IN JANUARY 1986, I went through the wardrobe. In this case the home country was Chicago, the wardrobe was a chartered L-1011 wide-body airliner crammed with besotted Ditka-loving Superfans, and Narnia was the French Quarter, where what seemed like my entire city had come to watch the Super Bowl, get drunk and celebrate the greatest Bears season ever.
Chicago had gone 15–1, devastating many NFL powers in the process. We’d count them off on our fingers like Sonny Corleone cataloging rats in The Godfather. Washington? Taken care of (45–10). San Francisco? Sleeps with the fishes (26–10). Dallas? Dead to me (44–0). Only Dan Marino and Miami had bloodied us.
It was not just the winning but the way it was done. These were the Bears of the 46 defense, the most vicious force in football history: Samurai Mike Singletary, eyes bugged out, at linebacker; Dan (Danimal) Hampton, leaping over guards en route to the quarterback; Richard (Sackman) Dent, closing fast from the blind side.
Many of the players were on the streets that weekend, getting tanked with fans at Big Daddy’s and the Napoleon House. Most memorable of all was Jim McMahon, the Punky QB who made the whole thing go. When Mac started, the Bears won. I was a 17-year-old nut who had never experienced anything like winning, and McMahon was my hero, my gateway drug into fanaticism. I saw him heading up Bourbon Street one night, guard Kurt Becker clearing a path. Then I spotted him again in the patio bar at Pat O’Brien’s. This time I approached shyly—modified mullet, a plug of Copenhagen fattening my lip. One of us was wearing a number 9 mcmahon jersey, and it was not him. He grinned, turned to me slowly, read his own name on my back and said, “F-----’ A.”
The Bears were headed for a cakewalk in Super Bowl XX—Hampton said he knew that it was over on the Wednesday before the game, when he saw the eyes of Patriots quarterback Tony Eason—but that was just the season capper, more anti than climax. The score was 46–10, which makes it sound closer than it was.
A great season is about getting there, quarters and halves, strings of moments that live forever. And in 1985 the wildest of them featured McMahon.
Every fan has a favorite game. Mine was played on Sept. 19, 1985, in the third week of the season, the Bears versus the Vikings in the Metrodome, which Mike Ditka, to the annoyance of Minnesotans, referred to as the Roller Dome. The Bears had defeated New England without incident the week before, but Mac had ended up in Lake Forest Hospital, where he spent two days in traction. Fans serious enough to read injury reports would have assumed Number 9 wrenched himself while executing like a daredevil.
No one played like Jim McMahon. Most quarterbacks avoid contact; McMahon actually sought it out. He loved hitting and getting hit. Ditka described him as a quarterback who thinks he’s a linebacker. At the end of scoring plays, he’d race downfield, 20 or 30 yards, in search of a lineman to head-butt. A football kiss. “No question that he shortened his career because of the way he played,” Ditka said. “He ran, dove, hung onto the ball too long. . . . He had no regard for his body. But I couldn’t change him. It would have ruined him.” Only later did we learn the truth: McMahon had not hurt his back in the game but while sleeping on a water bed. Years ago, when I went to a neurologist complaining of numb fingers—I thought I had a brain tumor—he told me that I was suffering from a condition known as park bench palsy, a name derived from hobos who passed out on benches with one arm hooked over the top. It’s also called honeymoon palsy, as it’s common among new husbands, who, not wanting to be rude, let their brides sleep all night on their outstretched arms. Mac had suffered water bed palsy: a win over the Patriots, a drunken debauch, a stumble upstairs, a swoon into the watery waste, followed by hours of dreamless sleep in the most awkward position.
He showed up at practice in a neck brace. It was the sort of monstrous thing you wear when trying to turn a fender-bender into a life-changing lawsuit. Ditka took one look at him and said, “You’re not playing.” This was Tuesday, and the game was scheduled for prime time Thursday. McMahon did not accept Ditka’s decision. Asked about the game, he smirked and said, “There’s no possibility I’m not playing.”
“The one problem [McMahon] had was with authority,” Ditka wrote. “He had a problem with his father, he had a problem with his Brigham Young coach, and he had a problem with me. Authority figures. He was defiant just because he didn’t want to be known as a conformist, or a guy who would listen. He sure as hell didn’t care about being the All-American boy.”
Mac showed up at his next practice in street clothes and sat in the bleachers with Joe Namath, who was interviewing the Bears quarterback for ABC. McMahon would not miss a chance to hang out with Namath. This was Mac’s spirit guide. “I never was a hero-worshiper, or jock-sniffer, or autograph seeker,” McMahon wrote in his autobiography, McMahon! The Bare Truth About the Brashest Bear. “I liked Mickey Mantle, I think Jack Nicholson is super [but] if there’s one person I identify with in sports it’s Namath.”
