NFL star on brain injuries, crippling pain: “I’d do it all again in a heartbeat”

The stars of the '85 Chicago Bears are consumed by surgery, recovery, arthritis and depression. But not regrets

Published October 27, 2013 1:00PM (EDT)

Mike Ditka is carried off the field by his players after the Bears win Super Bowl XX in New Orleans, La., Jan. 26, 1986.     (AP/Phil Sandlin)
Mike Ditka is carried off the field by his players after the Bears win Super Bowl XX in New Orleans, La., Jan. 26, 1986. (AP/Phil Sandlin)

Rich Cohen's "Monsters:  The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football" will be published Tuesday

It wasn’t always like this. The quarterback wasn’t always sacrosanct, the jewel at the center of the football empire, a diamond that must be protected with bulletproof glass.

In the beginning, when the game was a scrum, the quarterback was just another sorry son of a bitch getting blasted with the rest. The single wing, the formation that long dominated football, was built around a Tim Tebow-like halfback who took the snap and ran along the line, his options a precious few: run, pitch, throw. The ball was different too, huge, rank with its descent from Rugby. Even freaks who could throw the thing did so with an Oh-no-I’m-about-to-lose-it anxiety.

The big change came in 1934, when a handful of owners, realizing the love that fans had for the pass, remade the pigskin from a bladder into a dart, a weapon that could be driven deep like a spike. The rules changed too: the game was opened up. In the old dispensation, an incomplete resulted in a loss of possession; a pass could not be caught in the end-zone but had to be carried into the goal.

But the new rules would be just that — jottings in a book, until a genius could take advantage, find the loophole that exploded into points. Like many great things, it started in Chicago. It was George Halas, owner of the Bears and a founder of the NFL — the lantern-jawed maestro still haunts my dreams — who pioneered the offense known as the Modern T-formation. That’s what it looked like from the stands: the QB under center, a fullback and two runners behind.

The modern QB did something counter-intuitive: in a game that’s all about progress, his first move was in the wrong direction. After taking a snap, he dropped back five or eight yards, setting up in a bubble cleared by a detail of Secret Service agents, otherwise known as tackles and guards. The pocket. A diving bell amidst a roiling sea, collapsing as the QB searched for receivers. He had to be smart as an engineer and resilient as rubber, memorizing hundreds of plays and options. He became the chief among equals as a result, raised on a pedestal. The first to master the new offense was Sid Luckman, recruited from Columbia University because Halas figured it would take an Ivy Leaguer to run the goddamn thing.

Sid Luckman was not the best even of his era — that was probably Sammy Baugh of the Redskins — but he was the first true pocket passer. In his second season, he led the Bears to the championship game, where he faced Baugh. It was a hinge moment, the afternoon that the modern overcame the ancient. In what remains among the most lopsided championships ever, Chicago beat Washington 73 – 0. (When a reporter asked Baugh what might’ve happened if a D.C. receiver had not dropped a pass early — momentum is everything — he said, “We would’ve lost 73- 7.”) Within a few seasons, every team but Pittsburgh was running Halas’ formation, and Pittsburgh stank.

As it’s said all Russian literature came out from under Gogol’s overcoat, all modern QBs scrambled out from under Luckman’s helmet. (He still shares the record for most TD passes in a game). You go from there to Johnny Unitas picking apart the Giants in the 1958 championship — said to be the best game of all time — to Joe Montana leading his team 92 yards in 11 plays in Super Bowl XXIII (in the huddle, when a normal person might panic, Montana pointed to the stands and said, “Hey, isn’t that John Candy?”) — to Peyton Manning leaning over the line and shouting before the snap. In this way, Halas brought in not just a new style but a new archetype: the quarterback, who resides in the pantheon with the cowboy and astronaut. The great ones, enacting their drama in the bubble dreamed up by George Halas — for what is the pocket if not a hyper-violent stage? — embody certain national characteristics: ingenuity, courage, grace under pressure and aversion to pain, for the pain is coming.

While working on a book about the 1985 Bears, I spent time with several old players, including the great QB Jim McMahon, whose pictures, once upon a time, covered the walls of my bedroom. (He’s the reason I chewed Copenhagen; why I wore Vaurnets.) Mac was the closest the team has come to replacing Sid. (Though Jay Cutler is now closing in on Luckman’s team passing record). Mac was a gunslinger who could bumble all day then win with an improvised play, the sort you might draw in the backyard dirt. I met him at his house in Arizona, almost twenty years into retirement, bald, lumpy but still cool as shit. In McMahon, I recognized the QB who represents our dreams but also pays the price.

“How do you think the ‘85 Bears would do if they were playing today?” I asked.

“We’d still be kicking ass. Maybe we wouldn’t win a Super Bowl, but you have to remember, some of us are pushing 60!”

It’s an old joke, and we both laughed. Then I asked Mac how he was feeling: Do you still work out? He was part of the lawsuit (recently settled) in which retired players claimed the NFL had not taken proper precaution to protect them from the long-term effects of head trauma. Mac, who has memory issues, often finished games in a fog. And it’s not just his head. His knees, shoulders, back. Shot. In a game against the Raiders, he lacerated a kidney. By making the quarterback the supreme player, Halas also made him the supreme target: football is tackle chess. Why chase pawns all over the board when you can simply tip over the king?  (Hence all the rules to protect the QB.)

“I haven’t worked out in 10, 12 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 30-some years. It felt good to take the last few years off.”

I asked if he could still throw. I had brought along a football. It was in my car. I had just re-read Roger Kahn’s "The Boys of Summer," published almost 20 years after the ’55 Dodgers won the World Series — a stretch similar to the one that separated the Super Bowl Bears from my discussions with the players. 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 dusky Ebbets Field afternoons, and Kahn, in the middle of life, would be as he’d been as a boy, 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 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 alright, but many more were as dilapidated as old shotgun houses. In "Death of A Salesman," Willie 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 Willie, and to a lot of 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 friends in the other room, sighed and said, “I’d better get back."

He stood slowly, painfully, unfolding one joint at a time. “When you see the boys,” he said, “tell ‘em Mac says hello.” Then, in the way of Columbo saving the best question for that moment when he stands with his overcoat 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.”

Rich Cohen's "Monsters:  The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football" will be published Tuesday

By Rich Cohen

Rich Cohen is the author of "Tough Jews," "The Avengers," "The Record Men: The Chess Brothers and The Birth of Rock & Roll" and the memoir "Lake Effect." His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among many other publications and he is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City.

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