Gary Fencik walks out of Candlestick Park, wet-haired, feeling as though he has survived a 15-rounder with Marvelous Marvin Hagler. His team, the Chicago Bears, has just lost last January's NFC Championship game to the 49ers, 23-0. Fencik played spectacularly—four tackles, one assist, two passes defensed, two interceptions—and if the Bears had won, he almost certainly would have been named the game's MVP. And what a blow that would have been for Yuppiedom: "Free Safety Ivy Leaguer With 10-Speed Bike, Charm, M.B.A. Leads Monsters to Super Bowl."
But Chicago lost, and Fencik looks at the people up ahead with vague discontent. And with pain.
He had brought Wendell Tyler down with one of his patented bullet tackles in the fourth quarter, nearly ripping out his own right shoulder in the process. He had staggered to the sideline, arm hanging like taffy. His replacement—Dave Duerson, young, swift—let Tyler by for a 39-yard gain on the next play. Reenter Fencik. Screw pain. Screw being handsome, literate and a step slow, as they say. Fencik doesn't let anybody by him.
He has led the Bears in tackles for five of his nine seasons, including 1984. He has made more tackles for Chicago—883—than anybody since Dick Butkus. And that certainly has to give one pause. Butkus, pre-beer ads, used to dream of tearing off heads and watching them roll away. Fencik—B.A. History, Yale 1976; Master of Management, Northwestern 1985—reads a book a week (Kosinski, McGuane, Fowles, the occasional young meteor such as Jay McInerney), dabbles in the blues harp and the piano and foreign languages and dreams of the type of enlightenment that people usually find while eating locusts in the desert.
September 29, 1985
"I know, I know," Fencik says, smiling. "Ivy League guy. Other interests. Football is a means, not an end. But I can't cavalierly say that it's just a game for me. I can't. There is something in the performance that is as valid as anything. Plus, I want to win too much."
Indeed, the wanting part colors his off-field persona, showing itself sometimes as a wide-eyed openness, sometimes as a steely resolve that jolts people.
His friends wave as Fencik approaches. Some of them are from Yale. Good old Yale. There are only 11 Ivy Leaguers currently playing in the NFL, but there are thousands of Ivy Leaguers playing at being young urban professionals. And Fencik admires their drive. As Julia Kennedy, Fencik's long-distance girlfriend, puts it, "Gary has all kinds of friends. The only common thing about them is that they're all wildly motivated."
It's possible the greeting these friends give him will make up for the loss to the 49ers. But it's doubtful. In the nine years Fencik has been with the Bears, the team has had only three winning seasons. And the 1984 season, a good one at 10-6, followed by a first-round playoff win over Washington, had to end in that rout.
Invariably, at times like this Fencik thinks back to the late '70s when he roamed the secondary with the legendary Doug Plank, the man who still says, "I guarantee that if you put your head on my body, I could knock it out." A point would come in those games when both Fencik and Plank knew the Bears were hopelessly out of it. It didn't have to be a runaway; 14-0 could be an impossible deficit for the old Bears' offense. Plank would look at Fencik and say, "Let's have some fun." Fencik would nod, and they both would get right up to the dark edge of the sport, smashing into bodies like twin protons, feeding off each other's detonations, astounding viewers who couldn't tell the two maniac safeties apart.
"It was a matter, to be honest, of running into as many people as possible," says Plank, who owns a Burger King scheduled to open soon in Columbus, Ohio. "Ballcarrier, lineman, receiver, it didn't matter...." Plank laughs.
"Gary's hits were like electricity for me," he says. "His best one was against the Giants, in 1977, in the sleet in New Jersey. It was on a little wide receiver—I can't remember his name, but Gary hit him so hard that the kid was lying there looking at both sides of the field at once. Then there was a game in Philly a couple years back, in which Gary hit this receiver, whose name escapes me just now." The receiver was Wally Henry, and he came out of the collision with broken ribs. The next day he needed an operation to remove his spleen. "For the rest of the season we called Gary Spleen-Splitter," Plank says.
