In the fall of 1985 the Chicago Bears, a team that some of us consider the greatest to ever play anything, a team that included four future Hall of Famers—five, counting coach Mike Ditka—a team that was in the midst of one of the most dominating seasons in NFL history and on its way to what would be a crushing victory in Super Bowl XX, courted a jinx in the grandest and most brazen way imaginable.
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It was the morning following what would be the team’s only loss—just a few hours after the team plane touched down from Miami—that the Bears shot the video for the “Super Bowl Shuffle.” The players had recorded the song a month before. It was wide receiver Willie Gault’s project, his way out of the life, as the gangsters say. The 26-year-old Gault had been a world-class sprinter and hurdler in college, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that had missed those Games in Moscow because of the American-led boycott in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Gault was the Bears’ deep threat, the speedster who stretched the defense. His game expressed his character: elegant but soft, a zipperoo-deficient blur of speed. He shied away from contact and sometimes dropped the ball in big situations. Then, just as you were about to give up, he would take a punt or a short pass and go the distance.
Willie planned to go west after football, make his name in Hollywood. He’d filmed a cameo for Rob Lowe’s upcoming movie About Last Night, which he never stopped talking about. Everyone has known a guy like that, a beautiful hustler, forever on the make. He wears a high hat, and every gesture tells you that he’s bound for gaudier scenes. Five or 15 or 20 years down the road he’ll realize that this was his moment, back here, with a lot of people he couldn’t wait to escape. He’d been so busy planning that he’d never noticed the dream country in every window of the bus.
A Chicago-based producer named Dick Meyer brought the idea to Willie: a single cut by the increasingly popular Bears, with profits going to the homeless. The 6' 7" Meyer owned a music company called Red Label. The studio was in his basement. He wrote the words and arranged the music for the project and he got Willie onboard, then Willie got the other guys. Twenty-four Bears agreed to participate.
Ditka frowned on it. Defensive tackle Steve McMichael laughed at it. His line mate Dan Hampton called it pretentious. It was a lot of things, but not pretentious. It could have used a little more pretension. It was just a bunch of stiff jocks in blue jerseys and tight football pants dancing like robots as they rapped phrases about their identity and intentions. The music had been lifted from “The Kingfish Shuffle,” a rap based on the Amos ’n Andy character, for which Meyer had bought the rights. The lyrical method, a peacock’s self-portrait, is as American as Jack London. It can be heard in everything from Mark Twain (“I scratch my head with lightning and purr myself to sleep with thunder!”) to Bo Didley’s “Who Do You Love” (“I’ve got a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind, I’m just 22 and I don’t mind dyin’) to the pre-fight patter of Muhammad Ali (“I have wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale, I done handcuffed lightning, and thrown thunder in jail!”)
The Bears’ take on the tradition was crude but wonderful in the way it seemed to blow out the mental detritus of a lifetime of losing. It opened with running back Walter Payton dispelling any criticism of motives. Why are the Bears dancing like fools, he asked. Simple: to feed the needy. Defensive end Richard Dent called himself Sackman and prophesied his imminent return to slow-footed quarterbacks. Gault characterized himself as a chocolate swirl, and backup QB Steve Fuller compared himself to thunder and lightning.
The video was shot at the Park West, a night club on the North Side of Chicago. Payton and quarterback Jim McMahon refused to participate. “When the idea was brought to us, it was to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” McMahon told me. “It seemed like a nice thing. But I didn’t know anything about a video—Willie only told us about the record. Then two or three weeks later, he said, ‘OK, now we have to make the video.’ We’re like, ‘S---, you didn’t say anything about a video.’ And they had us taping it the day after we lost in Miami,” said McMahon, referring to the team’s only loss in ’85, the ambush-like shellacking they suffered, on Monday Night Football, at the hands of Dan Marino and Don Shula.
How bad was it?
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Well, consider that by Thanksgiving that year, it looked as if the Bears might never lose another game. The defense, featuring defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan’s vaunted 46, a blizzard of reads and options, was only getting stronger. Chicago was intimidating its opponents, effectively beating them before they even played. All of which drew special attention to the Dolphins game, played on Dec. 2 at the Orange Bowl. The 1972 Dolphins remain the only NFL team to go unbeaten in the regular season and playoffs, then win the Super Bowl. The veterans of that team, which won Super Bowl VII, let it be known that they did not want the Bears to match their record. They converged on Miami; they would cheer from the ramparts as Don Shula and Dan Marino fought off the hoardes.
And those old Dolphins would have plenty to cheer about. With Marino’s quick release and Miami’s stellar receivers, the Dolphins essentially defused the 46, and by halftime the Bears were down 31–10 and melting down.
Ditka and Ryan, in fact, nearly came to blows in the locker-roomduring the intermission.
Goddamnit, Buddy, you stubborn f---! Your defense ain’t working.
Wilber can’t cover Nat Moore. Put in the f------ nickel.
Stick it up your ass, Ditka!
F--- you, Buddy! Get somebody out there that can cover Moore!
“It was a big [fight], no question,” Ditka said. “I told him very simply, ‘You want to go outside right now, we go. We can do it any way you want, Buddy. We can go right out back and get it on, or you can shape your ass up.”
In the end, a fight was avoided. But not a loss. Downed 38–24, the Bears would head back to Chicago 12–1 and seemingly not in the perfect frame of mind to film a music video. The Bears’ plane landed at O’Hare at three, four in the morning. Empty streets, endless highways. Gault said everyone involved in the song had to be at the shoot at eight o’clock that morning. McMahon laughed at this.