At the end of practice, when the press asked if McMahon would play, Ditka was more emphatic than ever: Did you see him up there? No f------way. He then cited a rule in the manner of a judge citing legal precedent: “If you don’t practice, you don’t play.”
“That’s a high school rule,” said McMahon. “There’s no possibility I won’t play.”
Most of us believed the Ditka/McMahon feud was phony, ginned up for the press in the way of a subplot in professional wrestling. But when I floated this theory to Steve Zucker, then McMahon’s agent, he said, “I was the go-between. I put the fires out. Believe me. It was real. They wouldn’t talk to each other for weeks. But it was like father and son. They wouldn’t talk but they loved each other. Sort of. In a way. They respected each other. They were both very stubborn men.”
McMahon was told not to dress for the game, but there he was, in uniform, throwing spirals before kickoff. The Bears were in their white jerseys. Mac wore an Adidas headband to keep the hair out of his eyes, his bottom lip fat with chewing tobacco. He was concentrating on each toss, focused in the way of a fighter pilot who swallowed a handful of greenies in the hangar. Ditka, commenting on how sharp Mac seemed just two days out of traction, said something like, I don’t know what they gave him, but he came flying out of that tunnel.
Interviewing NFL veterans, I sometimes felt like the kid talking to Clint Eastwood’s broken-down gunfighter in Unforgiven:
Kid: Was you ever scared in them days?
Munny: I don’t remember, Kid. I was drunk most of the time. Give me a pull on that bottle, will you?
The ABC cameras found McMahon on the sideline, and, having found him, seemed reluctant to pull away. Mac was a star—he had that on even his worst days. Frank Gifford of ABC said there was no chance McMahon would play. Ditka had characterized his role as “Catastrophe Quarterback.” Namath wasn’t so sure. Boy, I don’t know, Frank. Jim told me there’s no chance he won’t play.
The game started, then dragged. It got boring. The defense did what the defense did, but Steve Fuller, who started at QB for the Bears, could not produce. It was three and out, three and out. Most drives ended in a punt. The Bears defense began to lose faith. You could see it in the way they jogged onto the field after yet another failed possession. In the third quarter, the Bears were losing 17–9. And there seemed no prospect of putting up more points.
Meanwhile, McMahon was following Ditka up and down the sideline, talking, yelling, demanding: Put me in! Put me in!! Ditka ignored him the way a big dog ignores yapping little dog until the yapping becomes intolerable, at which point he’d respond with a few ominous big dog barks: No I won’t put you in! Do you know why? Because if you don’t practice, you don’t play! This feud was more exciting than anything happening on the field; it was a high school soap opera, the coach driven mad by the flaky quarterback.
By the middle of the quarter, McMahon had his helmet on and was playing catch on the sideline. Frank Gifford said McMahon was warming up on his own: Ditka won’t let him play. You felt just how badly Ditka wanted to win without McMahon. He hated how talent seemed to give the quarterback permission to do whatever he wanted. In the last minutes of the third quarter, Minnesota took on the air of a team mopping up. It was all over. “The offense was sputtering, doing nothing,” Ditka said. “I could see that Walter was not himself. And all of the time, as we were falling behind, McMahon was bugging the s---out of me. He was pouting down on the bench, then he was standing behind me, then he was following me around like a puppy. I turned around and almost stepped on top of him. ‘Put me in,’ he was saying, ‘I can play. I’m fine.’ ”
Ditka finally threw up his hands and said, “All right, just go.”
McMahon fastened his chin strap and ran into the game. From that moment, he would always be conflated in my mind with Shane, the reluctant gunfighter forced back into the fight, the man who, by his presence alone, changes everything. As soon as he got onto the turf, you could feel a change in the weather. “Jim rolled in like a gunfighter strutting into Dodge City,” Singletary wrote in his autobiography, Calling the Shots. “You could see the whole offense pick up.” The running backs, the linemen, the receivers—they lifted their shoulders, their chests filled with air. Believing you’re in it, that you have a chance—it makes all the difference. “Every good starting quarterback has got that confident arrogance—I’m better than everybody else,’ ” defensive tackle Steve McMichael wrote in his book Tales From the Chicago Bears Sideline. “When I talk about the difference between Jim McMahon and Steve Fuller, I’m not talking about athletic ability, I’m talking about presence—the kind of person who everybody knows is around. It’s like when you’re at the high school dance and the most popular girl walks in the gym, all eyes turn to her.” McMahon took a knee in the huddle, grinned, and said, “All right, boys, we’re going down that field and getting six.”
