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1985 Bears Coverage: Bears’ success a tale of True Grid

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’ success a tale of True Grid

Kevin Lamb

Originally published Dec. 29, 1985

They’re not America’s Team. They don’t even want that nickname. No, the Bears are America’s Dream.

They have touched a chord in a country that elected Ronald Reagan president because it couldn’t have John Wayne.

In a country where the Marines are back in style, the Bears are storming enemy backfields and planting quarterbacks like flags at Iwo Jima.

In a country that yearns for old-fashioned pride of craftsmanship, the Bears did not fall apart when their warranty expired with a playoff berth before Thanksgiving.

In a country that clamors for balanced budgets, the Bears are sucking in their guts and puffing out their chests. They speak earnestly of hard work and teamwork, stout hearts and strong wills.
They’ve shown how a firm grip on their bootstraps can help a team go 15-1 two years after it started a season at 3-7. Only in America.

“I think people around the country are starting to appreciate the Bears,” coach Mike Ditka said a few weeks ago. “I don’t think we play the same brand of football as everybody, but I think we play a good brand of football. It’s kind of a fun brand. It’s old-fashioned. It’s hard-nosed. It’s rock-’em, sock-’em.”

The Bears are that rare team that is turning America’s passions instead of just its television dials and ticket stubs. They’re not at the level of the 1980 Olympic hockey team, but that was a short-lived ensemble that had the advantage of America’s name. They’re not the 1984 Cubs, either. That was a team that had its national following in place, dormant until a big season brought it out of the closet.

The Bears are a team that has made football worth watching again for millions who could take it or leave it. A team that set the Monday night ratings record when it played Miami. A team people pull for when it’s not playing their favorites.

There probably has been nothing comparable since the 1969 Mets, a phenomenon that went unappreciated in Chicago. But unlike the Mets, the Bears are playing in the heartland at a time when the country is rejecting the snootiness of the coasts.

Their mid-American, working-class ethic is one of the ingredients of the Bears’ appeal. They have reassured us that complex times haven’t pre-empted simple values.

Another ingredient is pure fun, that forgotten virtue NBC has ridden to the top of the Nielsen ratings. From trick plays to one-liners to wallowing shamelessly in their success, the Bears have
had fun winning and been fun to watch.

The third ingredient is that they’ve been underdogs. That’s a tough label to carry through 15 victories, but Ditka clung to it like a football at the goal line. He even spoke wishfully of not being favored a week from today, when the Bears open the playoffs against the winner of today’s Giants-49ers game.

Those three ingredients add up to make the Bears distinctive in an era when sports teams run together like dollar bills.

People don’t just appreciate them. They identify with them.

The Bears even have two symbols: Ditka, the coach who two years ago vowed to create a streamlined look, and William Perry, the rookie defensive tackle whom Ditka has flaunted as a 302-pound fullback.

“Every underdog in society relates to Perry,” Ditka says. So does everyone who likes a good laugh, and everyone who appreciates the hard work of dieting, or breaking any habit. Perry is the man who keeps the Bears cuddly as well as grizzly. He is Baby Huey come to life – a cross between a cartoon character and a team mascot, amusement and inspiration.

He is not the Bears’ only underdog.

There is Jim McMahon, who came into the league with a bad eye, a bad knee and bad height, the quarterback who keeps rising from his sickbed to pull magic plays out of his helmet.

There is Mike Singletary, also too short and bespectacled. He has made a crusade of scoffing at naysayers. “People are always trying to dictate what you can do simply because of what has been done,” says Singletary, who recalls the days when it was a compliment to call someone square.

Defensive tackle Steve McMichael was too short. Defensive lineman Dan Hampton has had too many knee operations. Cornerback Leslie Frazier was too slow. They play on a defense that’s too tough.

There’s even inspiration for the white-wine-and-jogging-suit set. Safety Gary Fencik has overcome the obstacle of an Ivy League education.

