1985 Bears Coverage: Bears’ tight end finally playing in Ditka mold

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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.

Bears’ tight end finally playing in Ditka mold

Kevin Lamb

Originally published Dec. 6, 1985

Tim Wrightman uses doorknobs. He doesn’t do everything the hard way. Just football.

At tight end, Wrightman gains much of his yardage with tacklers clinging to his ankles. He knows it’s easier to run empty-footed. He can’t help himself.

“Even in college,” he says, “the coaches gave me flak because if a defensive back was two yards away, I’d run over him instead of around him. I can’t outrun many people, and I was so used to having to run over people that if nobody was there, I’d look for someone.”

No wonder it didn’t seem to bother Wrightman that his NFL career got off to a stumbling start.

It could have been easy. When the Bears drafted him in 1982, new coach Mike Ditka was all but plucking Wrightman from a soda fountain seat to make him a star.

The tight end job was open. It had been since Ditka’s departure 16 years earlier. Ditka liked what he saw in Wrightman,

which was largely himself. Watching Wrightman bounce upfield from tackler to tackler, the only difference from Ditka’s highlight film clips is that Wrightman’s replays are in color.

“I don’t think he would have ever gotten a better chance to play the position,” Ditka said last summer, when Wrightman finally joined the Bears. “That’s a fact of life. Because I hung myself to get him.

“There was a lot of head shaking that day when I said `Wrightman.’ What?!”

By last summer, Wrightman was no longer the third-round pick who was the coach’s pet project. He was a long-shot free agent who had caught six passes in three years, who hadn’t played a game in 24 months.

He had gone to the Chicago Blitz for the money and notoriety of being the USFL’s first player. He would do it again, knowing only what he knew then.

He did not know he would spend half the 1983 season on injured reserve with a 10-day injury. He did not know he would miss the 1984 season with another injury. He did not know he wouldn’t be paid for 1984 and 1985, despite a guaranteed contract still in litigation.

When he finally became a Bear, he was surrounded by question marks instead of exclamation points. Could he play? Could he stay healthy? Could he remember how to lace his shoulder pads?

“He’s under a big magnifying glass,” receivers coach Ted Plumb said.

“This is my last shot,” Wrightman said.

The first two weeks of training camp, Wrightman had questions of his own. “Things like, `What am I doing here? Is it really worth it? Am I good enough to play?’” he said. “Being out two years will do that.”

Slowly, everything came back to him. “It felt good to be sore again,” he said. It felt good to be excited again.

Best of all, he didn’t get hurt. “I had always thought I was pretty durable,” he says now. “Then when things go bad two years in a row, it plays on your mind.”

When the season began, Wrightman and starter Emery Moorehead were the only tight ends healthy enough and good enough to play.

For the last five games, he and Moorehead have virtually split playing time and catches. It started in the victory at Green Bay, the day Wrightman finally polished off the last specks of rust from his game.

“Blocking takes a lot longer to come back,” Wrightman says. “It’s a natural thing to catch the ball. How many times a day do you play catch?

“Even tackling is natural. But blocking is physically unnatural.

“That game at Green Bay was the first time I had my aggressiveness. I didn’t have to think about, `Is this the right foot? Is this the right guy I’m hitting?’ I could just concentrate on knocking the guy off the ball.”

Wrightman has caught a pass in each of the last eight games, the Bears’ longest streak. His nine catches in the last five games lead the team.

He remembers dropping a couple of balls. They were balls he had to jump for, “but that counts,” he says.

With speed like his, Wrightman says, he better do everything else well. He has developed a knack for finding the open spots in zones. In college, he spent day after day practicing one-on-one moves that the burners never learned.

Wrightman jokes about his lack of speed, much as Ditka jokes about his own. But the last laugh for Wrightman is his average of 18.5 yards per catch.

Nine of his 19 catches have gained at least 23 yards. Dragging tacklers works as well as outrunning them. It’s even as picturesque, the way Wrightman kicks off a tackler as if he’s a branch caught on his pantsleg.

“When you can’t run away from people, you get used to having to do that,” he says. “I’ve been doing it since high school. I wouldn’t say it’s a running style. It’s a style of no style.”

To Ditka, it’s the old style. That’s what makes Wrightman special.

“He makes the most of his opportunities,” Ditka says.

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