Just A Bear Of A Bear

Don't let that relaxed air fool you. Mike Singletary wreaks havoc on defense for powerful Chicago
January 27, 1986

If only middle linebacker Mike Singletary's broken helmets could talk. We could gather up a couple from Worthing High in Houston, get the 16 from Baylor University and throw in a few more from the Chicago Bears and listen to them wail and holler about the big bang that accompanied their destruction.

Do you know what it takes to break a football helmet? Have you ever tried to shatter the hull of a motorboat? With your skull? With someone else's?

"He rotated helmets in practice so he could have spares that were broken in and that conformed to his head," says Baylor sports information director Maxey Parrish. "Then during games we'd have three or four of them sitting in a row by our bench. Mike wouldn't even know it when he broke a helmet. Guys in the huddle would say, 'It's cracked, go get another.' Sixteen in four years. We may get two or three a year now from the whole team."

Singletary is to intensity what Pee-wee Herman is to nerdity. His sleepy Samurai eyes widen to embrace contact. Against Georgia in 1978, his sophomore year at Baylor, Singletary knocked over two pulling linemen who were leading a sweep and then flattened the ballcarrier, knocking the man out of the game. It was an astonishing hit, made extraordinary by the fact that Singletary had lost his helmet in mid-play and had stopped the runner bareheaded.

"I try to visualize my head all the way through the man, my whole body through him," says the 6-foot, 228-pound Singletary, the UPI 1984 and 1985 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "In high school my coach said, 'I'd rather have you hit with your shoulder, but if you want to hit with your head, do it right.' I wanted to hit with my head. It's technique. It's not safe or legal unless you do it just right. In fact, it's very dangerous. The worst thing you can do is to lower your head when you're making a tackle. The neck, I don't care how strong, can be injured. You must keep your face back, your head up. You can apply a lot of force that way."

In the NFC championship game against the Rams it took Singletary a while to realize that the screws he saw lying on the field came from his own helmet. He checked and found his face mask was ready to drop off.

A short time later his helmet felt loose. The chin strap had split in half. "I don't know how that happened," he says. After the game he got word from equipment man Ray Earley that the helmet itself was broken. Again, no idea how that had happened.

One thing he did know about was the hit he gave running back Eric Dickerson on a crucial third-and-one play in the first quarter. A hole opened off left tackle, and Dickerson slashed into it. Suddenly he was moving backward from a collision with Singletary, whose neck measures 20 inches and whose playing style, as Bears free safety Gary Fencik notes, "is almost crablike." Loss of a yard on the play. Punt. The Rams are finished for the day.

Dickerson, who went to SMU, played against Singletary in college. "He was scared to death of Mike," says Parrish, who was an assistant sports information director at SMU before going back to Baylor. "I think that hit brought back some bad memories for Eric," says Fencik. For Singletary, it was an instant of clarity and reward.

"I don't feel pain from a hit like that," he says. "What I feel is joy. Joy for the tackle. Joy for myself. Joy for the other man. You understand me; I understand you. It's football, it's middle-linebacking. It's just...good for everybody."

Singletary is so straight ahead, so aboveboard, so devoted to his game that he can get away with statements like that and opponents will nod in agreement. How can they hate a guy who lives to play the game well? How can they not respect a player who absolutely loathes cheap shots, who abhors head-hunting, who apologizes for any hit he makes that isn't clean and crisp and as pure as the driven truck.

"His intensity, his zeal to do everything perfectly, makes him a leader by example," says Bears coach Mike Ditka. "He's like Butkus and Bill George and Joe Schmidt and guys like that. Except he has some qualities they didn't have."

"I didn't understand his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality at first," says Singletary's wife, Kim, who met Mike when both were Baylor students. "But now I do. I know how nice he is off the field. And I know that on the field he isn't driven by rage. It's just the will to be the best. He isn't angry. He's a happy person."

Not at this moment, though. He's standing in one of the dungeonlike basement rooms of Jumer's Castle Lodge in Champaign, Ill., reading cue cards for an MTV camera crew. The Bears went to Champaign the week before leaving for New Orleans so they could use the University of Illinois' bubble-topped field for practice and, possibly, avoid some big-city media harassment.

"I'm telling you to watch the MTV Super Bowl Weekend," Singletary recites, without much conviction.

As he walks off, he apologizes to the producer: "I've got the game plan on my mind."

Indeed, he does. He has already memorized the most important details even though the game is still 10 days off. In fact, he's ready to play now. "Two weeks is too long," he mutters. "I'm trying to cool down, listen to quiet music, take long walks."

Singletary's readiness for big games is legendary. He studies more film than any human should. He endlessly runs defenses through his mind. In the beginning, at Baylor, he was so cranked for games that he would start hyperventilating even before he took the field. Trainers worked with him on relaxation techniques and soothed him with classical music. "Our rednecks would be listening to Merle Haggard, the rockers to heavy metal, the blacks to soul groups and Mike to Bach and Beethoven," recalls Parrish.

