The 1985 Chicago Bears changed football during and after their Super Bowl XX victory, but not nearly as much as football changed them, reports Bryant Gumbel in HBO’s newest episode of Real Sports.
Once the rulers of the city, Gumbel says, the 1985 Bears have become the game’s “ultimate cautionary tale.”
Many of them have bodies and minds broken beyond repair.
Defensive lineman William Perry, famously nicknamed “Refrigerator” at 6-2 and 335 pounds, is barely able to walk today.
Tackle Keith Van Horne unknowingly played on a broken leg for years and is now in constant pain. Linebacker Wilbur Marshall is on full disability.
According to the HBO report, nearly half of the 1985 Bears are suing the NFL and contending that the game destroyed their bodies, minds or both.
Quarterback Jim McMahon, who is suffering from early-onset dementia and is shown doing jigsaw puzzles to keep his brain stimulated, said he’s considered suicide.
“When I first heard about these guys killing themselves, I couldn’t figure out how they could do that,” McMahon told Gumbel in the report that aired Tuesday night on HBO. “But I was having those thoughts myself. Feelings of inadequacy. … Once the pain starts getting that bad, you figure you’ll take the only way out. If I would’ve had a gun, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Gumbel also interviewed Tregg Duerson, the oldest son of former Bears safety Dave Duerson, who committed suicide at age 50.
“In the pages of the letter he was describing that he was suffering from depression,” Tregg Duerson says. “He was suffering from short-term memory loss. He had difficulty spelling. He had a pain in the back of his head that he described. And on the last page of the note there was the message to ‘please see that my brain is given to the NFL Brain Bank.’”
Duerson shot himself in the chest to keep his brain intact.
The Bears were fed a steady diet of painkillers and drugs to mask the pain of their playing days.
McMahon says his injuries never healed properly and the drugs allowed him to stay on the field.
“There was always just bowls of pills sitting out,” McMahon says. “You know, black ones, white ones, green ones, red ones, you know. I was on painkillers my last 11 years in the league. I was eating 100 percs a month just to function.”
Former Bears coach Mike Ditka has lobbied on behalf of his players. He wants the league to give something back to the players who set the foundation for what the NFL has become.
“Implement something for the former players who played this game and made this game what it is today,” Ditka says. “That’s what I would say to the commissioner, to the owners. You got an obligation and responsibility to those guys because you wouldn’t have a damn job right now if it wasn’t for those guys.”
Ditka goes on to say if he had an 8-year-old kid he would not let him play football.
“That’s sad,” he says. “I wouldn’t. And my whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do.”
The Real Sports episode also included interviews with Richard Dent and Steve McMichael, who said he hasn’t suffered brain damage yet – but plans to seek restitution if he ever does.