He and Payton refused to participate. “Walter and I told them, ‘We’ll do it after the season,” McMahon said. “But they said, ‘No, we have to release [the video] with the record.’ So we just didn’t show up. They did everybody’s part. Walter and I finally did ours a week later, after practice, in the racquet ball court at Halas Hall. We weren’t too happy about it.
The song was a smash in Chicago. Millions of copies sold. James Joyce never won the Nobel Prize. Taxi Driver lost the Oscar to Rocky. Jim Thorpe had all his gold medals stripped. But “The Super Bowl Shuffle” was nominated for a Grammy. Whatever else you might say, it’s catchy. A few verses have stuck in my mind: Several times a year, they return like a case of tropical sprue. McMahon describing himself as the Punky QB, for example, or Linebacker Otis Wilson calling himself Mama’s Boy Otis, or Safety Gary Fencik calling himself Hit Man and promising to ring your bell . . .
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“Fencik shouldn’t have done it,” McMichael said, “because he showed everybody how horses--- of a dancer he was.”
Fencik’s dancing is undeniably terrible, but Steve Fuller’s is worse; he was Eddie Murphy’s parody of a white guy, the back-up quarterback flailing his arms as he raps. Like many vivid childhood memories, “The Super Bowl Shuffle” fills me with a special kind of shame today. My face turns red when I hear it; my neck tingles. As you grow up you become too tasteful to enjoy things that once filled you with pleasure. Past 30, most of us become too smart for our own good.
At the time of its release, the greatness of the Shuffle was beyond question. I had the single and the video. I scattered it on mix tapes, so, now and then, between Springsteen and Dylan, it came as a surprise that made me smile. In the summer of 1986, some friends and I, members of a softball team called the North Shore Screen Doors, recorded our own version. I remember just one verse, written for my friend Mark, who, having contracted “the kissing disease,” missed most of the season:
I swing like golf to psych a pitcher out.
That’s why they call me Mr. Rout.
Doc, give me a shot, so I can play,
’Cause the Doors are hot every single day.
He said, Sorry, son, I know how you feel,
But you’ve got to stay in bed till your mono is healed.
And I said, Look, I don’t want to go out just to get a tan
I want to go do the Screen Door Slam!
The possibility of summoning the Jinx—that’s the only thing that concerned most of us. Boasting of a triumph that has yet to be accomplished invites the worst kind of bad luck. You might as well break a thousand mirrors or walk under every ladder from Glencoe, Ill., to East Wacker Drive. There was a terrible history of this in Chicago. In 1969, shortly before the Cubs collapsed, a few writers released the song, “Hey, Hey,” which featured the chorus, “Hey, Hey, holy mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way!” In 1972, Steve Goodman, a folk singer from Park Ridge, Ill., released “Go Cubs Go!”, the refrain of which (“Hey Chicago, what do you say, the Cubs are gonna win today! They got the power, they got the speed, to be the best in the National League!”) turned haunting when the Cubs crumbled. In 1984, a month before the Cubs imploded in the National League playoffs, a handful of players released a country single that seemed an ominous precursor to the Shuffle. First Baseman Leon Durham sang on it, as did catcher Jody Davis and the ace pitcher Rick Sutcliffe: “As sure as there’s ivy on the center field wall, the men in blue are gonna win it all.”
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I remember an emotional phone call with my brother who was in college in 1985. “The Super Bowl Shuffle” struck him as an act of madness. “The idiots!” he said, sobbing, “Have they no memory? Have they no knowledge of the dialectic?” (My brother was halfway through a seminar on Marx.) I defended the Bears—this team was different, I said, better and nastier, strong enough to whip the jinx. “The outcome is not a matter of curses,” I said, “it’s a matter of deciding who will be the hit-ees and who will be the hittors.”
“You’re too young,” shouted my brother. “You don’t remember. I sang ‘Go Cubs Go’ all summer in 1972 and look what happened?” Then he said something my parents said whenever a topic like the Cuban Missile Crisis came up: “To you, it’s history, but it’s my life!”
In the end, the Bears were saved by the very success of “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” which resulted in copycats. The Dallas Cowboys released “Living the American Dream.” The Cleveland Browns released “Masters of the Gridiron.” The L.A. Raiders released “Silver and Black Attack.” The L.A. Rams released “Let’s Ram It.” When everyone courts the jinx, there is no jinx.
Indeed, the Bears would ride the Shuffle through three more wins to close out a 15–1 regular season, shut out the Giants and Rams in the Playoffs and, come January 26, in the Super Dome in New Orleans, destroy the Patriots 46–10 to win Super Bowl XX.
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Mike Ditka had denounced “The Super Bowl Shuffle” as an act of hubris, just another silly distraction. The following season, having recognized a good thing, he released “The Grabowski Shuffle.”
The story ended in a very Chicago way. There was controversy regarding the money, and how much of it would actually go to charity, participants felt betrayed, and Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan had to get involved. Over the years, the Shuffle has become a kind of problem child in Chicago. Dick Meyer died. The rights to the song fell to Meyer’s widow, who protects and guards and monitors it in the way of a jealous lover. It goes up on Youtube, then comes down. It appears on some TV broadcast, then the broadcaster gets hit with papers. If I have not quoted it more fully above,it’s because the weather if fine and I’d rather be out in the sun than in a conference room annotating with a bunch of lawyers.