It’s hard to think of something Steve “Mongo’’ McMichael didn’t charge into headfirst.
High school sports? He lettered in six of them his senior year at Freer (Texas) High School: football, basketball, baseball, track, tennis, golf.
College football? He was a consensus All-America defensive tackle at Texas and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
The NFL? He played 15 years in the league, started 157 consecutive games for the Bears (a franchise record for position players), was named All-Pro twice, won Super Bowl XX, was part of the most dominant defense in NFL history, lifted Mike Ditka onto his shoulders in New Orleans.
Pro wrestling? He was clobbered in the head with a briefcase by Jeff Jarrett in SuperBrawl VII, among many other violent brain encounters. There was nothing that McMichael wouldn’t chuckle about, wouldn’t dive into unafraid, full-tilt boogie.
And here he is now, 64 years old, lying motionless in a bed in his south suburban home, his once-formidable body little more than an assemblage of sticks.
He can’t swallow food. He can’t move an arm, a leg, a finger. There are tubes in his throat, a fentanyl patch on his neck, a rosary on a cross above his head. His eyes are sunken. The tattoo of a rattlesnake on his left calf has dwindled to earthworm size.
This is what amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS — can do to a man. It’s what it can do even to a warrior who played through all injuries, plugging the middle of the football mayhem pit like a Viking in an axe battle.
And, still, Mongo warriors on.
He hasn’t changed what drives him — that south Texas lunacy and low-humored assault on proper society. He’ll fight this thing. Even though nobody beats ALS, not ever. He was diagnosed in 2019, and two to four years is considered normal life expectancy from the onset. Some do go longer. Scientist Stephen Hawking is a complete outlier, having lived 55 years after being stricken. No one knows why.
A nurse named Michelle sits just to Mongo’s right. He needs a series of five nurses, 24 hours a day, because so many things could go wrong at any time, and he is powerless to correct any of it.
His wife, Misty, clad in a hooded pink sweat suit, her blond hair up in a bun, gently moves his head so it’s facing forward.
I always liked McMichael, enjoyed his off-the-charts, often-obscene, yet surprisingly insightful answers to anything at all. Of course, the element of subliminal danger always kept any thoughtful reporter on his toes. There was ever the sense the dude might grab you and jam your head in a toilet for a swirlie if you disappointed him.
I ask him if I’m bothering him now.
He whispers something. I lean over his chest, my ear nearer his mouth, and he repeats. I can just make out his word: “No.’’
In fact, Mongo, also “Ming the Merciless’’ and “The Rattlesnake Hunter,’’ does not shy away from publicity of his disease or his condition. He basically said goodbye to the public world when the bad stuff kicked in. But he has not retreated from the honesty and confrontation with adversity that marked his healthy life.
A number of old Bears have come to see him in recent weeks, including Dan Hampton, Jim and wife Wanda Osborne, Mike and Kim Singletary and even old quarterback Jim McMahon.
(You’ll recall Mongo never liked quarterbacks, despised them even, and when you remind him of this, he slowly talk-whispers, “Jimmy Mac ... is the least offensive quarterback ... I’ve met.’’)
During the day, McMichael watches old cowboy shows on the TV mounted on the wall at the foot of his bed. They remind him of his rattlesnake days in Freer (pop.: 2,686), just an hour’s drive from Laredo and the Mexican border.
“He’s even got me interested in them,’’ nurse Michelle says with a chuckle.
When the ALS ratchets up another notch, McMichael will try to master the Tobii Dynavox eye-gazing computer that’s now sitting unused in the living room. The machine will be placed in front of him on a stand, and, with practice, it will read his eye movements and help him communicate.
No, you don’t want this disease. No one should have it.
A recent study is a cautionary one for star football players, those who, unfortunately, are good enough and driven enough to play the longest. The study says pro players have a four times greater chance of death from ALS than the general population. And those with seven years or more in the league had the highest risk of all.
Misty, his wife of nearly 25 years and a salty, small-town Texan like him, says, “He’s suffering more than Jesus.’’
And she means it literally. And you have to ponder this.
Then there’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which should have McMichael in it. Not out of sympathy but merit.
McMichael had 95 career sacks, 3½ more than Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long. He had 17 fumble recoveries, seven more than Long. He had three safeties, Long none.
Chicago legends Ron Santo and Minnie Minoso were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after they died. And you wonder what good that did them.
For what he did, for what he’s yet doing, McMichael deserves his own honored spot among the greats. He truly does.