Reporters always ask Fencik how he can be like that, one of the scary guys. The contrast between his breeding and his playing style baffles the writers. He grew up peacefully, first in Zion, Ill. and then in Barrington, one of Chicago's most fashionable suburbs. Yet last year the Washington Redskins voted Fencik the second-dirtiest player in the NFL, behind the entire L.A. Raiders' defense. A joke perchance? "I think people still get him confused with Plank," says Julia.
But Fencik calmly explains to reporters about the "gray areas" and the frustration and the meaning of the game itself. And sometimes, when it's clear nobody grasps what he's saying, he'll start chuckling a little, just like Plank, whose spinal cord has been stretched and whose body still tingles occasionally from the cumulative effect of his own blows.
There are people shouting with excitement as Fencik approaches the crowd outside Candlestick Park. He may be on foreign turf, but the fans still appreciate a great performance. Then Fencik sees a familiar face and realizes the hoopla isn't over him; it's over Brian Patrick Clarke, an old college chum. Clarke was Yale's kicker while Fencik was there. Now he plays Grant Putnam on television's General Hospital.
Fencik laughs out loud. In his most deserving moment he gets stiffed for a daytime-TV, ex-foreign spy-doctor. "It was wonderful," Fencik says later. "Even my own teammates couldn't believe I knew Grant Putnam." It was just like Yale—talent and drive and status washed over with good old cynicism.
Two weeks later Fencik is back in San Francisco, in a bar called the Balboa Cafe. Patrons in nice clothes yell for kamikazes and melon balls. Yuppies.
Fencik is sitting with friends, including Julia, who lives in town, and Bears offensive tackle Keith Van Horne and recently retired center Dan Neal. Fencik is 6'1", 195 pounds; Van Horne is 6'7", 280. Neal dwarfs Fencik, too, but some of his back vertebrae are ruined and he sits stiffly, flinching when he moves.
Fencik is hot. He came back to the Bay Area to watch the Super Bowl, and it galls him that his team isn't playing in it. The Bears' defense was the best in the NFL in 1984—second against the pass, first against the run, first in sacks. Nobody but the San Francisco 49ers could really solve defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's 46-alignment. And as the free safety—with responsibilities from the line of scrimmage to the end zone—Fencik made the thing soar. Sure, strong safety Todd Bell, linebacker Mike Singletary and linemen Richard Dent and Dan Hampton were chosen for the Pro Bowl and Fencik wasn't. But Fencik played better than he had in either of his All-Pro years, 1980 and 1981.
"He played his best ever," says Ryan flatly. "There's prejudice when they vote at free safety. They just look at interceptions, at guys who hang deep waiting for long posts. Fencik comes up like a linebacker. He runs our defense."
But never mind that. What Fencik wants to know right now is why the Bears' offense sputtered so much down the stretch. "Why didn't those guys play as hard as the defense?" he asks everyone. The offense, the offense. The damned, impotent thing really irks him.
Van Horne ignores Fencik's spiel. He's heard it before. Neal has, too. Everybody on the Bears has heard it.
Ryan used to call Fencik in regularly for a "special meeting where I'd chew his ass out good for all sorts of things including criticizing the offense." The defensive coordinator hasn't done that for a while, saying that Fencik's new "maturity" makes it unnecessary. But Fencik has always been mature. What Ryan means is that everybody on the club respects Fencik now and likes him too much to get upset when he sounds off.
Neal is getting ticked, though. He's out of the game forever, and this criticism hurts. He and Fencik start yelling.
Fencik gave his piano to Neal's daughter last year, and the two men are chums. Still, there's risk here. Even in his condition, Neal could squeeze Fencik like a grape if the runt safety goes too far. But Fencik likes to speak his mind, and he's never minded risk.
"Some of those guys just didn't play well!" Fencik yells, pounding his fist on the table.
Later, true to his nature, Fencik reflects on what he has said.
"Why do I always go after the offense?" he says with a sigh. "They don't deserve it. The fact is, nobody played well in the San Francisco game. That is the truth. Me? Ha. On my interception in the end zone—the pass Montana was throwing to Solomon—guess where I was supposed to be? On a blitz."
Of course, what Fencik doesn't mention is that he knew where the pass was going and that a blitz wouldn't have worked, and that great free safeties are paid, ultimately, to be out of position. That may be what bugs him most about the Bears' offense, any offense—its guiding maxim is that nobody should ever be out of position.