For McMahon, these few moments at the center of the world, at the still point of the spinning globe, made the rest of it—early mornings, practices, Ditka’s tantrums—tolerable. Not being sure about McMahon’s physical condition, Ditka sent him in with a conservative play: a screen pass. But when the quarterback got to the line, he noticed something. Having noticed something, he called an audible. That is, he changed the play. Ditka, on the sideline, having been turned into a spectator, cursed, threw his clipboard. McMahon stumbled as he took the snap and came very close to falling down. Later speculation attributed this stumble variously to his back, to being rusty, to the drugs that lit him like a Christmas tree, even to the aftereffects of a long night of partying. “I don’t know if I should tell this on him,” McMichael wrote, “And I don’t want [to say] anything negative about the boys in this book, but he wasn’t supposed to play, remember. So yeah, he’d been out all night. Smelled like alcohol, you know?”
McMahon righted himself, then set up in the pocket. A Vikings tackle got through and was heading for Number 9 with all the steam of a free runner. He would have ended the play, maybe the game, but, at the last moment, Payton, freelancing his way into the action, took the rusher out. This incredible block—Sweetness launching himself into the knees of a man twice his size—shows what made Payton one of the best backs in football history.
Payton had given McMahon an extra moment and he used it to find Willie Gault deep downfield. A screamer, a high flyer. Gault snagged it on the run. Just like that, Shane had picked off the first of the bad men, the leather-clad phantom hiding in the shadows on the balcony. One play, 70 yards, touchdown.
When McMahon got to the sideline, Ditka grabbed him, got in his face, and said,
“Tell me, what f----- play did I call?”
“Then why the f--- did you do that?”
“ ’Cause Willie was open.”
It was not just the offense that McMahon brought to life; it was the defense too. “I’ve never been around another quarterback that had that kind of effect,” safety Doug Plank told me. “He made everybody better, not just the receivers and tight ends, but the linebackers and safeties. He’d be head-butting the guys as they went onto the field.”
On the Vikings’ next possession, Wilber Marshall picked off a pass. A minute later, Mac was back on the field. Ditka sent in a running play. Mac saw something. He called an audible. Ditka kicked over a cooler. Mac rolled left, then hit receiver Dennis McKinnon in the chest as he crossed into the end zone. Two plays, two touchdowns. Bears 23, Vikings 17.
The Vikings came apart after that, took penalties, made mistakes. Is there a moment in the movie when some of the actors realize they’ve been cast as the bad guys? McMahon threw a perfect strike to Gault his next time on the field, but Gault dropped it. That was the rap on Gault: soft, he gave up the ball at the hint of contact. McMahon ran for a first down. “Gutsy little man, isn’t he?” said Gifford. “Pinched nerve and all.” A few plays later, McMahon found McKinnon in the end zone. He later described the audible that led to that score as “another sandlot maneuver.” If I had known then what I know now, I’d have quit watching sports that day. It was never going to get better.
I snapped a mental picture of McMahon in the fourth. He was watching from the sideline as the final seconds drained off the clock on one of the great performances: seven passes, three touchdowns, 166 yards—in seven minutes. He’d taken off his helmet and fortified himself with another plug of chew. His hair was pushed back and he looked tough, with a three-day growth of beard. You could tell that he was admired, loved and admired, the sort of guy who would dominate even those nights when he was not around; everyone would laugh when his name was invoked, smile and say, “McMahon, that crazy f-----. . . .”
I knocked on the door. A television, which had been blaring news of an outrage on the other side of the world, switched off. There were voices, then the door opened. A dark-haired woman shook my hand, then stepped aside, revealing a bald, medium-size guy in his midfifties. He was haggard, beat up in the way of a dockworker in his 10th year of early retirement. He was wearing a tank top that revealed sloped shoulders and shapeless arms, the arms of a once powerful man who, at some point, decided to take a rest, and liked it. The shirt was engaged in a dialogue with itself. In big letters, it asked GOT MILK? In smaller letters, beneath, it answered: got pot.
He nodded at me, then smiled, revealing the plug of tobacco tucked in his lower lip. After shaking my hand, he spit in a cup. His eyes were buggy. “Come on,” he said. This was my first physical contact with Jim McMahon since that meeting in the French Quarter a million years ago. On some level, I probably wrote this book just to hang out with the quarterback. I followed him to an office in back of the house. Mesquite and cactus, Weber grills, sauna and steam, sunshine all winter—Mac had forsaken Chicago a decade before, sold his house, moved to Scottsdale to one of the adobe mansions that run beside the low brown hills.
When I asked Steve Zucker what McMahon wanted from him as an agent, he said, “Jim wanted just one thing: enough money so that, when he stopped playing, he’d never have to work again.” Here’s how Mac described that fantasy of “nothing” in his autobiography, published when he was 26: “And when I retire, maybe I can fulfill another dream. You know how Golf Digest lists the top hundred golf courses every year? I’d like to just get on a plane and play them, one after another. What a way to live.”
