Mensches of the Midway | Sports | Chicago Reader

Mensches of the Midway 

Sure, they might win the Super Bowl, but will Rex Grossman ever moon a helicopter?

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What strange Super Bowl team is this?

Chicago fans are thrilled, of course, that the Bears will be playing in Super Bowl XLI Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts in Miami, but I get the feeling they're not sure what to make of this new breed of Bears. Following the lead of head coach Lovie Smith, these Bears are diplomatic and soft-spoken off the field and rely on speed and guile on it. One might argue they're hardly Bears at all.

The winners of 1986's Super Bowl XX retain an unbreakable hold on the city's sports consciousness because they were every inch the Monsters of the Midway. They were ferocious, outspoken, larger than life; they took the irascible qualities the franchise has always embodied and exaggerated them. Owner-coach George Halas built a series of combative teams known for tough players who took no prisoners, from Bronko Nagurski—a name that still screams not just leather-helmet football but what Nelson Algren lovingly referred to as Chicago bohunk—on through Doug Atkins, Mike Ditka, and Dick Butkus. The Bears won the 1940 NFL title against the Washington Redskins 73-0, and on the rare occasions they were upstaged with a title on the line it took artifice—such as the 1934 Giants switching to sneakers on the frozen field of the Polo Grounds—to do it. Even in the lean years, such as the Abe Gibron era in the 70s in which Butkus retired, the Bears were proud denizens of the NFL's "Black and Blue Division." The '85 Bears were built in Ditka's image, and for all his legendary conflicts with Halas, Ditka was very much Halas's heir—the two men battled so much because they were so much alike.

I dusted off my videotape of Super Bowl XX last weekend and was again amazed at just how brash and oversize and, yes, just plain great those Bears were. They rubbed their opponents' noses in how good they were. There was quarterback Jim McMahon with his headbands for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and POW-MIAs—worn in defiance of a league edict—and another for sponsor Adidas worn coquettishly around his neck; add the gloves he sported indoors at New Orleans's Superdome and he had the look of someone dressed up to pose for Manet. There was game MVP Richard Dent forcing two fumbles in the first half—at one point prying the ball from Craig James's hands—and Dan Hampton rising to brandish one of the fumbled balls in what has become an iconic image from the game. The Bears' defense pounded New England Patriots' quarterback Tony Eason into early submission, and only because the scrubs allowed a late touchdown was the final 46-10. The Bears didn't just use defensive tackle William Perry as a running back—they had him attempt an option pass the first time they got down close to the goal line. Considering the score was tied at 3 at the time, that was brazen.

Off the field the Bears were equally brash, as their legendary exploits on Bourbon Street the week before the game attested—not to mention McMahon's mooning of a helicopter during practice.

The Bears who won the NFC championship over the New Orleans Saints two weeks ago seemed another breed entirely. If the defense, playing like the old Bears in shirtsleeves in the snow, was fierce it wasn't feral. My grandfather, who was Bernie Bierman's line coach at the University of Minnesota, used to say it all comes down to blocking and tackling, and these Bears block well—especially left guard Ruben Brown pulling to the right—and they're sound tacklers, even as they gang-tackle trying to strip the ball. But they stick a tackle; the '85 Bears buried ballcarriers. The most notable offensive play of the season for this year's Bears was Devin Hester's 108-yard return of a field goal attempt by the New York Giants: he faked downing the short kick in the end zone and then ran it all the way back. Speed. Guile.

The differences were most striking after the New Orleans game. The '85 Bears spoke their minds to a fault and flaunted their dominance. These Bears spoke in cliches to conceal their thoughts and emotions, a trait no doubt handed down from Smith and most recently adopted by embattled quarterback Rex Grossman. Asked if the faith shown in him by the coaching staff had been important in his development and in helping him deal with the media criticism and boos from demanding fans, Grossman simply said, "Yeah, it was huge," and went on to another question. Asked if he'd been psyched up by Reggie Bush's taunting somersault into the end zone on a score that put the Bears' lead in jeopardy at 16-14, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said, "We didn't pay any attention to that," when clearly they did. (The Saints didn't score again and lost 39-14.) Asked what he said to Grossman after the game when he sought his quarterback out for a high-profile embrace, Smith said, "I just hugged him and told him I loved him." Can anyone imagine Ditka saying anything of the sort—least of all to a quarterback?

These Bears were classy, at least when they were in Smith's realm. Off-field conflicts such as last year's to-do between linemen Olin Kreutz and Fred Miller were put behind them, and even defensive tackle Tank Johnson, no stranger to police blotters, was never less than humble and eloquent while addressing the media in the locker room.

During the hype of the last two weeks, the Bears were matched in class by the Colts under Tony Dungy. Like Smith, who was his assistant when he coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dungy is soft-spoken and diplomatic. The '85 Bears reflected a big, brutal, combative era in sports. These Bears—and the Colts—say something different about today's sports environment. Both teams play a more precise, more sportsmanlike kind of football, and Chicago fans are suspicious of it. These Bears aren't one of those Chicago teams that don't even have to win to be celebrated. But me, I'm taking them. v

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Doug Benc/Getty Images, Scott Cunningham/Getty Images, Bill Eppridge/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images, New York Times Co./Getty Images.

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