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Gary Fencik walks out of Candlestick Park, wet-haired, feeling as though he has survived a 15-rounder with Marvelous Marvin Hagler. His team, the Chicago Bears, has just lost last January's NFC Championship game to the 49ers, 23-0. Fencik played spectacularly—four tackles, one assist, two passes defensed, two interceptions—and if the Bears had won, he almost certainly would have been named the game's MVP. And what a blow that would have been for Yuppiedom: "Free Safety Ivy Leaguer With 10-Speed Bike, Charm, M.B.A. Leads Monsters to Super Bowl."
But Chicago lost, and Fencik looks at the people up ahead with vague discontent. And with pain.
He had brought Wendell Tyler down with one of his patented bullet tackles in the fourth quarter, nearly ripping out his own right shoulder in the process. He had staggered to the sideline, arm hanging like taffy. His replacement—Dave Duerson, young, swift—let Tyler by for a 39-yard gain on the next play. Reenter Fencik. Screw pain. Screw being handsome, literate and a step slow, as they say. Fencik doesn't let anybody by him.
He has led the Bears in tackles for five of his nine seasons, including 1984. He has made more tackles for Chicago—883—than anybody since Dick Butkus. And that certainly has to give one pause. Butkus, pre-beer ads, used to dream of tearing off heads and watching them roll away. Fencik—B.A. History, Yale 1976; Master of Management, Northwestern 1985—reads a book a week (Kosinski, McGuane, Fowles, the occasional young meteor such as Jay McInerney), dabbles in the blues harp and the piano and foreign languages and dreams of the type of enlightenment that people usually find while eating locusts in the desert.
"I know, I know," Fencik says, smiling. "Ivy League guy. Other interests. Football is a means, not an end. But I can't cavalierly say that it's just a game for me. I can't. There is something in the performance that is as valid as anything. Plus, I want to win too much."
Indeed, the wanting part colors his off-field persona, showing itself sometimes as a wide-eyed openness, sometimes as a steely resolve that jolts people.
His friends wave as Fencik approaches. Some of them are from Yale. Good old Yale. There are only 11 Ivy Leaguers currently playing in the NFL, but there are thousands of Ivy Leaguers playing at being young urban professionals. And Fencik admires their drive. As Julia Kennedy, Fencik's long-distance girlfriend, puts it, "Gary has all kinds of friends. The only common thing about them is that they're all wildly motivated."
It's possible the greeting these friends give him will make up for the loss to the 49ers. But it's doubtful. In the nine years Fencik has been with the Bears, the team has had only three winning seasons. And the 1984 season, a good one at 10-6, followed by a first-round playoff win over Washington, had to end in that rout.
Invariably, at times like this Fencik thinks back to the late '70s when he roamed the secondary with the legendary Doug Plank, the man who still says, "I guarantee that if you put your head on my body, I could knock it out." A point would come in those games when both Fencik and Plank knew the Bears were hopelessly out of it. It didn't have to be a runaway; 14-0 could be an impossible deficit for the old Bears' offense. Plank would look at Fencik and say, "Let's have some fun." Fencik would nod, and they both would get right up to the dark edge of the sport, smashing into bodies like twin protons, feeding off each other's detonations, astounding viewers who couldn't tell the two maniac safeties apart.
"It was a matter, to be honest, of running into as many people as possible," says Plank, who owns a Burger King scheduled to open soon in Columbus, Ohio. "Ballcarrier, lineman, receiver, it didn't matter...." Plank laughs.