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.
McMahon: razor-sharp Bear leader
Originally published Aug. 27, 1985
Jim McMahon admits the haircut was a mistake he committed upon himself.
“People think: `What an idiot!’ So did I when I did it. If anybody else would have done it, they wouldn’t have said a thing. I don’t care what people think.”
The self-induced Mohawk-punk shouts that he doesn’t care. It fits the quarterback’s persona, his flair, his aura. It is Joe Namath’s white shoes, Sonny Jurgensen’s beer belly, Johnny Unitas’s high-top shoes – the personal signature of a quarterback with style. Born into another era and occupation, he’d be stuffing his right hand inside his coat, over his heart, at Waterloo, or letting the hair grow long and flamboyant before getting his troops into trouble at Little Big Horn.
No other Bear would dare such a haircut.
Then there is the fire-engine red moped McMahon rides to practice, which Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael keep stealing and abusing. The defensive tackles rolled it up a flight of stairs and left it on a building’s high ledge in training camp in Platteville, Wis., last year.
This year, they swiped it while its owner was refreshing himself on Second St., Platteville’s Great White Way, and were stuffing it into the trunk of linebacker Otis Wilson’s car when McMahon arrived from a nearby watering hole to claim his property. Foiled in that instance, the tireless tackles found an opportunity to dump the moped into a garbage can.
“Because I’m playing garbage. And because I’m always getting on them for being fat. Hell, I was fatter than they were at the start of camp. They kept telling me to put my shirt down because my belly was hanging too far over my pants.”
About that shirt, Jim. You keep tucking it under your shoulder pads during practice, leaving your belly exposed. No other Bear does. Part of your style?
“I do it because it’s hot?”
The haircut, too?
“I just screwed it up. I just wanted to cut it a little shorter, but the first time I took the razor back, I tore out the whole side all the way down to the skin. Then I tried to even it up, and it was really bad.”
He turned his head over to wide receiver Willie Gault, the team barber, for reclamation. “I said just cut the rest off and leave it long in back.” Gault did his best, but it was like trying to drain the Titanic’s engine room with a squeegee.
And there is the tobacco that distends McMahon’s lower lip. Quarterbacks from Brigham Young, that straight Mormon school, aren’t supposed to chew and drink beer. It must have been hard for them to
accept you at BYU?
“And even now. I was on probation my whole time there.”
The rules forbade drinking and chewing at BYU. He did it anyway.
“I just didn’t believe in the same things they believe in.”
He was discreet about it because somebody in the school’s hierarchy, aware BYU wouldn’t want to lose a quarterback who was setting 71 NCAA records, advised: “If you’re going to have a drink, don’t get caught.”
There are the dark glasses he wears off the field, like Jack Nicholson avoiding autograph hounds. Not a matter of style, Jim says, but of necessity, since he was 6 years old. “My eyes are really sensitive to light.” The right pupil remains dilated in bright light.
The independence, the personal stamp, comes as naturally as breathing. He says: “I just think you gotta be who you are. I don’t think you should let people mold you into something you’re not.”
You’ve been your own man since high school, Jim?
“Since Little League. Everything’s always come naturally to me. I don’t really have to think too
hard about what’s going on. It’s just a God-given talent, I guess. Consciously, I’m not aware of whether I’m acting a fool or not. I don’t really care.”
This is the man in whom the Bears trust, and that’s the way it should be. A quarterback should be a man with a mind of his own, a cockiness bordering on arrogance, a trace of impudence, a roguishness, a flash of personality, a gift of leadership.
The boy McMahon idolized Namath. (“He played hurt a lot. He said he was going to do something, and he did it.”) And Jurgensen. (“I don’t throw a lot of spirals, either.”) Fran Tarkenton, too. (“I liked the way he ran around. He wasn’t very big. I was always pretty small.”) There are also touches of George Blanda, who rebelled at George Halas’s authority; of Kenny Stabler, living high in the lowlife of Alabama’s “Redneck Riviera,” and of the great Bobby Layne.
McMahon, at 26, is too young to remember Layne, who retired when Jim was 3. But they are brothers. Layne told his teammates: “You block for ol’ Bobby, and I’ll pass you to the championship.” Layne on drinking: “If I feel like having a beer or two, I’m not going to sneak around some side-alley joint. I’m going to the best place in town, and walk in the front door.”
Oh sure, there have been notable quarterbacks with quite different styles. Nobody was straighter than Bart Starr and Roger Staubach. If Mike Ditka didn’t immediately recognize that McMahon was his No. 1 quarterback when he took over as the Bears’ head coach, after an apprenticeship in Dallas, you can blame the contrast with Staubach. McMahon does. “Mike saw Staubach do it a certain way. I’m not him. I’m Jim McMahon. That’s who I’m trying to be. I think Mike finally understands I know what I’m doing out there, and I have a good understanding of offense.”
McMahon has all the trappings he needs to get himself enshrined in Canton – but the numbers. He hasn’t played enough, won enough, done enough to live up to his style. Mostly because he’s young, entering his fourth season. Also, because he’s reckless, coming back from a career-threatening kidney injury and a broken hand.
He’ll stay reckless, running with the ball when he sees the chance to light up the scoreboard. “If I can make something happen, I’m gonna go. It doesn’t scare me at all.”
As a new football season is about to begin, we don’t know whether McMahon’s body will be strong enough, and his team good enough, to live up to his style. We do know we won’t need to look at a program to identify No. 9.