One of Fencik's earliest nicknames with the Bears was Bitch, because he complained about everything. That eventually changed to Doom, because of the way he could enter a scene and "doom" it with darkness. "He could walk up to a group of laughing guys in the dining hall, sit down, and by the time he left there'd be absolute silence," says Plank.
But it wasn't all negative stuff he'd bring up. He just questioned everything. He still does. It's the way he is, "the way everybody was at Yale," he says.
"It was 'Why, why, why, why?' " says Plank. "Gary would want to know why we had to get up for breakfast at seven when practice wasn't till 9:30. 'Why do we keep our contracts secret from one another?' 'Why do we do this and not that?' It was always a logical attack and always clearly and effectively expressed. But it was deeper thinking than most guys could handle. You know how football players are."
When Fencik came to the Bears as a rookie free agent in 1976, he arrived with questions and as a question mark. A 10th-round pick who'd been cut by Miami in September after rupturing a lung, he was ready to start an executive training program at a New York bank. But the Bears, his beloved home team, matched Miami's two-year contract—$24,000 and $29,000, take it or leave it. Fencik thought about it. He had no clout, no size, no nothing. He'd been a record-setting, All-Ivy wide receiver at Yale, but he had no future at that position in the NFL. His only hope was at safety, and the Bears didn't need safeties.
"I wanted some incentive clauses," he says. "I had the clauses in my original Miami contract. I deserved them." Amazingly, he got several.
Fencik's father, John, now the area principal of School District 220 in the Chicago suburbs, marvels at his oldest son's grit. "Gary is a very complex person," he says. "He is ambidextrous, for example. He throws lefthanded, writes righthanded, eats with either hand. In high school he liked defense in basketball more than offense, and he didn't care much about football at all. And you never had to tell him to study."
Fencik's three brothers and two sisters are totally unlike him. "I don't really know what to say about Gary," says his mom, Adeline, an outspoken, energetic woman who is a computer operator at the District 220 office. "Our natures are probably most alike, so we try not to cross each other. But he was just a skinny kid growing up, and, lord no, I never thought he would be a professional football player."
Adeline Fencik recalls that Gary threw an occasional tantrum, dropping to the floor and thrashing, when he was very young; later he just fell to his knees and wailed. When she had had enough of these displays, Adeline would stick his steamy head under the cold-water faucet and let that jolt him back to order, sort of the way a flanker crackback gets Gary's attention now.
"His determination was always there," she says. "I remember one time when he was 11 or 12 and he wasn't the first one chosen in a neighborhood baseball game. He came home very upset. He was furious. He started practicing by himself in the backyard. It got dark, and he kept practicing. John and I peeked at him out of the bedroom window and sort of snickered to ourselves. He always wanted to be first. And he always thought hard about things. When he said something was a certain way, he usually was right."
Though not always discreet.
There was, for instance, defensive end Mike Hartenstine's birthday party last year, which Fencik attended with the members of the defensive line. Immaculately dressed in tennis whites and tennis shoes ("I have to admit I looked pretty good that night," says Fencik), he had a few drinks and then felt compelled to make a statement of logic.
"If I were bigger," he pronounced, "I'd beat the s——out of you guys."
"But you're not," someone replied, and the players threw Fencik to the ground and dragged him around the greasy parking lot like a mop. It was hysterical in a locker-room-humor sort of way—the brutes doing their thing to the little wise guy. "I made you squeal like a piggy," tackle Steve McMichael reminded him once the partying resumed.
Fencik loves the linemen for just such esprit, for their integrity in the chaos of the pit, that maelstrom into which he sometimes soars headfirst. He occasionally dreams of becoming a huge guy—of going to Japan and joining a semi-pro team as a nose tackle.
"I could be the Dan Hampton of the Orient," he says wistfully. "Banzai Gary, the White Tornado."
Fencik is in Bangkok, watching thousands of chanting zealots pull a massive funeral bier through the streets. His lust for sensation and insight has brought him to the Far East. But this is almost too much, this human wave. "I saw living Buddhism," is how he explains it. "True religion in a city of decadence."
