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1985 Bears Coverage: Ditka won't risk an unhealthy McMahon

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.

Ditka won’t risk an unhealthy McMahon

Kevin Lamb

Originally published Sept. 18, 1985

Injured Bears quarterback Jim McMahon did not practice today and will not start tomorrow night’s game at Minnesota, said team spokesman Ken Valdiserri.

Backup Steve Fuller will start against the Vikings, and Valdiserri quoted head coach Mike Ditka as saying it was “very remote” that McMahon would play at all.

But McMahon was expected to suit up and be on the sidelines.

McMahon suffered a stiff neck and muscle spasms in his upper back during last Sunday’s 20-7 victory over New England.

He left the game in the fourth quarter, was replaced by Fuller and was placed in traction the next day.

Valdiserri said the injury is not related to the lacerated kidney that sidelined McMahon last season. Fuller started four games after McMahon was injured, leading the team into the playoffs.

McMahon also missed practice yesterday and wore a neck-immobilizing collar for his upper back spasms.

“If I don’t think he’s well, I won’t play him,” Ditka said. “We’ll go with Steve and back him up with Mike Tomczak and don’t look back.”

Halfback Walter Payton practiced, and Ditka said, “I think he’ll be fine. I’m sure he’ll have some tenderness” in his sore ribs.

Before yesterday’s practice, McMahon gave the impression that if he doesn’t start, it will be over his dead body.

“There’s no possibility I won’t play,” he said, “if it was up to me.”

Last year, it was up to McMahon, and he started four of the Bears’ five games when his hand was broken. They lost twice, and trailed when he left another.

That experience is one reason Ditka gave for overruling McMahon’s wishes this time. Another reason was his own preference for a healthy quarterback.

“This is only the third game,” Ditka said. “We’ve got a long year. I think the main thing is, if you’re not well, you’re not well.

“There’s no way that people operating at 50 percent of physical capacity can play as well as people operating at 100 percent.

“You don’t play people hurt. That’s all. You don’t help the person. You don’t help the team. You don’t think the Cubs should be playing injured pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, do you?”

Ditka also said he wasn’t going to “risk” right guard Kurt Becker, whose tailbone and sternum are bruised.

If Becker can’t play, Tom Thayer will replace him.

Ditka told a parable to illustrate the importance of practice.

“It’s like the guy who sits in the bleachers and watches a guy shooting free throws all his life,” Ditka said.

“And at age 50 he says, `I can do that.’ And he goes out and doesn’t touch the rim.

“You don’t learn by watching. You learn by doing.”

McMahon argued that he had played at Green Bay last year after practicing only Saturday, in a brief review session. “I never play too good in practice anyway,” he said.

Besides, McMahon said, if he hadn’t practiced last Thursday, his upper back might not have been so sore for the game Sunday.

“I think practicing irritated it,” he said. “If I could have rested a little bit, it wouldn’t have been so bad in the game.

“All I’ve got to do is just know the game plan and know the formations and the plays and different things you’ve got to do as a quarterback, getting people in the right positions. That’s basically all mental.”

McMahon still blamed the injury on sleeping wrong last Wednesday night. He cited his water bed, although the medical consensus is that water beds are the best beds for people’s backs. “Your body sinks in and when you’re laying on the pillow you’re head’s up a little bit,” he said. “That must have been it.”

If the problem had come from butting heads with linemen, he said he was told the pain would have been higher. “I did a couple Sunday. They didn’t bother me at all,” he said.

“My wife says I’m injury-prone,” McMahon said. “She says I’m always hurt. My only job is to take out the garbage, and usually I’m too sore to do that.”

Ditka also pointed out the need to express confidence in Fuller, who was injured last year when McMahon broke his hand.

Fuller quarterbacked the 34-3 division-clinching victory at Minnesota last season, completing 12-of-19 passes for 143 yards with two touchdowns.

“If this was a Sunday game, I’m sure Jim would be darn near 100 percent,” Ditka said.

“But a Thursday game, I don’t know.”