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1985 Bears Coverage: McKinnon joins Gault, Payton among league's top receivers

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.

McKinnon joins Gault, Payton among league’s top receivers

Ray Sons

Originally published Sept. 29, 1985

I stared at the pro football statistics when I got back from vacation the other day. Blinked, and stared again. Still couldn’t believe them. I must have been seeing double from the pounding I’d taken while swimming in the thundering surf of North Carolina’s Outer Banks the week before Hurricane Gloria.

The Bears, those perennial slow starters, were 3-0 and leading the National Football Conference in offense!

More incredible, their quarterback was rated the league’s top passer. Three of their receivers were among the top dozen in the conference, and only one was Walter Payton. And the NFC’s leading catcher of TD passes was a Bear.

If those numbers be true, the Earth is flat, moles can fly, the Ayatollah Khomeini will win the Nobel Peace Prize and the oddsmakers who rate the Bears six points better than the Redskins today are not lunatics, after all.

I went to Lake Forest in search of testimony to these marvels. I got it from Dennis McKinnon, an honest fellow who swears the figures do not lie. He is, indeed, leading the NFC with four touchdown catches. His 13 receptions in three games rank him eighth in total catches among conference receivers, one ahead of Payton and two ahead of Willie Gault.

“I feel I’m just about as good as some of the premier receivers in the league,” McKinnon said.

Coming from a Bear wide receiver, that is an outrageous comment. Bear wide outs have been useless adornments for years, like earrings on an elephant. There hasn’t been one of star quality since brooding, enigmatic Dick Gordon caught 71 balls in 1970. Before Gordon, you have to go back to Johnny Morris.

If McKinnon and Gault maintain their pace, they will be the first pair of Bear wide receivers to excel in the same season since George Farmer and Gordon caught 46 and 43 passes, respectively, in 1971. McKinnon and Gault have a chance to remind us of the glory days of Harlan Hill and Jim Dooley in the 1950s.

The numbers bear out McKinnon’s boast, but don’t explain his rapid progression from question mark to positive answer. McKinnon had done little more than lift weights with his postsurgical knee in training camp. Little more than a week before the season opener, there was much doubt about his availability.

“I was frustrated,” he says. “Having had two surgeries and still having pain, I was beginning to doubt my physicians.”

There had been cartilage repair in that left knee last November. He had come back five weeks later to play brilliantly in the playoff upset of Washington, catching four passes, including a touchdown. But his speedy recovery was a mirage, he says now.

He “camouflaged” his disability from the Redskins and performed mostly on adrenalin. “I could not truly accelerate and hit somebody,” he said. So his blocking, normally so sure and forceful, was limited. And his receiving depended on fakery, hands and guts. “I could not run full speed and make a severe cut,” he said.

After a winter of inactivity, on doctor’s orders, he tried to play in mini-camp last spring, and found the knee not ready. More minor, exploratory surgery July 5 found nothing wrong, but pain persisted. Maybe it was all in his mind, he thought. “I tried to tell myself I enjoyed pain,” he said. A cornerback might take his feints, but the hurting wouldn’t fall for it.

“You can’t fake pain,” he decided. So he stayed on the shelf until training camp was almost finished.

The doctors found the answer just in time for him to play against Buffalo in the final exhibition. A computerized bone scan showed something X-rays had missed – an area of persistent irritation at the bottom of the knee.

Doctors and coaches combined to find a prescription that would allow him to play. Doctors gave him pills to keep the swelling down and “minimize” the hurt, he says. The coaches allowed him to become a part-time player during the week, so he could work full time on Sundays.

“They felt I was as important as Jim McMahon or Walter Payton,” he says, with no concession to modesty. “So we went to all things necessary to get me back.”

He practices only twice a week before the Bears play on artificial turf, to save his tender hinge for the unforgiving ersatz grass on which the Bears play 14 games, seven at home.

“It’s something the coaches decided to make sure I’m around for the whole season,” he says. “So far, it’s worked.”

If McKinnon sounds a bit chesty about his accomplishments, he’s entitled. Consider how far he has come. He still nurses resentment “there was so much adversity put upon me” at Florida State, where the coach didn’t choose to start him and a scouting service erroneously listed his speed in the 40 as 4.8 seconds.

Those adversities caused him to sign as a free agent, rather than a high draft choice, and cost him a lot of money. He claims he really does 4.5 seconds on real grass and 4.35 on plastic. Those numbers don’t elevate him to the world class of Gault, a first-round draftee, but make him respectable.

“Critics always talk about speed,” he says a bit defensively. “It amazes me how guys with world-class speed are the ones you never go to in key situations. They’re the ones who catch the ball when they’re wide open but, in traffic, they’re the ones who drop it. The guys who are not as fast come up with the key catch, are good every year and don’t get as much notoriety.”

Of his speed, he says with comfortable pride: “When I get out front, they can’t catch me.”

His statistics have won him a receiver’s highest compliment: more frequent combination coverage. “That means the tight end or Willie Gault should be man-to-man,” he points out. “They defenders can’t decide who they’re going to `combo.’ Jim McMahon picks that up. He makes the big plays with the guy who is single.”

Of course, the unexpected eminence of Bear wide receivers is a fragile thing, dependent on the precarious health of the reckless McMahon and the willingness of the coaches to continue a balanced offense.

For now, we can enjoy the re-emergence of a species we thought extinct. The passenger pigeon flies.