He decided to travel after this year's Super Bowl. "I wanted to get as far away from American culture as possible," he says. "Not to hide, but because the world is changing so fast that soon you won't be able to get away." In previous years he had gone to Europe, to Africa, to South America, and as a college junior he had studied in London. But this time he felt the need to venture. "I had the freedom that comes with playing pro ball, and you never know how long you'll have that."
His itinerary included Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand, Bali, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong and China; and there were times when he wished he never had to come home. "I had my playoff money, credit cards and no reservations anywhere," he says. "One day I walked on the Great Wall of China. I was half-paralyzed."
"It's selfishness," Fencik says of his life-style. And it is, in the manner of the Baby Boom generation. As the motto goes: Do all you want, and become all you can.
Fencik wanted to know about business, so he enrolled in Northwestern's J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management in 1981. He was graduated last fall. He wanted to find out about endorsements, so he signed contracts to promote Consort hair-styling mousse and the Harris Trust and Savings Bank of Chicago. ("Mr. Mousse and Mr. IRA," says Fencik of his ad-world persona.) He wanted to learn about TV, so he signed on as one of Al McGuire's gofers in 1984. He wanted to get behind the mike and in front of the camera, so he got himself a local radio show and then a nationally syndicated two-minute radio job and a spot on Time Out, a weekly Chicago public-TV program. He wanted to run with the bulls in Pamplona, so he flew to Spain and ran.
"It's very tempting to say he's scattered himself so much that he can't be committed to anything," says Julia Kennedy. "But it's amazing how he can shut out distractions and concentrate on one thing at a time. He has all this energy. He feels, like, rested from all his years in football."
And if Fencik can keep his several-times-broken nose from wandering off his face, he will retain the looks to go with the brains and charm. Tom Weinberg, the Emmy award-winning producer of Time Out, which is now off the air, says he has never seen a person as naturally graceful in front of a camera as Fencik. "You believe Gary when he talks," says Weinberg. "He has a confidence that's not teachable."
Fencik's football career is a masterpiece of confidence. He is 31, and he has never been a sprinter, but it doesn't seem to matter. He seems to will himself into the right place on the field. Just check his stats.
"He is perfect for our complex defense," says Bears president Mike McCaskey, who, like Fencik, was a wide receiver at Yale and believes that sport maketh the complete man. "You don't want free-lancers, poor readers or people whose minds fog up back there. Naturally, you have to worry about him traipsing around the Orient for a couple months. But you appreciate his intelligence."
Bears coach Mike Ditka even moved Fencik from strong safety to free two years ago, and it didn't matter a bit. Indeed, with 32 career interceptions—a club-leading tie for five last year—he needs just six more to pass Richie Petitbon and become the Bears' alltime leading interceptor. And if he can make just 83 more tackles Fencik also will become the leading tackler in Bears history. On paper he then will be what he already is on the field—the best safety the Bears have ever had.
Fencik chuckles at those who see him as a prodigy. "People think I'm so Renaissance," he says. "But they should have seen me at Yale. I was nobody. Everybody was gifted there."
The reason Fencik went to Yale was because he had taken recruiting trips to Big Ten schools and felt he didn't want to play football 12 months a year. "At Yale I could tell there was something going on that I knew nothing about," he says. "I felt comfortable with the people." In New Haven he was a common grunt, a student in awe of the brilliance around him, and he loved it. As he likes to say, "I was no Rhodes scholar, but I knew some."
Geoff Tabin, for instance, a great thinker, a tennis player, a surgical resident in Colorado and a buddy of Fencik's at Yale. Tabin, clad in a tuxedo, appeared on network TV a while ago and jumped off the 1,053-foot-high Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado with only a mountain climber's harness to keep him from splattering on the rocks below. "I was supposed to meet Geoff in Nepal and do some mountain climbing during my recent trip," Fencik says. "But I just couldn't make it. And it kills me."
It was an event with potential transcendence that Fencik could have filed with other rare moments in his life. Such as the time George Halas showed up at practice to crank up the team after the Bears had fumbled away a game the week before. In his eighties, crippled and near death, the NFL pioneer had fire in his eyes and a football in his hand.