McMahon played his last NFL season in 1996 for Green Bay, where he spent most of his time on the bench. He’d been brought in as a mentor for Brett Favre, a sort of Merlin to teach the boy king the dark magic. That’s football: first you’re young; then, if you’re lucky, you’re old; then you’re gone. He made it back to the Super Bowl with the Packers in 1996 but refused to play. “[Coach Mike Holmgren] asked if I wanted to go in, but I said no,” Mac told me. “I said, ‘I played in this game when it meant something. I’m not going in to mop up.’ ”
For a time, Mac hosted a golf tournament in Lake Geneva, Wis., the Barefoot Classic, its only requirement being that players compete without shoes. Now and then, he shows up on a sports channel. In a particularly strange episode of Reel Fishing, he was seen drinking all afternoon, then peeing off the boat. In 2003, he was pulled over by the police in Navarre, Florida. He’d been weaving. If you examine the way McMahon greeted the police, it tells you everything you need to know: According to the AP, McMahon told his arresting officer, “I’m too drunk. You got me.”
“He was pretty well wasted,” Officer Henderson agreed.
We spent two or three hours in his office, drinking beer, chewing tobacco, and talking. He was wearing shorts and flip-flops. He sat in a swively desk chair. His computer glowed. His shelves of memorabilia—footballs, awards, pictures taken on red-letter days, the young McMahon covered in grime, the old McMahon posed with presidents—looked down. His dogs came in—two Doberman Pinschers who ran around smelling everything and a poodle who seemed to be in charge of the operation. Mac’s girlfriend refilled drinks. Her name is Laurie Navon. McMahon has her name tattooed in Chinese on his arm. He has a gold hoop in his ear. He had houseguests. You could hear their happy voices in the distance, in the pool. Now and then, Mac seemed impatient to rejoin a party, but mostly he had nothing but time.
At first he was unrecognizable, or nearly so, but as we talked, the years fell away and I found myself in the company of the quarterback I’d followed so zealously. This McMahon and that McMahon are the same person after all—the same house after a hundred years in the rain, when the ivy has penetrated the tuck pointing, and the broken window lets the wind wreak havoc.
We talked about Chicago and the suburbs. McMahon has four grown kids and told me how strange it was to sit in the bleachers at his kids’ games where every eye followed him and all the fathers seemed to want something. “The parents were a pain in the ass,” he told me. “Especially the hockey parents. I actually got into a couple of . . . well, they weren’t altercations, no punches were thrown, but words were exchanged. I’d try to sit away from everybody. I didn’t want it. They tend to mouth off. I remember when my son was ten or eleven, playing in one of those rinks where you can stand behind the goalies. There were four or five fathers beating on the glass and I thought I saw a guy flip off the kids. Sure enough, a minute later, I see my son whack the glass—the guy is flipping him off. After the game, my son comes out of the locker room, and I see him jawing with somebody. I look over. It’s the same guy. He’s about six three, in a business suit, glasses, buddy-buddy with his friends. I tap him on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, tough guy, what’s your problem? Why are you flipping off little kids?’ He says, ‘I didn’t flip off your son, Jim. I flipped off the other kid.’ I said, ‘Does that make it right, a-----? I should beat the s---out of you right here.’ I almost hit him but thought, No, I can’t. So I asked my son, “Do you want to kick his ass?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ dropped his bag, walked up, and jacked the guy in the chest, knocked him into the glass. The guy took a step toward my son. I said, ‘You take one swing, pal.’ He just stood there. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I thought,’ turned to my boy, and said, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
I didn’t know how to respond to this, so I asked about audibles—why did he call so many audibles? Was he doing it just to drive Ditka nuts? “Nah,” he said, “that was a side benefit. Truth is, there were times when our offense was just not producing. Unless you did something, it wasn’t going to happen. That’s why, any chance I got, I’d throw it.”
“Was it fun?”
“Was what fun?”
“F--- yeah, it was fun as hell,” he said, smiling. “But if you’re not playing, if you’re injured or backing up or whatever--that sucks.
“Do you miss it?”
“Sundays were great,” he said. “That’s the only part of the game I miss. The week of work, dealing with the media and all that s---—don’t miss none of it. Hanging out with the boys, being in the locker room—that’s what you really miss. ’Cause they were some funny sumbitches. But I don’t want to be young again. Have to do all that s---again. Feel that pain again.”