Then there is Ditka. Ditka is the grandson of Ukrainian immigrants and the son of a steelworker who has the only job he wants. He was hired to coach the Bears at about the same time his college buddy, Foge Fazio, was hired to coach Pitt, their alma mater. When Fazio called to congratulate him, Ditka said, “Only in America.”

Coaches are too perfect, aside from their obvious coaching flaws. Tom Landry is the Ward Cleaver none of us can be. Ditka? Here is a man who surely yells at his kids.

His temper was expected to lead his career to spontaneous combustion, not Coach of the Year. This was supposed to be a man who thought with his fists. He still doesn’t fit the tight-lipped, blow-dry look of a coach, cracking jokes after a game with his hair sticking up like a cat slept in it.

He has normal American vices. The divorced guy from the working-class neighborhood who picks too many fights, smokes too many cigars and takes too many drinks can look at Ditka and say there’s hope for himself.

Even his drunk driving charge would have fit, until recently, within the socially acceptable bounds of good ole boys who work and play hard. It shouldn’t be acceptable. Ditka acknowledges that. He says he hasn’t had a drink since that San Francisco trip 2 1/2 months ago.

But athletes once were expected to trash themselves with celebratory beverages after big wins. For many, Ditka’s arrest recalled what they perceived as simpler times, when the horror of drinking and driving was not a televised nightmare.

Five days after his arrest, Ditka was given a “Get out of Jail free” card for his birthday. He laughed. He always has been comfortable with self-deprecating humor. One week after he broke his hand punching a cabinet in the locker room, he told the players to “Win one for Lefty.”

He has put Perry and sprinter Willie Gault in the backfield, countless men in motion and fun into the game. Where past undefeated teams have buckled under pressure, Ditka kept the Bears loose through 13 straight victories.

He blends strong authority with a soft heart. Ditka makes mistakes, and he admits them. Ward Cleaver has long since given way to Sherman Potter, Lou Grant and Frank Furillo as role models.

Ditka welcomed the players’ publicity. Many coaches would not. Too distracting, they would say. “They have a right to bask in the sun,” Ditka said.

His only hangups are the pelts on the wall. The Bears have counted those victories with a pride considered unseemly in the coaching fraternity.

Fans consider it normal. You could almost hear them cheering Ditka on when the Packers complained about his passes late in a victory. “If they don’t like it, let them do something about it in two weeks,” he said.

The Bears have been leading with their chins all season. In the ’40s, the Bears and the country both swaggered that way. In the ’80s, they have tried in tandem to recapture that lost pride.

In the comeback bid for old-fashioned values, Ditka is their most visible and articulate spokesman – Reagan included. He actually says things like, “The harder you work, the more you get out of life.” Sure it’s trite, but players love that kind of talk. So do people who have to work for a living.

Like the country, the Bears have spiced their spirit with technology. The “46″ defense is the most significant football innovation of the ’80s. On offense, the Bears’ trick plays have been called the most imaginative in the league.

But they’re not fancy. The offense prefers to ram it down everyone’s throats. The defense comes in waves. Let those coastal teams use prissy zone defenses and pass 50 times a game.

The Bears don’t even spike the ball very often. They have a halfback who holds the record for rushing yards and could fill a highlight film with his blocking. Where the 49ers have their coach
pitching Volvos on TV, the Bears have their linemen plugging Chevys.

As Ditka says of old-fashioned football, “It doesn’t have to be pretty.”

“We just want to be known as clean guys that will knock your block off,” Singletary says.

It’s in to be tough, to stand up for yourself. Remember the last national hero before Perry? It was Bernard Goetz, the neo-western gunslinger.

“We’re too rough and tough to be America’s Team,” Otis Wilson said after the Bears trounced Dallas. “But hey, America’s pretty tough, too. You see President Reagan over there talking on the arms race, and he’s got to be tough.

“And if his plan doesn’t work, send us over there. We’ll take care of things.”