"This is how you carry the goddam ball," he snarled, tucking the leather under his withered old arm. "Like this!"
"I went wild," says Fencik.
Fencik sits in the sun at an outdoor table at his bar, the Hunt Club. He is one of three partners who bought the building, remodeled it and opened this chic pub in the New Town section of Chicago late last spring. "I always wanted to get involved in something like this," he says. "In a bar that would be the kind of place I'd like to go to." Early returns have been great; on weekends people have been lining up halfway down the block to get in. Fencik rides his bike through the crowded streets to his condo on Sheridan Road, near Belmont Avenue. He carries the bike up the stairs because even with the Kryptonite lock on it, it wouldn't last long down below. This is the big city, and Fencik loves it, warts and all. "It's a little strange that all my teammates live in the suburbs," he says. "But a lot of them are married, and if they have kids they have to worry about a lot of things I don't."
The condo is huge and elegant and it gives Fencik all the refuge he needs. He walks past the dining room with its long glass table, where every year he has a formal dinner party for several of his closest friends—none of them ballplayers, all of them bright and witty and upwardly mobile.
He looks in his bedroom, where he has a water bed and a Jacuzzi. These aren't luxuries. They are, in Plank's words, "operating material." Fencik has had knee surgery and ankle surgery and a broken arm. As Ryan says, "His next big one will be it."
"I have to sleep on a water bed myself," says Plank. "But jeez, I saw Gary on TV, wearing a foam collar in a game. We always used to laugh at DB's who padded up, guys like Dave Elmendorf, who wore a tractor tire around his neck. I mean, a collar? Tell Gary I'm cracking up."
In his living room Fencik puts a record by Narada Michael Walden on the turntable. Fencik was in a music store in St. Thomas, V.I. in June, and the shop owner recommended the singer. Fencik bought the record and loves it. He bought it because it was an experience, as was the trip to St. Thomas itself. He and Julia had zipped down to the islands on the spur of the moment—because there was no reason not to—and had reveled again in freedom.
As the music pounds, Fencik talks about Julia. She's quite a lady—25 years old, sharp as a razor, degree in biology from Stanford (her father is the school's president), and now at Harvard Business School; she doesn't know exactly what she wants but she knows she wants it fast.
Wide receiver Ken Margerum introduced Gary and Julia to each other in Palo Alto last year. "Kenny thought we'd get along because he knew neither one of us will shut up," she says.
Fencik has had some girlfriends in his life—some real beauties, too, including a Playboy centerfold—but he has never had anybody as snappy and independent as this one. Initially, Julia had planned to go to grad school at Northwestern, to be near Fencik. Then she got accepted at Harvard, and of course she had to go there. As Fencik admits, "It's the ultimate network."
"We'll be a thousand miles closer than we were before," says Kennedy.
But as he sits in this lovely apartment, Fencik thinks about the difficulty of getting modern people together, of blending everyone's private wants and needs into something acceptable to all. Of course, as he has often said, he doesn't mind being alone.
The music is hypnotic. Now Murray Head and a chorus of what sounds like 50,000 geishas sing, "One night in Bangkok/ Makes a hard man humble." Fencik, who spent five nights in Bangkok, taps his foot and sinks into the couch. During a lull in the music he talks about Pamplona, about being in the streets with thousands of other young men running away from the bulls.
It was 1982, three weeks before the Bears' training camp opened. He was dressed like the other runners, in white with a red handkerchief around his neck and a red sash around his waist. He was fleeing toward the tunnel that leads into the bullring, and he was scared out of his mind. It was so crowded that his biggest fear was of falling down and being trampled by the men behind him. But he knew that somewhere back there were the bulls, each one 50 times stronger than Walter Payton.
Just before he reached the tunnel, he jumped through the fence and watched the bulls go snorting by. "I thought about Hemingway and tradition and all of it," he says. "I knew I didn't have a death wish, but I couldn't help feeling invigorated just the same."
Fencik seems to conjure up that feeling now, here in this room in the middle of Chicago. He talks about some of the places he wants to visit and some of the things he wants to do. And then he nods and says, "Next year I'm going to run with the bulls again."