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1985 Bears Coverage: Hilgenberg’s game mental and physical

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.

Hilgenberg’s game mental and physical

Kevin Lamb

Originally published Nov. 24, 1985

Jay Hilgenberg won’t get to sleep until long after midnight tonight.

He’ll be tired. After today’s game at Soldier Field against Atlanta, the Bear center’s body will feel as if it spent the day inside an enormous pinball machine.

But it will take hours for his mind to float down from the ceiling to the pillow.

“After a game, I’m usually much more worn out mentally than physically,” Hilgenberg says.

An offensive lineman’s job is nine parts concentration for every one part demolition. That is especially the case for Hilgenberg today.

Atlanta has lifted the “46″ defense from the Bear playbook and uses the intricate scheme nearly every play.

“As soon as the quarterback calls a play in the huddle, you’re just totally absorbed in that one play,” Hilgenberg says. “On the way up to the ball, you’ll say something to the guards about a possible way you can block the play. When you’re over the ball, you look at the defense, the way they’re lined up. You also think of their tendencies, what they’re likely to do on this down and distance.

Talk important

“You’re talking to the guards while you’re over the ball. You make blocking calls if the defense shifts. Other times,
you’ll make fake calls. If you’re going to throw a pass, maybe you give run calls you used earlier.

“Plus, you also try to listen to the defense. Maybe you can pick up what they’re going to do.

“That’s all intense concentration. So is the blocking after you snap the ball.

“You try to get a real good technique. If you’re in the shotgun, you have to be sure you get the ball back to the quarterback all right. If it’s a run block, you have to get your hands inside real quick, get into your guy real quick.”

70 times per game

That’s a typical 20 seconds repeated by Hilgenberg more than 70 times per game. The wheels will spin even more frantically against Atlanta because the “46″ makes the center block one-on-one virtually all the time.

Hilgenberg usually will be nose-to-nose with Mike Pitts, sometimes with Dan Benish. Both are 6-5 and about 280 pounds.

They have two inches and 20 pounds on Hilgenberg. Most defensive linemen do. Defensive linemen also do not have to begin the play with one hand between their legs, as Hilgenberg does.

“The thing that’s gotten me by is my quickness,” he says. “I can usually get into the guy before he gets in position.”

He does it so well, the Bears often leave Hilgenberg one-on-one against standard 3-4 defenses. That frees the guards to cut off the inside linebackers.

It’s a big reason the Bears are leading the league in rushing for the third straight year. They’ve rushed for more than 200
yards the last three games. Walter Payton is within one of a record-tying seventh straight 100-yard game, and he can lead NFL
rushers if he outgains Atlanta’s Gerald Riggs by 56 yards.

“Jay’s the best center in the NFC,” says defensive tackle Steve McMichael, who practices against him. “He’s the best technician. He works hard in practice.

“It helps to practice against somebody who’s better than the person you’re going to go against in the game. Geez, the game’s fun when you do that.”

“Technician” isn’t a euphemism for an offensive lineman. It’s high praise.

Offensive linemen don’t overpower 280-pound opponents. They use leverage. A good blocker fights his instincts. He stays low when his back wants to straighten up. He keeps his elbows at his ribs when they want to come out to help his hands push forward. He keeps his feet moving when he isn’t running anywhere.

He can’t use the same techniques on every defender. For Atlanta, Pitts uses quickness, Benish uses strength. To decide how to block them, Hilgenberg watched film this week.

On many plays, Hilgenberg and a guard will pair off two-on-two. They won’t know who blocks whom until the play begins. They have to concentrate.

The Bears’ practices have swayed full circle from physical to mental emphasis in Mike Ditka’s four years.

He has made the change on purpose. It’s hard to think straight while gasping for breath. It’s hard to win without a clear head.

“The most important thing for our team is to be mentally prepared for every game,” Hilgenberg says. The Bears have done it.

No surprises

It means knowing the game plan. It means knowing what the defense is likely to do. It means adjusting to what the defense does. It means not being surprised.

“We’ve gone into games many times this year where the defense has thrown everything it has at us, and we were never surprised by anything,” Hilgenberg says. “Sometimes they’ve got us off-guard. We were frustrated at Tampa Bay. But we made adjustments and had a good second half.”

Every week, the players on offense and defense talk about how well the coaches prepared them. That’s what they mean. To Hilgenberg, it’s something that goes back to the playoff game against Washington last season, when the Bears spent the previous week near Atlanta.

“That’s when we really learned to be mentally prepared,” he says. “Getting away like that, everything was just football.

“If you’re mentally prepared, if you’re concentrating and if you’re fired up to play a good game, you’re going to have a good game. Getting fired up should be no problem. It’s your job. If you can’t get fired up for 16 games, you should look for another job.”

Cooling down is what makes for sleepless Sundays. Since Wednesday, Hilgenberg has been cramming his mind with lines from the game plan, notes from film study, conversations with the guards. “It’s basically a 9-to-5 job,” he says, “but it’s always on my mind.”

All that information has to come out tonight to make room for next week. It’s not like erasing a chalkboard.

“You’re so wound up, usually I lie in bed until 3 or 4 o’clock,” Hilgenberg says. “I think about what went on in the game. A lot went on in that short period of time. It’s hard to turn it off.”