are that. They are legend.

After going 15-1 during the regular season and shutting out the Giants and Rams in the playoffs, they destroyed the Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX

and jumped straight into the pages of American folklore. They didn’t just beat people; they trampled them. They laughed at them. Walter, Mad Mac, Mongo, Samurai, the Fridge, Da Coach — like superheroes, they don’t even need full names.

‘‘Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest team in NFL history,’’ President Barack Obama said in October 2011 at the White House. ‘‘The 1985 Chicago Bears.’’

I was there on the lawn as Obama smiled proudly, honoring the old Bears assembled around him. It was a glorious, sky-blue day.

But what price glory?

Running back Walter Payton died of liver cancer at 45. Safety Dave Duerson killed himself at 50. Several of the players are in constant pain, incapacitated.

Nobody even mentions safety Todd Bell, who held out that Super Bowl season in a contract dispute and never seemed to recover from the absence, dying of a heart attack at 46. Once you get into the risk-reward game of life, nothing comes easy. Nothing comes cheap.

On HBO’s ‘‘Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel’’ on Tuesday, some of the heroes from that team talked about the jeopardy they put their bodies and minds in to be the best.

‘‘There was always just bowls of pills sitting out [in the training room],’’ quarterback Jim McMahon said. ‘‘You know, black ones, white ones, green ones, red ones. I was on pain-killers my last 11 years in the league. I was eating 100 Percs a month just to function.’’

That’s Percocet, for the uninformed. Addictive pain-killers. McMahon took those and got pain-killing shots — by the hundreds, he said — and now he fears he has brain damage and admits to being suicidal at times.

So the players took drugs wantonly, whether swallowed or shot into the knee, shoulder or butt, to keep themselves on the field. Big deal, some would say. That was the tradeoff. As Mike Ditka, the coach of that team, has said: If you play football long enough, you’re going to get hurt. And if you get hurt, you can stop playing or play through the pain.

No hero ever stopped playing.

But what a toll there can be on heroes when the lights dim and they shuffle away from the stage. Some of those old Bears are doing great. Safety Gary Fencik, defensive lineman Dan Hampton and others have been quite successful at different careers. But a whole bunch of them are suing the NFL for the dangerous drugs and improper medical treatment they say they got.

Defensive end Richard Dent, the MVP of Super Bowl XX, said he is worried about early-onset dementia from concussions.

‘‘I’m very worried,’’ he said on the show. ‘‘S—, I’m scared.’’

But it was all worth it then. That’s how young men are. That’s why 18-year-olds join the Marines, not the ministry. Give us your hormonal crazies! Just like football.

‘‘We were chock-full of nuts, baby,’’ defensive tackle Steve McMichael said, grinning at Gumbel.

But it’s Ditka who is the most telling — and maybe the scariest. He said that if he had an 8-year-old son, he wouldn’t let him play football. That means one of the greatest football people ever wouldn’t let his offspring play the game that he loved, that gave him everything.

‘‘I think the risk is not worth the reward,’’ Da Coach said on

the show.

Think of that. If you love watching the game, it’s a hard thing to hold in your mind while getting thrills from the hits, blocks and wounds of America’s favorite sport.

I just think of good ol’ William Perry, the huge lineman, or Wilber Marshall, the fierce linebacker who made the incomparable ‘‘46’’ defense go, and how both live in near-isolation and incapacity. How they entertained us. How they achieved the heights.

At such a cost.

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