Three decades after the Bears stamped their mark on history and brought home Chicago’s only Lombardi Trophy, the city remains obsessed with the team and its characters—and nobody seems in much hurry to move on
CHICAGO — What used to be Jarrett Payton’s office, tucked into the back of the first floor in his Hoffman Estates home, is now a 4-year-old’s paradise. The spot where a desk once sat is now filled with his son’s toy cars and trucks. What remains are the memories that line the walls—photos of Jarrett and his father, a painting of them in uniform, the game ball from the day Walter Payton cracked 10,000 yards. Jarrett Payton doesn’t hide from life as the son of Sweetness. He couldn’t even if he wanted to.
“Every single day,” Payton says. “Every single day someone comes up to me to talk about the ’85 Bears. They come up to me to talk about my dad.”
It’s no surprise that with that last name, the questions never cease. But in Chicago you don’t need a famous father to feel the pull of the ’85 Bears. What that team was—and what it means—is ever present for anyone who grew up here. I was born in 1987, about three miles from the hill Walter Payton made famous. Though I wasn’t alive when the Bears ransacked the Patriots 46–10 in Super Bowl XX in New Orleans, I can name every starter from that defense. In the basement of my grandparents’ house, there was a documentary tucked into their VHS collection. It seemed like every time I was there, I snuck down the stairs and popped it into the VCR. I watched it over and over, in the same way some kids did with Star Wars. Instead of Obi-Wan, Han and and Luke, my heroes were Singletary, Payton and McMahon.
It’s no secret that the legacy of that team still hangs over this town. The real question is why. It’s been 30 years since Super Bowl XX, but somehow, it’s still 1985 in Chicago. Everyone associated with that team has a version of the same theory, and it starts with the men cast to play the parts. “Any movie, any TV show, you have to have characters that people can look at and say, that’s why I love this show,” Jarrett Payton says. “That’s what the ’85 Bears had.”
Even in the ’80s, the golden age of sports nicknames, it’s hard to remember a team with more. “Samurai Mike, Mama’s Boy Otis, L.A. Mike Richardson, Mongo McMichael, The Sack Man Richard Dent,” Hall of Famer Dan Hampton says. “Everyone had a nickname. I was Danimal.” That doesn’t even include the Punky QB, the Fridge or Da Coach. “There were so many different ways to attach yourself to that football team, male or female, athlete or not,” guard Tom Thayer says. “There was something for everybody.”
Payton, though, was in a class all his own. “Walter was a rock star with a helmet on,” Hampton says.
Adds Jim Morrissey, a rookie on that ’85 team, “My brother in law, who grew up in Michigan, said to me, ‘You’re on the same team as Walter Payton. Do you grasp that?”
Putting the best player on the planet with the best defense in history combined to build a roster of personalities that was impossible to ignore. “Put it all together,” Hampton says, “and you’ve just got a rolling ball of butcher knives. There’s nothing really before or since that’s captured the imagination of the public like that.”
And all that is before they even hit the field. Hampton points out that John Madden has called that team the greatest of all time. He’s still surly that a Payton fumble on the first series of the Super Bowl, which led to a New England field goal, is probably all that stood between the Bears and three straight playoff shutouts. Over a four-game stretch in the middle of that season, the Chicago defense outscored the opposing offense. “You cannot quibble with the fact that it may have been the most dominant team of all time,” Hampton says.
But greatness is no stranger to Chicago sports. This city has won 10 championships since the Bears’ Super Bowl. The ’96 Bulls won 72 games, and it’s not as if Dennis Rodman wasn’t … colorful. The final bit of Hampton’s—and others’—three-pronged theory about the team’s lasting influence is that the 1985 season was a uniquely Chicago moment.
Gary Fencik is from my hometown, 45 miles from Soldier Field. “I grew up here,” Fencik says. “I was 9 years old in 1963 when the Bears won the championship. There hadn’t been a Chicago team that had won a championship since in any sport until we won in ’85. This was a huge sports town that was starving for a championship.”
It’s easy to forget that in the history of Chicago sports, the Bulls are still relatively young. When Michael Jordan won his first title, the franchise was just 25 years old. The Carolina Panthers, still a fledging organization, have been around for 21. “There were generations invested into the Bears,” Thayer says. “I was born in Joliet in 1961. I was aware of 20 plus years of crappy football in Chicago.”
Two decades of losing threw an entire city in hysterics that fall of ’85, when it was clear the Bears of that year might be a team for the ages. For one year, this football town was the center of the football world, and in a way, that singularity has increased the echo of the team over time. Those Ditka-led Bears team never recaptured the spirit of ’85, never got back to the Super Bowl. And since then Bears have made just one Super Bowl appearance, a lackluster loss to the Colts 21 years later.
“It will always be greatness with a question mark,” Thayer says about the Bears’ failure to win another title. The reasons why history’s best team burnt out have been well tread. Egos grew. Buddy Ryan left for Philadelphia. McMahon spent too much of the ’86 season on the shelf. “Yeah, I would have liked there to be a lot more,” Fencik says. “But being a Chicagoan, I appreciate what we did contribute. The fact that we only did it once just showed how unique and ethereal success can be.”
The 30th anniversary has come with plenty of revisiting. The most recent 30 for 30 from ESPN, ’85 Bears, premiered at a theater off the Magnificent Mile on Wednesday. There was a private event at Soldier Field this week, attended by some 40 players and a handful of coaches. “It’s been 30 years, and a lot of guys are feeling the same way,” Morissey says. “Are we ever going to be back together again, in that situation? It’s not going to happen again, so let’s have fun. Let’s celebrate it.”
The players understand why some may be tired of hearing about a 30-year-old team, but for 61-year-old Fencik, the further away it gets, the tighter he wants to grasp it. “Someone brought it up, and it’s just a reality,” Fencik says. “We’ve lost Dave Duerson. We’ve lost Walter. Buddy isn’t in great health. And as a result, we really do want to savor and appreciate what a wonderful part of our lives occurred in 1985.”
As a presence in Chicago media—he still hosts Bears’ post-game shows on WGN radio—Hampton sees and hears the mocking, but he thinks the endurance of that ’85 team stems not from how the players keep the legend alive. It comes from how everyone else does.
“I’m not out here beating the drum,” Hampton says. “Everybody’s like OK, OK, we get it. But we still have such a high level of respect and credibility. I love those clips of Tom Coughlin yelling at his team—‘What is that, the ’85 Bears over there?’ We are the gold standard.”
Payton was at the 30 for 30 premiere—“It’s so weird,” he says, “to see your life played out on the big screen.” It was just the latest chance to hear stories about a man who hesitated in telling his teenage son everything. Every time he thinks about the ’85 team, he says, it’s another reason to wish his father were still here. There are so many stories untold, so many memories gone. It’s that chance, to breathe life, even for a moment, into who his father was, that makes him realize he’ll never tire of the questions or conversations.
“People get fatigued,” Payton says. “Not me. It’s cool to talk about them. It keeps my dad’s legacy alive, his spirit alive. That’s what you work so hard for. You want to be remembered for something.”