Rethinking the 1985 Bears

When you live in Chicago, you learn pretty quickly that it’s a Bears’ town. They were the franchise that hired Red Grange out of the University of Illinois in the 1920s, when he was the most famous athlete not named Ruth. They played a barnstorming tour all around the country, which introduced the masses to the idea that professional football was a viable enterprise. They played a blue-collar, tough guy sport in a blue-collar, tough guy town. And so it was for decade upon decade, long before I ever came to live here.

I remember the 1985 Bears well. The personalities, the swagger, the defense…all of it just seemed to feed off of  the public’s outsized interest in them. And the Super Bowl Shuffle raised things to a level nobody had ever seen before, and hasn’t really seen since, either. And therein lies the problem.

The absence of anything comparable since 1985–on the field or off–means that the members of this team, both players and coaches, have become even larger since 1985 than they were back then. Barack Obama knows this, and he has extended a White House invitation to the members of that team. The Space shuttle disaster in early 1986 led to the cancellation of the previous invitation, and it was never rescheduled. So what better time to reschedule than when there’s a Chicago guy sitting in the White House?

But Dan Hampton said no. He has his reasons–a dislike for Obama being one of them–but the last one he gave was the most ironic: “It’s been 25 years. Let it go.” Chicago has yet to let it go, because they have nothing to replace it with. I say “they,” even though I’m a Chicagoan, because I don’t really understand any of this myself. But I’m writing about it, so I guess that’s something.

Hampton has the right to turn down the invite if he wants to, but he’ll never get another one, either. I’m sure that he’s thought this one through, so that’s the end of it for me. But Hampton doesn’t really mean “let it go,” because the last two decades have been so good for him and his teammates. I don’t know what he gets to make an appearance somewhere, but that number will fall quite drastically if Chicago ever does “let it go.”

The other 1985 Bears story surrounds the new book about Walter Payton that was previewed in Sports Illustrated this week. Drugs, infidelity, suicidal thoughts, and some other information has arisen to challenge Payton’s sainted image in this town. Players and coaches are denouncing the book–without reading it, of course–and you would expect to get that from the player’s perspective.

But Bears fans seem to be just as willing to go along with the Payton mystique. The gaps about what we weren’t allowed to know in his lifetime are being filled in, and those who remember “Sweetness” don’t want their memories of him clouded. But if the reporting is true, it takes nothing away from what he did on the field of play. And isn’t that what matters the most for an athlete?

You can judge Payton for what he did as a person, if it makes you feel better, but remember there’s only a short window for these athletes to play, and a much longer window after they can’t play anymore. They may retire, get released, or be injured so badly they can’t play again, and what happens then? The little bit that I’ve heard is that Payton didn’t do well in retirement, emotionally.

So two heroes of the 1985 Bears have raised issues about what becomes of players after they leave the field. And since the Bears aren’t going back to the Super Bowl for quite some time, I guess we’re stuck with this overextended crop of heroes until further notice.  I, for one, am not too happy about it.

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