Singletary was something to behold back then when he was named the Southwest Conference's Player of the Year in 1979 and '80. He averaged 15 tackles per game for his career, and three times had 30 or more tackles in a game. Baylor changed from a 5-2 defense to a 4-3 during Singletary's freshman year, just so he could run loose in the middle.

Singletary's impact on the NFL was less immediate. Taken by the Bears in the second round of the 1981 draft, he fell into early disfavor with defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. "Buddy had wanted us to pick a cornerback who could run like Willie Gault," says general manager Jerry Vainisi.

Ryan rode Singletary mercilessly. When the coach finally started him against San Diego in October 1981, Singletary called timeout after one play to ask Ryan what defense to use. Ryan yanked him and didn't play him again that day. For nearly two seasons Ryan wouldn't let Singletary play on third downs or obvious passing situations.

"I really didn't like the man for a long time," says Singletary. "Now I'm glad for what he did. I never would have achieved what I have without Buddy."

What Ryan got Singletary to do was use his tremendous dedication to become a complete linebacker. "After his first pro season, Mike came back to Baylor in the spring and spent all his time in the projector room and out on the field, working endlessly on his pass drops," says Baylor coach Grant Teaff. "It just infuriated him that he wasn't allowed to play on every down."

By 1983, Singletary was playing on all downs, and the Bears were reaping the benefits. They finished eighth in total defense that year, and led the league in 1984 and '85. With Singletary staying in the game, the Bears can switch to almost any of their defensive fronts without making substitutions. The advantage of this is tremendous. "If the offense moves 10 times, we'll audible 10 times," says strong safety Dave Duerson. No problem. If Singletary has to cover a halfback or wide receiver, he'll do it. As the defensive captain and signal caller, he is the field coach. "On defense he is the glue," says quarterback Jim McMahon. "When he talks, people listen."

As well they should. "I'll never forget our first game this year against Tampa Bay," says reserve linebacker Cliff Thrift, Singletary's road roommate. "I just joined the team, and I was watching Mike, and he was screaming out the other team's plays before they happened. It was amazing."

Singletary's stats are not mind-boggling (Fencik has led the team in tackles the last two seasons, and numerous Bears have more interceptions and sacks than Singletary), but his presence is. "You think of his leadership qualities, and it's hard to figure out how to compensate him for it," says Vainisi, who went through a preseason contract squabble-holdout with Singletary this year. "You can't have a better example of what you want in a football player than him. It's like he said, 'Where are you going to find another guy like me? I turn on the office lights in the morning and turn them off at night.'"

Last season after a discouraging loss to Seattle, Singletary was leading the team in midweek calisthenics when, suddenly, he became enraged. "We have a mission to complete!" he roared. "I refuse to go home early! I refuse to go home early!"

He meant both that evening and philosophically. "It was the preacher in him coming out," says Fencik.

Indeed, religious fervor is at the heart of Singletary's drive. Born the 10th and last child of a Houston Pentecostal preacher, Singletary grew up in an atmosphere of strict devotion. "My father was stern," he says. "We sometimes spent 12 hours in church on Sundays. None of my brothers or sisters were allowed to play sports. They couldn't even wear shorts, so they all flunked gym."

Singletary loved football so much, a game he wasn't allowed to play, that he would feign illness at Sunday school, go home and sit with his face inches from the TV screen with an NFL game tuned in, volume up full blast, and pretend he was right there on the sideline with the Dallas Cowboys. At age 12 he was prepared to run away from home with one of his sisters just so he could play football. "I don't know where I was going," he says now. "But I had to play."

Fortunately, his father relented, and young Mike joined his junior high team at the only position he ever wanted to play—"linebacker. Where you have all the controls. Where you feel the power."

On Saturday night before the NFC championship game against L.A., Singletary felt the power. In the defensive-team meeting he stood up and began exhorting his teammates. Before long, furniture was flying. "We could hear yelling and screaming through the wall," says tackle Andy Frederick, who was in the offensive meeting next door. "I don't know what was happening."

Neither does Singletary, who says, "I don't remember knocking things over."

The Patriots should remember that in the Chicago—New England game last September, Singletary had three tackles, an assist, three sacks, an interception and two passes defensed. Craig James, Dickerson's old sidekick at SMU, had just five yards in seven carries. The Bears defense was nearly invincible, and this time around it's even a little more hopped up.

"You know what my favorite part of the game is?" asks Singletary. "The national anthem. I sing. I sing loud enough for the guys to hear me. And you know why? Because this is the greatest country in the world. Because it gives you the opportunity to compete. Goodness, I love that opportunity."

His helmet bursts with the joy of it.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIn repose with his wife, Kim, Mike seems more a teddy bear than a bad old grizzly. DIAGRAMJOE LERTOLA1
PHOTOJOHN BIEVERSingletary usually plays a heads-up game, as here with Tampa Bay's James Wilder. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAAt home the dedicated Singletary likes to get in his licks on an exercise machine.

Singletary's basic coverage in 46 defense

1. Team with cornerback in double-zone coverage on WR, taking short or deep areas
2. Cover WR on crossing patterns underneath
3. Cover TE down the field
4. Sprint back to FS position
5. Blitz inside
6. Blitz outside

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)