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.
Cold? Bears ready for icy blasts
Originally published Jan. 2, 1986
If it gets real cold Sunday, Bear guard Mark Bortz might bundle up with an extra T-shirt. That’s all. He’ll still roll up his short-sleeved jersey, so the New York Giant pass rushers can’t grab
“Some guys maybe will put Vaseline on their arms,” Bortz says, but he won’t bother.
“There are guys the weather just doesn’t seem to affect,” says Ron Rivera, a linebacker from northern California.
“A lot of it is just state of mind,” says safety Gary Fencik.
It helps to grow up in Illinois, as Fencik did. Bortz is from Wisconsin. Aside from Californian Keith Van Horne, the other interior linemen are from Iowa, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Van Horne says he never has gotten used to cold weather. That’s not necessary. The trick is to accept it, like a sore ankle or bruised rib, and forget about it. Or even to take a sort of perverse delight in it, as the Bears have done by calling penguin conditions Bear weather.
“The mental edge comes when you’re used to it,” says injured guard Kurt Becker. “If you’ve experienced it before, you can prepare yourself mentally for it because you know you can deal with it. If you’re not used to it, you walk out and say, `Damn, it’s cold,’ and your mind’s on how cold it is instead of the game.”
The players heat their inner furnaces by running around and banging into people. They have jackets and heaters on the sideline. “It’s a lot worse for the fans,” Fencik says.
“It’s hard to explain,” Bortz says, “but when you get your mind going and your adrenaline going, you don’t really even think about the cold. The only time you notice is when you sit down and the defense is in there for quite a while.”
Cold isn’t the biggest problem, most players agree. Wind is the worst, with moisture a close second. “If you slide on wet turf in those nylon pants, your legs are cold the rest of the day,” Fencik says.
The worst time is during TV timeouts. Two minutes of standing on the windy or snowy field with nothing to do. “It’d be nice if they’d let you stand on the sideline,” center Jay Hilgenberg says.
The Bears and the Giants played in the granddaddy of all legendary cold-weather games. It was 1934, the year the Bears finished 13-0. In the championship game at New York, the Bears led 10-3 after one half on the frozen field.
But the Giants changed their cleats to tennis shoes at halftime, didn’t slide so much in the second half and won 30-13.
The normal high for Sunday is 29 degrees. Jan. 5 hasn’t had more than a tenth of an inch of snow in the last decade. If it’s 29, dry and fairly windless, the players will consider it warm.
“I don’t think it matters whether it’s cold or warm,” coach Mike Ditka said this week. “I think line play dictates what happens in almost every football game.”
The linemen are least affected by bad weather, as long as their feet can get traction. On the other hand, the worse the weather gets, the more important they become. Wind and snow force a football game to the ground.
The Giants are good at running and stopping the run. The Bears are even better, first in the league at both.
“I hope it’s 90 below,” fullback Matt Suhey said. “I really do.”
“The colder the better,” safety Dave Duerson said, “with a 25 mile-an-hour wind.”
“Personally, I don’t see a whole lot of advantage to bad weather, offensively,” Jim McMahon says. But he’s the quarterback. When he says, “I think it limits your play selection,” he means he can’t pass often and can’t pass long at all.
Bad as it is for quarterbacks and receivers, handling a granite ball with ice-cube hands, bad weather can be worse for the men covering receivers. Their enemy isn’t the cold and the wind, but the footing.
“You have to really concentrate on what you’re doing,” cornerback Leslie Frazier says. “You can’t take fakes. If you do, one slip and it’s over.
“It can be to your advantage because the receiver has to almost chop his steps on every pattern. So if you give yourself a little cushion and try to read him, you can see when he’s going to cut.”
The key is giving that cushion. Both the Bears and the Giants prefer to cover receivers closely, but on a bad field, that wouldn’t give them time to recover from a misstep. Better to get beat short than deep.
“Especially in a playoff game,” Frazier says. “One big play can just about ruin the rest of your season.”
The coldest game most of the Bears played in was the 1983 finale, at home against Green Bay. The wind chill was 34 below. The field was wet. The heaters on Green Bay’s bench didn’t work, so by league rule, the Bears had to turn their heaters off.
Frazier said he couldn’t feel his hands again for three or four days. A full month later, one of his toenails fell off.
When the Bears got the ball on their 41-yard line with three minutes left, trailing by one point, Hilgenberg promised himself a month in the Caribbean if they drove for a field goal. They did. He was on a flight the next day.
To Suhey, that was the game when the Bears proved they had “the capability to be a very good team. We made that drive under pressure and adversity.”
Linebacker Cliff Thrift played in the coldest NFL game ever, when the wind chill was 59 below for the AFC championship game Jan. 10, 1982. He was on the San Diego team that lost to Cincinnati 27-7.
“They were going to cancel that game, you know,” Thrift says. “Not for the players or the fans. It just got so cold, the television people had trouble getting their cameras and equipment to work.”
It was “ridiculous,” Thrift says, that the game went on. He believes San Diego was a better team, although Cincinnati earned the home field with a better record.