Every day of the 2015 Chicago Bears season, Chicago Sun-Times Sports will revisit its coverage 30 years ago during the 1985 Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title.
Two Bears sit out season of a lifetime
Originally published Nov. 11, 1985
You would think in these days of Bears euphoria and Perry mania that the town would not turn its giddy eyes to the ground. You would think nobody would mention Todd and Al.
But they do. Just about everybody talks about those guys, the NFL’s only two sit outs who happen to be sitting out perhaps the season of a lifetime.
Consider: Todd Bell and Al Harris, starters and all-pro caliber players in 1984, can rejoin the Bears if they wish. They can crash the party. They can “get me some of that, ” as Leon Durham said when he heard the crowd in Wrigley Field was giving the Cubs a standing ovation after the final game of the 1984 season.
If you are the type who reads those fine-print notes on the sports page, you know all about this lingering contract impasse, the nasty words, the figures, even the names of the agents.
What you do not read, however, is a neon headline above it all that should state: It Doesn’t Matter.
What matters is that there are no principles involved, no grievances, no labor-management issues.
Now Al Harris is a good guy, age 28, 6-foot-5 and about 235, a graduate of Arizona State University. He was a first-round draft pick in 1979 and in a quiet, unspectacular way became a hell of a pro linebacker.
Todd Bell also is a good guy, 26, the son of a Pentecostal preacher in Middletown, Ohio, and a fourth-round pick from Ohio State in 1981. He amazed most everybody by becoming one of the best pro cornerbacks around. At 6
feet and 200 pounds, he tackles like a demon, leveling Redskins running back Joe Washington in last year’s playoff game with a hit that witnesses felt in their molars.
With both Bell and Harris in 1984, however, the Bears coaching staff made a critical, if understandable, mistake: they gave them unrestrained praise. They said that Harris, who just missed being named all-pro, should have been, and that Bell, who was all-pro, was the most valuable, perhaps indispensable member of the Bears defense.
No matter how true that was, Bears coaches should have realized that modern sports dictates a Policy of Disparagement: regardless of how scintillating a play or a player, high praise should be withheld lest it be used later as a bargaining chip. Such a policy might re write sports history – hey, that catch Mays made off Vic Wertz in the ’54 Series would have been routine if Willie had been in position – but it also will help sign the players next season.
Without pads on, both Bell and Harris are known as modest, devout young men. Bell is his father’s son and gives credit for his success to the Good Lord. Harris still leads Bible study with the Bears and may become a preacher himself.
Which means these guys read the Good Book more than most of us and no doubt have stumbled on the passages that suggest it is easier for a rich man to roller-skate through the eye of a needle than to get into the kingdom of heaven.
So you would think their positions would be moral ones, born of righteousness, perhaps based on one of those Bible texts today’s believers paint on stadium banners instead of “The Packers Suck.”
But they are not. The essence of their balk is devil dollars, what Rocky and Bullwinkle called pazoozas.
When they did not show last summer – and Bell and Harris were two of several Bears, including William Perry, who initially stayed out – they appeared to be playing the game of public contract haggling that holds much of professional sports captive today. Bell’s agent, Howard Slusher, is known for waiting to the last moment to settle.
When neither man signed, the Bears had no choice but to substitute for them. And the team won ballgames. How they won.
A treasured sports melodrama occurs when a kid gets sick or injured, and from his hospital bed, or limping into the locker room on crutches, he exhorts his team to untold heights. “Win one for the Gipper,” he moans, thinking the Gipper is Ronald Reagan. When he says it, the place comes apart. Football players, those big softies, leak tears like new widows.
This year’s Bears’ version of that drama would have Bell slinking into the locker room urging the team to lose one – or two or five – for the Slusheroo.
It would be easy to condemn Bell and Harris and, if you eavesdrop on the philosophical discussions in Soldier Field during TV timeouts, you hear much condemnation. That is because surveys show that most Bears fans tithe regularly, have never participated in a work stoppage, and would sooner be Mother Teresa than W. Clement Stone.
The fan, you know, peers through a wage scale clearly: a guy making $10.50 an hour and striking for $14.50, as Chrysler workers did the other day, is OK. But a pro athlete making six figures and holding out for more – no matter how much more – is a pig. To which the panderer replies to the prostitute, “Now that we’ve established your profession, it’s a matter of price . . .”
Again, however, none of that matters. What does is the league rule stating that if Bell and Harris don’t sign by Nov. 23, they are out for the season. They just cannot be a part of the parade.
And that is goofy to you and me and most every person who has pulled his hat over his ears with two hands and screamed, eaten a Tootsie Roll or watched a kid giggle at his birthday party. It just doesn’t have to be.
According to Kodak commercials, life is measured in people, events and emotions, not moolah. People remember Rick Sutcliffe’s clinching strike out in 1984, not Sutcliffe’s salary terms in 1985.
Not only that, but our mothers – and, I’m sure, those of Todd and Al – told us greed is bad, money does not buy happiness, and that we should pull up our socks. And we’ve always listened, and avoided life’s hardships.
The day after William Perry caught his first touchdown pass, I had a little eight-page newspaper thrown on my porch. It was put out by workers on strike against the Chicago Tribune and was tossed there, I suspect, by a young guy who lives in a frame house down the block. I know he’s on strike because he has papered neighborhood utility poles with anti-Tribune stickers and handbills.
And when people talk about Todd Bell and Al Harris, I can’t help but think of that young striker. He’s mad, and broke, and probably wondering, as most do during a protracted walk out, if he’ll ever get his job back again.
I have a feeling that if he could go back to work at the same pay, or maybe a slight raise, he’d take it in a minute.
But not Bell and Harris, who, incidentally, are currently grossing the same as the Tribune strikers. They say they have no hard feelings, are actually happy for the Bears, and that God has helped them cope.
Except that God, who once had his right-hand man toss money changers out of the temple and presently happens to be a fanatical Bears fan, may be taking a pass on this one.