McMahon gripped his right shoulder as he said this, thinking. While trying to untangle a knot with a fork when he was nine, he stabbed himself in the eye, permanently damaging his cornea. In Chicago, we used to joke that only the Bears would draft a half blind quarterback. When asked why he always wore sunglasses, even indoors, he would blame this childhood injury, saying it left him acutely sensitive to light. I always figured that Mac came up with the story to explain why he wore sunglasses indoors. After all, he didn’t wear them during games, even on sunny days. But now, sitting close, his eyes did seem funky. He doesn’t really look at you when he talks—he looks at a vanishing point over your shoulder.
“I still feel the pain of the game every day so I don’t need to miss it,” he told me. “I like doing what I do now, which is pretty much whatever I want. Didn’t make a lot of money in the game, but I put four kids through college, so I did all right.”
At his peak, Mac made close to $1 million a year, his income significantly supplemented by endorsements. Every time you turned on a TV, there he was, hawking another product. He was lucky enough to be represented by Steve Zucker, who protected and increased the quarterback’s money. According to Celebrity Net Worth, McMahon is currently worth $15 million, which makes him an exception among retired football players. Most of them have to struggle to earn for the rest of their lives.
“What’s your typical day?” I asked.
“I get out of bed around ten. When it’s nice out, which it usually is, I’ll go lay by the pool for an hour or two. Check my mail. Watch some TV. For the last six weeks I had [a postsurgical] boot on, so I couldn’t play golf. But now that I can play, I’ll get out and play a little bit more.”
“How are you holding up physically?”
Every player I asked this question responded with a catalog of woe.
“Not good,” said McMahon. “My shoulders, my elbows, my knees—they’re all pretty much gone. I’m probably going to need a new knee. They said if I screw this one up one more time, I’ll have to get another. My shoulders and elbows are what really bother me. I got memory issues. I got a deterioration in my neck, my upper neck, a compressed disk. And my lower back, lower spine, it’s all degenerating.”
The memory issues—that’s what I wanted to know about. McMahon had joined hundreds of other former NFL players in a class-action lawsuit to force the league to take responsibility for the long-term effects of all those concussions and head blows. In recent years, doctors at the Brain Bank at Boston University have made a convincing case that many if not all football players will suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a disease that destroys parts of the brain. Symptoms include memory loss, depression, dementia. In recent years, several former players with the disease have committed suicide.
At some point, every conversation I had with a retried player turned to “the disease.” Dave Duerson, an All-Pro safety on the ’85 Bears, who suffered from CTE, had killed himself in 2011. Duerson’s former teammates spoke of the disease with a wounded sense of betrayal—they’d been betrayed by their team, their league, even their own love of the game. Here were men who played a rough sport they knew would extract a price in hip replacements and artificial knees, but to find out, twenty years after retirement, that it might also take their personality, their mood, their memory, their mind? In the end, you forget your own name. And there’s no test, no way to know if you’ve got it until they do the autopsy. When I asked McMahon about the lawsuit, he said, “Which one? I’m a plaintiff in this concussion case and I’m also doing a workmen’s comp case and a disability or line-of-duty case. And then I’ve got my limo driver case. We were in a limousine coming back from Tahoe, and our driver fell asleep, went off the road’ . . . we should be dead.”
“How’s your memory?”
“Sometimes, I come into a room and have no idea why I’m there.”
“That’s not good.”
“They gave me this memory test, a list of fifteen things, and they’d say, ‘What do you remember of those fifteen?’ I’d get two or three. And I’m like, ‘Damn, you just told me that s---!’ ”
Whatever the state of Mac’s brain, he’s a pleasure to be around. When asked about a specific moment or day, he lights up. We spent the afternoon talking about his past.
Jim McMahon was born in Jersey City. When he was in grade school, his family moved to California. When he was ten, a coach arranged all the kids who’d signed up for Pop Warner football in a line on a suburban field. Each kid was handed a football and told to huck it, heave it as far as you can. There were wobblers, wounded ducks, scorchers. The coach walked until he reached the most distant ball, picked it up, walked it back, then handed it to McMahon, saying, “You’re the quarterback.”
Like Ditka, he was a high-intensity boy. When he was twelve, he was kicked off his Little League baseball team for smoking. In high school, he was suspended for vandalism. When he was sixteen, his family moved to Roy, Utah. McMahon was the kid from nowhere, the smartass who, at the end of the summer, turns up on the high school field and blows them all away. He could hit a man at thirty yards. He was tough too, small but fearless, ready to shove the ball down the throat of a player twice his size. A kid like that attracts scouts. They sit in the stands with notepads, behaving like men at an auction.
In the spring of 1976, McMahon made the puzzling decision to attend Brigham Young, the Mormon university up the road in Provo. Why would a high-intensity boy who’d already been in trouble put himself under the jurisdiction of the Mormon honor code, which forbids tobacco, alcohol, premarital sex, and everything else Mac loved? He blamed his dad, or, more simply, his father’s desire to watch him play. It was the last time, he later said, that he’d let anyone else influence his decisions.
