For many in Chicago, they will never get over “it”. They will never move past the events of a somber late November afternoon in 1986. What was supposed to be a light late-season tuneup over the rival, fledgling Packers turned into a rusty anchor the Bears were never able to shed. The memory is too painful, too infuriating, too wistful to consider what could’ve, would’ve, and definitely should’ve been. What was lost in a few flashes of one play was never quite recovered. If anything, it sparked an endless bar debate that only sparks up when the inner Bill Swerski welling up in every Bears fan begins to become emotional as cry into their beers.
They say grudges die hard. But that implies that grudges vanish in the first place.
After enjoying a 1985 season for the ages, all the talk surrounding the defending Super Bowl champion Bears was whether they would muster up a fitting encore. Sure, a 15-1 campaign where virtually every opponent was their inferior was nice, but this team wasn’t built to be a one-off title belt holder. The best defense in football, perhaps in football history, still had myriad prime years ahead for Hall of Famers like Mike Singletary, Richard Dent, and Dan Hampton. A wall of an offensive line led by Jim Covert showed no cracks in its foundation. And Jim McMahon, easily the best quarterback the Bears had calling the shots since the swashbuckling Sid Luckman, started to come into his own as the offensive focal point. The only thing that could sink these Bears in a romp to another title was themselves. That or lightning striking in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Chicago would charge on to late January and early February with minimal resistance. Every game on the regular season schedule had the appearances of a warm up for the real dance given how the Bears defense continued to decimate every opponent that stood in its path. The 1986 Bears actually allowed less points than the previous iteration. They almost forced just as many turnovers, and came close to the same sacks figures. (59 turnovers to 1985’s 61, along with 62 sacks to 1985’s 64, respectively). By almost every measure, statistical and the hallowed eye test, the 1986 Bears appeared to be just as good as the arguable best NFL team to ever strap on shoulder pads. Ditka’s bunch was on a calculated, merciless romp. They were not to be stopped.
This was a team hitting its stride in the middle of a dynasty. This was a team on the precipice of unmatched excellence. The legacy of these Bears was being built brick by brick, sack by sack, pick by pick. The frizzy, heavy metal 80s were going to belong to Ditka, Singletary, and Dent. No one could intervene.
Until they did. The highly-anticipated sequel to the “Super Bowl Shuffle” was put on hold. Little did anyone know at the time that the delay was permanent.
By the time the 10-2 Bears played host to the Packers on Thanksgiving weekend 1986, most Chicagoans were already dreaming about what the spoils of the New Year would bring. The traditional holidays were around the corner, but the city instead had its eyes on the presents and inherent holiness of a Bears Super Bowl repeat—what would’ve been the first repeat since before World War II. They were so special, they started to turn November and December into another de-facto preseason. At least, that’s how the collective consciousness of a football-crazed city treated their beloved Bears. The Packers presented but another feckless toll to pay. That is, if the Bears didn’t have a standing agreement with the person working the toll booth to let them drive through un-phased as they pleased. Unfortunately Charles Martin happened to work a shift that afternoon.
Before the Bears prepared to wax Green Bay as everyone had expected, the Packers defensive end was seen waving a towel with several Bears’ names on it in warmups. Walter Payton, Jay Hilgenberg, Willie Gault, Dennis Gentry, and of course, Jim McMahon. Martin had claimed it was a personal hit list. A lofty bounty of sorts for a mercenary seeking any means necessary to sink what looked like an obvious Bears championship on the horizon. It’s not as if the soon-to-be 4-12 Packers had anything else to play for. Being a spoiler by that point was all they could aspire to.
On an early third down, Martin stayed true to his vindictive word. McMahon dropped back and threw an ill-advised pass that Mark Lee intercepted. While walking away and admonishing his poor decision, Martin then came behind the Bears quarterback, picked him up over his head, and body-slammed him into the cold Soldier Field turf. A well-documented cheap shot well over 20 seconds after the conclusion of the play. McMahon, who had missed the previous four games because of a shoulder injury, was sidelined for the season to a torn rotator cuff. Martin had gotten his wish, much to the understandable chagrin of every living soul on the lakefront, and every pair of eyes tuning in at home.
A little under 30 years later, Mike Ditka maintained he never forgave then Packers’ head coach Forest Gregg. A man he had coached and played against for years, someone you would think you could eventually build up a measure of respect for, now in the permanent doghouse.
“These things were after the play, after the fact,” said Ditka to Chicago Tribune writer Brad Biggs in 2011. “So either you are coaching that or your players are stupid. That’s what I’m going to say. In this case I believe they were coached. That’s why I never got along with Forrest Gregg.”
“To this day, I don’t respect him for that reason. . . . When the play is over and you pick somebody up and slam them on the ground. ‘Oh, big deal’ (Martin says). I’m a tough guy.’ You’re not a tough guy. You’re a dumb guy.”
Ditka’s fury aside, the Bears would escape with the victory. Even while committing five turnovers and scoring a meager 12 points, the Packers were no match. But the lasting damage was done once McMahon was no longer a factor. As he lay on the turf, writhing in pain, so too did the Bears’ Super Bowl repeat plans lose their pulse. With his departure, Chicagoans’ hopes for another winter to remember morphed into an unjustifiable fantasy, not an inevitable reality.
A mix of Mike Tomczak and Doug Flutie held the fort down the rest of the way. The Bears, as talented as they otherwise were, would not lose another regular season game. But when it came to the playoffs, their shortcomings at quarterback were impossible to overcome. The NFC was mostly a wash, but it wasn’t weak enough to lose to a Bears team without its starting signal-caller. In one of the more incisive upsets in Chicago sports history, Washington came into Soldier Field in the Divisional Round and took the Bears to task up and down the field in a harrowing 27-13 defeat.
A once magical season sputtering out in a one-and-done depressing fiasco.
To this day, one can’t be certain the 1986 Bears would’ve repeat as champions. The 1986 Giants, after all, also finished the season 14-2. Bill Parcells, Lawrence Taylor and company had come roaring back into the title conversation. There is a scenario where even with McMahon under center, the Bears fall to New York in the NFC Championship Game anyway (then the unofficial Super Bowl, given the constructs of the league). But most who followed or covered the sport religiously then aren’t that shortsighted. The Bears were the best and most complete team in football for the second straight year. They had all of their ducks, er, bears in a row, until they lost McMahon to Charles Martin’s pettiness. They were an unprecedented buzzsaw tearing away at the fabric of professional football.
However, for as special as they were, even they couldn’t overcome the loss of their starting quarterback. No one could.
The 1985 Bears will forever lead the conversation for “greatest team of all-time.” What dominance was accomplished then, in a one-season prism, may never be matched by another team. But they only captured one championship. By decade’s end, the 49ers were the team of the era after having won four Super Bowls. And the Bears were a secondary afterthought. A strenuous roadblock for the Bay Area titans, but nothing too monumental or intimidating. All thanks to one very late body slam after one play.
It’s difficult not to wonder what could’ve, would’ve, and definitely should’ve been had McMahon been healthy. Anyone with a hint of emotional investment or general objectivity knows what the Bears had on their plate before it was smashed over their head: A missing ring and a grudge that will never vanish.
Follow Robert on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.