"Gary's hits were like electricity for me," he says. "His best one was against the Giants, in 1977, in the sleet in New Jersey. It was on a little wide receiver—I can't remember his name, but Gary hit him so hard that the kid was lying there looking at both sides of the field at once. Then there was a game in Philly a couple years back, in which Gary hit this receiver, whose name escapes me just now." The receiver was Wally Henry, and he came out of the collision with broken ribs. The next day he needed an operation to remove his spleen. "For the rest of the season we called Gary Spleen-Splitter," Plank says.
Reporters always ask Fencik how he can be like that, one of the scary guys. The contrast between his breeding and his playing style baffles the writers. He grew up peacefully, first in Zion, Ill. and then in Barrington, one of Chicago's most fashionable suburbs. Yet last year the Washington Redskins voted Fencik the second-dirtiest player in the NFL, behind the entire L.A. Raiders' defense. A joke perchance? "I think people still get him confused with Plank," says Julia.
But Fencik calmly explains to reporters about the "gray areas" and the frustration and the meaning of the game itself. And sometimes, when it's clear nobody grasps what he's saying, he'll start chuckling a little, just like Plank, whose spinal cord has been stretched and whose body still tingles occasionally from the cumulative effect of his own blows.
There are people shouting with excitement as Fencik approaches the crowd outside Candlestick Park. He may be on foreign turf, but the fans still appreciate a great performance. Then Fencik sees a familiar face and realizes the hoopla isn't over him; it's over Brian Patrick Clarke, an old college chum. Clarke was Yale's kicker while Fencik was there. Now he plays Grant Putnam on television's General Hospital.
Fencik laughs out loud. In his most deserving moment he gets stiffed for a daytime-TV, ex-foreign spy-doctor. "It was wonderful," Fencik says later. "Even my own teammates couldn't believe I knew Grant Putnam." It was just like Yale—talent and drive and status washed over with good old cynicism.
Two weeks later Fencik is back in San Francisco, in a bar called the Balboa Cafe. Patrons in nice clothes yell for kamikazes and melon balls. Yuppies.
Fencik is sitting with friends, including Julia, who lives in town, and Bears offensive tackle Keith Van Horne and recently retired center Dan Neal. Fencik is 6'1", 195 pounds; Van Horne is 6'7", 280. Neal dwarfs Fencik, too, but some of his back vertebrae are ruined and he sits stiffly, flinching when he moves.
Fencik is hot. He came back to the Bay Area to watch the Super Bowl, and it galls him that his team isn't playing in it. The Bears' defense was the best in the NFL in 1984—second against the pass, first against the run, first in sacks. Nobody but the San Francisco 49ers could really solve defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's 46-alignment. And as the free safety—with responsibilities from the line of scrimmage to the end zone—Fencik made the thing soar. Sure, strong safety Todd Bell, linebacker Mike Singletary and linemen Richard Dent and Dan Hampton were chosen for the Pro Bowl and Fencik wasn't. But Fencik played better than he had in either of his All-Pro years, 1980 and 1981.
"He played his best ever," says Ryan flatly. "There's prejudice when they vote at free safety. They just look at interceptions, at guys who hang deep waiting for long posts. Fencik comes up like a linebacker. He runs our defense."
But never mind that. What Fencik wants to know right now is why the Bears' offense sputtered so much down the stretch. "Why didn't those guys play as hard as the defense?" he asks everyone. The offense, the offense. The damned, impotent thing really irks him.