McMahon threw his first touchdown freshman year and started as a sophomore. He would set fifty-five records at BYU and pass for more yards than any other quarterback in NCAA history. He was small and his arm was just good enough, but he had an uncanny sense of the game. Looking at a defense, he could quickly cycle through every possibility. “You could see in college he was one of those savants,” Steve McMichael wrote, “who takes a snap and as he’s backpedaling has deciphered where to throw the ball already.”
McMahon was trouble at BYU. It was not just that he violated the Mormon code, but that he seemed to take cavalier joy doing it. Reports were constantly making their way back to the dean: McMahon has been chewing tobacco on campus, as if Joseph Smith had never been martyred; McMahon was drinking at a party, as if the secret book had never been found in upstate New York; McMahon has been sleeping at his girlfriend’s apartment, as if Brigham Young never led the faithful through the mountains. There were threats, second chances, probationary periods, then, finally, after the 1981 season, McMahon was expelled. He was told he might return one day, later, not now, to earn the credits to take a degree. It confirmed what McMahon always believed about authority: Ditka swears his religious devotion, then calls Mac a motherf----- every Sunday; BYU suspends Mac for violating the honor code, but only after they’ve gotten every possible bit of service out of his heathen body.
When I asked McMahon the hardest he’d ever been hit—he was a rag doll, known for taking a pounding—he did not have to think. “In college,” he said. “We were playing New Mexico. Linebacker by the name of Jimmy Carter. I won’t forget it, ’cause Carter was the president at the time. He knocked the f---out of me. I was looking left. I was supposed to have protection on the other side. The blocker was a sophomore. He blew the assignment. Just as I’m getting ready to throw, Carter’s helmet hit my wrist, and my own fist hit my chin. Then he picked me up and dumped me on the back of my head. I was out for ten minutes. But I got up. Or they said I did. They said I got up and walked to the sidelines and fell down. Then I was out again. That’s the last thing I remember till Monday. But they said I went back in and played. I missed like two series. I couldn’t remember the plays. I couldn’t call them. That’s what they said. I’d just call a formation and say, ‘Get open quick.’ They said I picked the defense apart. They said it was easy.”
The Bears took McMahon with their first pick in 1982. He was not the biggest or the fastest, and his arm, well, I’ve told you about his arm, and his eye, and his attitude, but Ditka tended to go for the guy who struck him as a player.
“We thought we were getting close and we needed a quarterback, and he was the best,” Bears general manager Bill Tobin told me. “We liked his toughness. We liked his aggressiveness. And he was a winner. He had that bowl game he won—that was pretty special. And he fit our mold. See, one thing that we never let bother us in our draft room was size and speed. We liked them big and fast, but we would break the mold and draft players as opposed to specimens. McMahon was not tall and he wasn’t a great passer. He didn’t have a superquick release. But he was a winner.”
Halas seemed to like McMahon at first. “I’m well pleased,” he said after the draft, “as this quarterback seems to have ‘the touch.’ ” His optimism turned to scorn when McMahon dragged out contract negotiations. Mac finally went in to meet Halas. “He was kind of crotchety,” McMahon told me. “I’d been sitting outside the office for an hour. I finally asked the secretary, ‘What am I waiting for?’ And she said, ‘Mr. Halas is taking a nap.’ I said, ‘Well, wake him up, I got things to do.’ When I got in there, he said I was asking for too much money, though even if they met my terms, I’d still be one of the lowest-paid quarterbacks in the draft. ‘If we give you two hundred bucks a game, you’re overpaid,’ he said. ‘You’ve got a bad arm, a bad eye, bad knees, and you’re too small. Maybe you should go to Canada.’ So I asked, ‘Then why the hell did you draft me, old man?’ ”
By the early 1980s, Halas, having prospered with the television deals that have made the NFL fabulously profitable—the league generates $9 billion a year—was a wealthy man. In addition to the Bears, he owned several side business. And yet, perhaps conditioned by early years of struggle, he fought for every dollar. McMahon finally agreed to a four-year deal starting at $60,000, ending at $100,000. Paltry for the time, it’s shocking when compared to today’s salaries. In 2011, quarterback Michael Vick signed a six year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles for $100 million, then had a terrible 2012 season. (In the course of 10 games, he threw 12 touchdowns passes and 10 interceptions, his team finished 4–10 and his coach was fired.) But if players from the ’80s and ’90s feel they missed out, they’re aware that the players from still earlier eras looked upon their $100,000 contracts with stupefied envy. When it comes to big money, everyone believes he arrived a generation too soon.
