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1985 Bears Coverage: Mill life steeled Covert

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.

Mill life steeled Covert

Herb Gould

Originally published Sept. 1, 1985

In the shadows of the western Pennsylvania steel mills, they played football.

Their fathers worked in the mills, as their fathers had worked before them. It wasn’t a bad life, at least until the Japanese imports came along. But it wasn’t an easy life.

In Beaver County, a little north of Pittsburgh, football was a way out – the way out, in many cases. Mike Ditka did it. So did Joe Namath, Chuck Knox, Mike Lucci, Babe Parilli and Rich Milot, to name a few Beaver County greats.

John Covert might have made it out, if he hadn’t broken his leg playing in high school at Ambridge, across the Ohio River from Ditka’s Aliquippa. A star tight end 35 years ago, Covert was on crutches for

six months after the accident.

To this day, John Covert carries a scar that makes his son, Jimbo, blanch. John wanted Jimbo to win a football scholarship, to get an education so he might have an easier life.

Still, John wasn’t prepared when young Jimbo, at the tender age of 9, wanted to put on the pads. “My brother, who was a year older than me, and I had to beg him. My dad thought we were too young,” Jimbo

said.

With the words “All the other kids are playing” ringing in his ears, their father relented. Jimbo has been playing ever since. This fall, at 25, Covert is entering his 16th year of organized football. “That sounds like a long time,” said Covert, who has started every game at left tackle since he joined the Bears two years ago.

Greatest player

But it was in neighborhood pickup games that Jimbo Covert laid eyes on “the greatest football player I’ve ever seen in my life.”

He lived down the block, J.D. Haglan did. They would play pickup football all day long. And Jimbo always wanted to be on Haglan’s team. “If I wasn’t on his team, I cried. Because I wanted to win. And I knew he would win all the time,” Covert said.

From those backyard kids’ games, Haglan went on to be an all-state quarterback at Freedom High School. Jimbo, who was in grade school then, watched with awe as Haglan went on to Clemson. Even though his hero washed out in college because of injuries, the dream was entrenched.

“If he could do it, I figured I could do it, too,” Covert said.

He did it, all right. After enjoying the way his father vicariously questioned the recruiting coaches, Jimbo left Freedom on a scholarship to Pitt in the fall of 1978, five years after Haglan departed for Clemson. Primarily a defensive tackle in high school, Covert shrugged off his own injury troubles, switched to offensive tackle his sophomore year and was a three-year starter, winning All-America status the last two years.

Immediate starter

When the Bears made Covert their No. 1 pick in 1983, they immediately handed him a starting job. Covert justified the Bears’ faith as a consensus All-Rookie choice. Now, as he takes the field to protect Walter Payton and Jim McMahon, Covert appears on the verge of the All-Pro status some people think he deserved last season.

“Put it this way,” said Payton, who isn’t given to singling out individuals in a team game. “I don’t know anybody who’s better.”

“One man’s opinion,” Covert said, concealing the gleam in his eye.

Here and back home, though, Covert remains a regular guy. When he went back for a five-year high school reunion, people were gawking a bit.

“I felt weird. They were all saying, `Oh, you play football for the Chicago Bears,’ ” Covert said. “It was kind of loud. They had it at the fire hall, of all places. That was a big deal, going to the fire hall for a banquet.”

Ask him where he would be without football and he’ll tell you matter-of-factly: “I’d be working in the mill. No, I’d be laid off from working in the mill. Guys my age didn’t get enough time in not to be laid off.”

Misses old friends

He misses Freedom once in a while: The bah-boom-bah-boom of railroad cars hooking up at all hours. And looking out the window in the middle of the night to see the sky lit up bright as day by the mills. Mainly, though, he misses the old friends, many of whom went to work in the mills before the ink was dry on their high-school diplomas.

Covert and his wife, Penny, who was a cheerleader at Pitt and grewup near Covert’s hometown, return once or twice a year to visit family and friends.

Around the table, the Covert men will talk steel. Never mind that Covert is a professional athlete who doesn’t live there anymore. “I’m still just Jimbo. I don’t really want to talk about football. I’d rather just listen to them talk about this piece or that pipe. It’s like the stuff at the mill never changes, from my grandfather’s day to my brother’s.”

Jimbo’s grandfather worked in the mill 44 years, his father is going on 30 years and his brother, who came back from a 1 1/2-year layoff to become the youngest foreman at his mill, already has logged eight years.

Maybe that’s why he appreciates what football has meant to him, why football remains a game.

“Where I grew up, pressure is having three or four kids and being laid off from work,” he said.

“Hard work is being in the hot mill and it’s 100 degrees outside and probably 140 degrees in there,” Covert said. “Football’s hard work, but it’s supposed to be fun, not hard.”