Football is unquestionably a team game but occasionally a single player can alter the course of a franchise's destiny. Sometimes they decide their own team's fortune and other times it's their opponent's path that is forever changed. Bears fans who followed the team in the mid 1980's know of just such a moment, when an opposing player irreconcilably tilted Chicago's football fortunes in a very negative direction.
The Monsters of the Midway marched into the 1986 NFL season as conquerors. Reigning Super Bowl champs who had absolutely dismantled the rest of the league in historic fashion. This feat was powered by the strength of one of the most aggressive and suffocating defenses ever to grace a football field. The Bears offense, although overshadowed by their defensive counterparts, had still provided enough offensive punch to power the team on its title run. Players on that side of the ball had rallied behind an unlikely and unconventional leader.
Jim McMahon was walking contradiction as a human being and as a football player. He played his college ball at BYU but was at the opposite end of the spectrum from the typical perception of that school's national image. He was loud, irreverent and loved to party. As a quarterback he often seemed like he would have been happier as a linebacker. Nobody ever described his throwing motion as beautiful, but it got the job done. The combination of his hard-nosed play style and effectiveness in clutch situations quickly vaulted him to the de facto status as the leader of the Bears offense. As went McMahon, so went the Bears... or so it seemed.
The 1985 championship team suffered few personnel losses in the offseason (unrestricted free agency was still years away) and the rest of the league braced for the Bears to pick up steamrolling opponents right where they had left off the previous year. Bears players from that era have often said it felt like the beginning of a true dynasty. Although the offense sputtered behind spotty play from the QB position the All-World defense easily carried the team to another outstanding string of victories. They won their first 6 games straight, and 9 of their first 11 contests before meeting the Packers on a late November day at Soldier Field.
Jealousy and contempt caused by the Bears domination were spreading throughout the league. They were boiling over in opponent's frustration born out of their inability to crack the Bears impenetrable defense. On that day in 1986 a vengeful opposing defender would strike a blow to the Bears where no one expected it; at the very heart of their offense. That blow would cripple the lesser of the 2 halves of Chicago's team and turn their fortunes away from more potential championships for years to come.
These days it is hard to remember an NFL that celebrated player-on-player violence, but in those days it was the norm. The league itself assembled scores of "highlight" films that were dedicated to nothing but crushing blows and questionable hits. It was in this environment that Green Bay defensive end Charles Martin wore a towel onto the field in Chicago that was inscribed with a list of numbers. Martin is supposed to have said it was a "hit list" of Bears players he wanted to knock out of the game. Although the towel itself has been lost in the flurry of history one can certainly imagine that McMahon's number was near the top of the list. As the brash and unapologetic figurehead of the Bears, he was certainly an appealing target to opposing players who were growing tired of the Bears figurative boot pressing down on their necks.
Think about that fact for a minute. We live in an era where a supposed elaborate opposing player bounty system was hidden behind closed doors in New Orleans and eventually got their head coach and defensive coordinator suspended for an entire year. But in 1986, Charles Martin boldly displayed a list of players he wanted to hurt badly enough to make them leave the game, in observed warm-ups, on his towel... and they let him play. It was a different era indeed.
After McMahon threw an interception Martin made his now-infamous move. A solid 2 seconds after the pass was thrown Martin grabbed the Punky QB from behind and slammed him into the incredibly hard artificial turf. McMahon landed on his shoulder and separated it instantly, dooming him to sidelines for the rest of the season. Even in what was a tremendously rough era of football, the hit was ruled so brutal and uncalled for that Martin was ejected from the game and suspended for two additional contests. That stood as the longest suspension for an on-field incident for a full 20 years, until Albert Haynesworth lost his mind and stomped on Andre Gurode's head in 2006.
The Bears defense carried the team to a regular season record of 14-2 but stalled in the playoffs. Without their emotional leader under center Chicago was upended in the playoffs by Joe Gibbs's Washington team. After that emotional loss the Bears never really recovered and the juggernaut that was the '85 defense was slowly picked apart, leading to one rebuild after another. If Martin had not gone outside the rules and mashed McMahon into that abysmal turf might the Bears have more than one trophy to show for their efforts? We'll never know for sure but having seen what that team was capable of firsthand, I would have been hard -pressed to bet against them at full strength.
Does Martin's ransacking of McMahon put him atop your list, or is there another foe you loathe more?