McMahon made his entrance in the summer of 1982. “[He] walks into Halas Hall and he’s got a beer in his hand and a six-pack under his arm,” Ditka wrote later. “I think it was Miller, but it might have been something else. He has a wad of tobacco under his lip, too. First thing he says is, ‘I was getting dry on the way in.’ ”
There had never been anyone like him in Chicago, a city where heroes were often of the role model variety. For those of us attracted to rebels and mavericks, he offered a way into the game. By my sophomore year in high school, the walls of my room were covered with picture of Mac: in a headband, a wad of chew in his lip; cursing Ditka; jogging into the end zone with unhurried ease; set up in the pocket like he has all the time in the world, an inspiration for all those who want to stay calm amid the storm of life.
He was terribly out of shape—this resulted partly from his own nonchalance, partly from his holdout. He’d been drinking on the beach long after the other guys had taken up the spartan ways of the season. The team introduced him with “the Bears Mile,” an annual event at which, as the press snapped pictures, the squad ran around the track. McMahon was a mess, huffing and puffing. By the end, he stopped running altogether—it was the last time the team would ever invite reporters to watch the players run. “I remember his first year,” Ditka said, “he ran a mile and a half in almost 13 minutes, walking the last part, looking like he was going to puke and die, finishing behind everybody but our very heavy offensive lineman Noah Jackson—but he was on board. I read that in 1984, even with his lacerated kidney, he’d gone out for Halloween with his teammates, dressed as a priest, drunk. He had a Bible with him, and I guess when you opened it, there were photos of naked women inside. Well, this was football, not religion.”
“I was his roommate in the first minicamp,” tight end Tim Wrightman told me. “We were rookies. It was before the season. We weren’t even signed. It was three days. Sunday was the last. He goes out Saturday, then comes rolling in at 3 o’clock in the morning, blind drunk. He throws up till about 6:30, then we go to practice. Jim somehow fights through it, then, at the end, Ditka says, ‘Okay, we’re going to run ten cowboys.’ A cowboy was a sprint down the field, a walk back—110 yards. Any other quarterback would have said, ‘It’s minicamp in May, it has nothing to do with the season; my hamstring’s a little tight, I can’t run those.’ But Jim did every one of those cowboys, then threw up. That’s why guys loved him as a captain and a leader. He didn’t take shortcuts. If he partied, he didn’t expect to get special treatment. It made you realize how tough he was—that’s why guys respected him and loved playing with him.”
Whenever I asked McMahon’s teammates to describe him as an athlete, they laughed. “As an athlete?” said Kurt Becker. “Horrible. He couldn’t scramble. He had a good arm but not a great arm. He wasn’t a pinpoint passer. But he did have knowledge of the game. That was his biggest attribute. He knew who was going to be open before the ball was snapped. He wasn’t a great specimen by any means, but he could read a defense.”
“He didn’t have the strongest arm, but he could get it there,” said wide receiver Brian Baschnagel. “He had a great touch on the ball. He always put it where it needed to be in relationship to the defenders. Sometimes the ball would wobble, but his throws were easy to catch.”
Emery Moorehead (tight end): “He wasn’t going to hit a guy sixty yards down field but he would scramble and see somebody and have the strength to get it there. He knew the game inside out. That’s why he was able to stay in the league so long.”
Tim Wrightman: “Physically he doesn’t look like an athlete. He’s soft, pasty. He looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy. He couldn’t throw a spiral. Believe me, I caught lots of his passes. They never looked right. But he could read the defenses and he always found a way. He would switch the ball into his left hand on the goal line as he was getting tackled and throw it left-handed for a touchdown. He was just win at all costs. And he was smart. The guy could read defenses, and, most importantly, he was the only quarterback that could get along with Ditka.”
Ditka tried to revamp the Bears’ offense when he took over. “He came in with a scheme that was finally something other than Payton left, Payton right, Payton on the screen pass,” Moorehead told me. “That had been going on since Walter arrived. There was no diversity, no motions, everybody knew what was going to happen. It was pretty pathetic.” Ditka added deep routes and trick plays, but the offense remained woefully conservative. “It was boring,” McMahon said. “We ran the ball, not what I was used to. There wasn’t a whole lot to be successful with at quarterback for the Bears. There was nothing to do. You get to throw on third and long. If you’re lucky enough to get a first down, you keep playing. It was frustrating.”
Mac changed that: He would run Ditka’s plays only until he recognized a mismatch or a flaw in the defense, at which point he called a audible. This gave Ditka fits, but it finally made the Bears dangerous. But McMahon’s greatest contribution was leadership. Even on bad days, the team played better when he was on the field. With Number 9 in the game, they always believed they could win. “It was his personality, the fact that he’d fight,” Plank told me. “If we needed a yard, he’d go head-first. If it meant jumping off the ledge, he was going to jump off a ledge. I think the defenders looked at him and said, ‘Wow, we wish he was on our side.’ He was just one of those guys.”
