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.
Wrightman right man in right place at right time
Originally published Dec. 17, 1985
Mike Ditka, a connoisseur of tight ends, savored Tim Wrightman’s first touchdown reception as a Bear.
Wrightman “used his burst of slowness to get open,” Ditka said appreciatively, “and let everybody catch up to him so he could drag ‘em into the end zone.”
It reminded Ditka of a tight end he used to see in the mirror every morning. So impressed was the Bear coach, after viewing films of Saturday’s victory over the New York Jets, he awarded Wrightman a game ball yesterday, 48 hours after the events in blustery New Jersey.
Nineteen football seasons have passed since Ditka caught his last touchdown as a Bear. In the interim, dozens of candidates have fallen short of his standard at the position he vacated. Finally, he seems to have a solution in a hybrid you might call Emery Wrightman or Tim Moorehead, the two-headed tight end with four legs (some shopworn) and four sure hands.
Emery Moorehead, 31, 6-2 and 225, a nine-year veteran, plays the first series of every game and every half. Wrightman, 25, 6-3 and 237, a survivor of the Chicago Blitz-Arizona Wranglers, replaces him on alternate series. Wrightman has started against San Francisco and Detroit while Moorehead nursed sore knees.
“I think the combination plays very well,” Moorehead says generously. “I’m much faster. Tim is a more physical runner. It’s hard to cover both, if one has great speed and one doesn’t.” Strong safeties and linebackers can strip their gears while downshifting to adjust to the tortoise after the hare.
Saturday, Wrightman caught four passes for 37 yards, including the seven-yard touchdown junket on which he dragged a couple of Jets. Moorehead caught two for 17 yards. For the season, Moorehead has 33 catches for 448 yards; Wrightman, 23 for 389.
“I think it’s a good balance,” Wrightman says. “I like to feel Emery is a better player because of me. I know I’m a better player because of him. I’ve learned a lot from Emery. Hopefully, I’ve pushed him to greater heights.”
The game ball Ditka awarded Wrightman was tangible proof Tim finally had arrived as a Bear, only five months after he had been so filled with doubts he almost quit the team before he had broken in his helmet. He was coming off knee surgery, hadn’t played in a year and a half, didn’t know if he still could play, and was living with the fresh memory of existing without paychecks and borrowing to meet his mortgage payments.
In training camp, “I didn’t know if I was going to make the team,” he says. “There were seven tight ends. Three Moorehead, Pat Dunsmore and Mitch Krenk had played here before. I was No. 7. I almost walked out of camp a couple of times. I came very close.”
Only three years earlier, two football leagues had fawned over him. The Bears drafted the All
America from UCLA in the third round in 1982, but he became the first college star signed by the United States Football League, taking a two-year offer from the Blitz totaling a reported $400,000. He caught only six passes in the USFL, spending most of his time on the injury list, finally without pay.
Wrightman says he has litigation pending against the Arizona Wranglers (the transplanted Blitz) for $140,000. He says he had to pay for his own surgery on a tendon above the right knee and the Wranglers owe him months of back pay.
They decided they weren’t responsible, since he was hurt stepping on a foot belonging to Tom Thayer (also now a Bear) while playing basketball at their training camp. They quit paying him. So he had to borrow money from his grandmother, other family members and his lawyer to meet the $1,600 monthly payments on the Los Angeles home he had bought with his early USFL profits.
He sold the home and furniture and came to the Bears as a free agent this year, damaged goods of questionable salvage value. It was hard for him to handle the loss of status.
“From the beginning, being the first player signed by the USFL, I had been put up a notch before anyone else. I think I’m a fighter, but I didn’t have to fight to get attention.” Three years later, he found himself starting over, “at the bottom.”
Fortunately, Wrightman didn’t succumb to despair and walk out of camp.
He credits rookie quarterback Mike Tomczak and injured veterans Brian Baschnagel and Jeff Fisher with support in his hours of self-doubt. “Stick it out,” they told him. “The cream’s going to the top.”
Three other tight ends were cut. Krenk and Dunsmore went on injured reserve. Moorehead and Wrightman were survivors.
“I started to do some things I used to do in college, run over some people,” he says. “Things I had forgotten I could do. So the situation got better.”
The quadriceps tendon damaged in Arizona hardly bothers him anymore. It didn’t cost him speed, he says, because he never had any. “We have world-class sprinters Willie Gault and Dennis McKinnon,” he points out. “It’s their job to get deep. I’ll catch the 10 or 12-yard pass on third down.”
He compensates for lack of speed, he says, by concentrating on breaking the first tackle. There is nothing deceptive about his style. He thinks the shortest distance to the goal is over a tackler, not around him. “I run with blinders on. I just try to get north and south.”
Among the spectators Saturday was his girl friend, Judy Landers, a beautiful television and movie actress.
He says she stuck with him in the bad days, too, when he was borrowing from Grandma to keep the roof over his head.
Wrightman can be philosophical about those days now: “I think God decided I needed some adversity, because things had gone pretty easy through high school and college. After going through what I did, I feel I’m a much stronger person.”
The Jets he dragged to the goal wouldn’t argue that point.