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ONCE A BEAR, ALWAYS A BEAR
Curry Kirkpatrick
December 16, 1985
Under Mike Ditka, the unlikely coach picked by George Halas himself, the Chicago Bears have become a throwback to the storied past
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December 16, 1985

Once A Bear, Always A Bear

Under Mike Ditka, the unlikely coach picked by George Halas himself, the Chicago Bears have become a throwback to the storied past

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Honestly now. Has anyone ever seen William Perry and Humphrey the Whale together in the same freshwater end zone? Has any living human spotted Jim McMahon or any member of Devo in the same hair salon or sound studio at the same time? What about Michael Benning McCaskey or Steven Douglas McMichael? McCaskey (Yale '65, Peace Corps—Ethiopia '67, Harvard Business School faculty '82) is the president of the organization. Through the pinstripes and button-downs he can be heard actually referring to himself as "the CEO." Well, that's what he is. On the other hand, McMichael (University of Texas, various biker taverns) has crawled back to defensive tackle after several excursions to the brink of civilization. McMichael is the one who upon being presented with a campaign pin in a locker room by a visiting politician said thank you very much and then stuck the pin in his bare chest. Who are these people, really? And who, frankly, is Mike Ditka, this intensely balled fist of a fellow with the darting, close-together eyes and the wing-tip hair bristles, who growls and stalks the sidelines and flings the game plan around before turning all furry and cute and cuddly just like a...well, like a bear?

O.K. So it is no mystery that these are indeed the Chicago Bears—the Bears of 13 and one, with two shutouts, several wipe-outs and only that Monday-night Noise Bowl loss to Miami marring their record—scions of the Monsters, denizens of the Dan Ryan and plunderers of much of the NFL, not to mention most other walks of commercial and marketing life.

The strange and terrific thing about the Bears is that in just a few months, or almost as long as it has taken their perpetually injured quarterback, McMahon, to grow his hair back and return to the lineup (mutually exclusive events, according to an informed source), they seem to have transcended the Monday morning sports sections and become not so much a mere football team as a pop art happening.

Stir these up and then try to prove too many cooks spoil the broth: Monsters of the Midway...Papa Bear...Sweetness...the Black 'n' Blues Brothers...a Punk Rock QB...a heartthrob yuppie DB...a coach who calls himself "nuts" but hasn't broken his hand smashing a locker or howled at the moon once in the last few minutes...somebody named both Mongo and Ming the Merciless...somebody else named Danimal...and, of course, last but certainly most, America's first cabbage patch appliance...the F-F-F-F-F-FRIDGE! (As in P-P-P-P-P-PORKY!) The Bears' training lair nestles snugly amid the ancient-moneyed, Tudored elegance of Lake Forest, Ill., where the movie Ordinary People was filmed. Ordinary? "Too many deer around here," Mongo/Ming McMichael says of beautiful wooded Lake Forest. "I got to kill 'em off before they take over."

This asymmetrical divergence of bizarre Bears is the wondrous legacy of the old sentimental teddy himself, George Halas. Papa Bear once employed a trainer who determined whether the Bears had ankle injuries by kicking them and a security guard who checked curfew-breakers by feeling for heat on the players' car hoods. The guard was known as Silver Bullets. Forget all that. The disparate variety of Bear offspring now ranges from Halas's squeaky-clean Ivy League grandson, McCaskey, who disapproves of cheerleaders and mascots but runs the show, to Sweetness himself, Walter Pay-ton, who has an NFL-record nine straight 100-yard rushing games and is finally being acclaimed as possibly the best all-around player ever. Then there is outside linebacker Otis Wilson, who says, "Knock out the quarterback? That's the thrill. That's what I play for, man," and then wonders why he doesn't make the Pro Bowl. (Uh, Otis, players vote on the Pro Bowl.) Or what about admirable Perry, his nibs the Refridge, an already internationally famous fat cherub whose replica doll will be in your stores soon, mom. Though, tragically, not in time to try to fit under the Christmas tree.

Back in the ice age Halas and his defensive assistant, Clark Shaughnessy, never saw anything on the same wavelength. Shaughnessy refused to talk whenever Halas entered the defensive meetings. Now, Bearja vu in Chicago. Ditka, the current head coach, and Buddy Ryan, the defensive coordinator who was in place before Ditka arrived, sometimes seem like sworn enemies; they couldn't agree on tastes great/less filling, much less whether Perry is an amazing discovery or just a fraudulent lard bucket. Bear players will fight at the drop of a helmet. Each other. Bear crosscurrents even merge in the same body. Middle linebacker Mike Singletary, the most valuable defensive player on the team, maybe the most valuable in all the game, is a quiet, serious student of football. Singletary wears tortoiseshell glasses and his Christianity on a navy-and-orange sleeve. Nonetheless: "Growing up, I remember watching the Bears on TV. It was great. Mud and blood flying."

The fact is, the Bears' viciousness is somehow lovable, their bickering symptomatic of their charm. They actually have become an endearing national pet—America's Tease—through the fundamental magic of tradition, hard work, a central, heartland location, nostalgia, ethnic backgrounds (Ditka! McMahon! Van Home! Otis, Willie, Tyrone!), countless eccentric characters and a 13-1 record. Ironically—but another plus—these Chi-Socks continue to play as if they were 6-8.

In a year when a celeb quarterback's leg is ripped out of his flesh in prime time and there are few individual stars (Gerald Riggs? Didn't she take Martina to three sets in the Maybelline Classic?), the Bears have been the star. Moreover, while absolutely saving the NFL from itself, the Bears have been spectacular fun. This is not a small matter. What was pro football's last fun team, the '69 Jets? It was, unless you found the Steelers' Arrowhead Holmes firing a shotgun at unsuspecting motorists quite hysterical.

Flash stat: The Chicago Bears are 4-0 in games in which a 308-pound defensive tackle has rushed for one yard or more and taken the whole stadium downtown.

Flash quote: While the Green Bay and Chicago teams engaged in some midyear verbal mudslinging, Bear wide receiver Dennis McKinnon said, "We call them the Green Bay Quackers."

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