“He played with total abandon and he’s not big,” said safety Gary Fencik. “He took a beating.”
“Everybody rallied around him because he was willing to do whatever it took,” said Moorehead. “Even though he only weighed 190 pounds, he was just as physical as our linemen. He would deny the plays Ditka sent in, be like, ‘Nah, that ain’t gonna work.’ Then call a play of his own. And of course everybody really wanted to make that play work. Nine times out of ten, McMahon made the right call.”
“Jim knew what he was doing,” Ditka told me. “A lot of guys with audibles didn’t. If you knew the game and studied the game, it didn’t bother me if you wanted to change something. Nobody said the play I called was the best in the world. But I called it based on what I’d seen on film and everything.”
McMahon became the starting quarterback November 6, 1983, a week after George Halas died. It took him time to find a rhythm, but by the middle of the following season, he’d become as effective as any other quarterback in the league. His impact is overlooked: Mac was playing in the era of masters like Marino, Elway, and Montana. He never put up big numbers—probably no QB could have with the Walter Payton Bears—but he had a talent for scoring when the game was on the line. He didn’t have the most passing yards, but he led in the only statistic that matters: wins. In one stretch, from 1984 to 1988, the Bears went 35 and 3 in games that McMahon started. There used to be a saying about Rocket Richard, the great hockey player: he’s not the fastest, but there’s no one quicker from the blue line to the goal. That was Mac. He could feel the end zone the way a surfer can sense the proximity of the sea: if it was on the wind, it made him wild. Though Halas was partly correct about McMahon—bad eye, weak arm—the quarterback did have the quality that Papa Bear prized above all others: the old zipperoo.
As we talked, McMahon kept making the same point about the ’85 Bears: amid all the hysteria for the defense, the offense is not given its proper due. “We scored the most points in the NFC that year, and the second most in the league,” he said. “We held the ball almost forty minutes a game. Tough to beat when you score that much and don’t give the ball back. And it gives the defense a good long break. You can’t win with just one side of the ball. Marino proved that in Miami. They had a great offense but couldn’t stop anybody. If you don’t perform on both sides, and have a good kicking game, you’re not going to win championships.”
“How do you think the ’85 Bears would do if they were playing today?”
“We’d still be kicking ass. Maybe we wouldn’t win a Super Bowl, but you have to remember, some of us are pushing sixty!”
It’s an old joke, and we both laughed. Then I asked McMahon if he still works out. Plank is in the gym several times a week, titanium shoulders and all. Fencik is all over the North Side on his bike. But Mac laughed. “I haven’t worked out in ten, twelve years,” he told me. “There’s not much I can do. I know I’ve got to do something. I’m feeling bad. But when I start to work out, I’m like, There’s nobody hitting me anymore, so why am I doing this? I did it for so long, it was my life for thirty-some years. It felt good to take the last few years off.”
I asked if he could still throw. I had brought a football. It was in my car. I had just reread Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, published almost twenty years after the ’55 Dodgers won the World Series—a stretch similar to the one that separated Super Bowl XX from my discussions with the ’85 Bears. Kahn ended many interviews by asking some ancient Dodger to play catch. He would stand in the gloaming and toss a ball with a faded star. As he did, the years would fall away and the old men would again be as they had been on those dusky Ebbets Field afternoons, and Kahn, in the middle of life, would be as he’d been as a boy in the bleachers, when his heroes strode across the field like figures painted on a Greek vase.
I figured I’d do the same: me and Mac throwing the pill as the light went down. But football is not baseball, and the men I interviewed had been damaged by injury, consumed by surgery, recovery, implant, arthritis, depression. A few were all right, but many more were as dilapidated as old shotgun houses. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman objects to the indignity of capitalist America: “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away,” he says, “a man is not a piece of fruit!” But that’s exactly what did happen to Willy Loman, and to a lot of old football players. Their youth is gone, and now only the peel remains, a husk filled with memories.
When I asked Mac if he wanted to play catch, he grimaced. “I haven’t thrown in years,” he told me. “My shoulder hurts so bad I can’t even throw my car keys.”
He sat a moment, then, hearing his friends in the pool, sighed, and said, “I’d better get back.’
He stood slowly, painfully, unfolding one joint at a time, then walked me out. “When you see the boys,” he said, “tell ’em Mac says hello.” Then, in the way of Colombo saving the best question for that moment when he stands with his trench coat in the doorway, I asked McMahon if it had been worth it. “Knowing what we know, about the injuries and the brain and CTE?”
He smiled and said,
“I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.”