The Chicago Bears wanted to beat Buddy Ryan badly. They wanted to run up a score on their old defensive coach, to humiliate his Philadelphia Eagles, to make a joke out of it. Some of the players who were closest to him during his eight years with the Bears wanted it most of all.
"We're his children," said free safety Gary Fencik, who had been with Ryan throughout the coach's tenure with Chicago and had been as close to him as any player. "We wanted to win 60 to nothing...to show off for Dad."
It's hard for outsiders to understand this mixture of pride and aggression and, yes, even love that goes on in the strange, insulated little world—"the cocoon," Fencik calls it—that is inhabited by an assistant coach and his players.
When the game was over, after the Eagles had taken the Bears into overtime, a place no one seriously expected them to be, after the Bears had squeezed out their 13-10 victory on the fumble by a rookie kick returner and the dynamic running of Walter Payton, after Ryan had tried to face the postgame TV lights and cameras, and had broken down, they streamed over, his old players, his children. They came to bid him well, to tell him how courageously his Eagles had played, to put their arms around him and wish him luck for the season.
September 21, 1986
Turgenev should have been there with a working press credential pinned to his lapel. Fathers and Sons.
Mike Singletary was the first man on the scene—Singletary, whom Ryan had coaxed and browbeaten into becoming the best middle linebacker in the game. He was limping on an ankle that had been twisted when one of the Eagles rolled on it in the last quarter.
"I saw Buddy as soon as he came off the field," Singletary said. "I gave him a hug. I told him, 'Good luck and God bless you, take care of yourself.' "
Doug Plank was waiting for Ryan in the Eagles' locker room. He had spent the game on the Eagles' sideline, another ironic touch in a week that was full of them. Plank, a Bears safetyman and the heart and soul of their defense for eight years—the 46 Defense was even named for his jersey number—was on the opposing bench.
"It's the first time I've come back to Chicago for a game," said Plank, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. "I've only called the Bears one time to ask for tickets. That was the exhibition game in South Bend last month. I thought it would be nice to take my wife to it, but when I called them and tried to get a pair of tickets, their reply was basically, 'Wait in line.' So I didn't bother.
"I called Buddy a week or so ago to wish him luck. He said, 'I'll get you a sideline pass.' I told him I'd feel kind of awkward and he said, 'We're the team that's got a defense named after you, not them.' "
After the game, when Ryan headed for the locker room in his typical sprint, Plank was the only man he said anything to. "He told me, 'Come on into the locker room,' " Plank said. "So I did."
Someone asked Plank whom he had been rooting for and he looked a little embarrassed.
"Very mixed feelings," he answered. "You find yourself pulling for individual people more than for anything else."
A few of the Bears who had missed Ryan in the locker room after the game caught up with him at the Eagles' team bus parked outside Soldier Field. Fencik, his arm around Ryan's shoulder, had walked him out of the tunnel. A few days before the game he had tried to put the whole thing in perspective, the hype that surrounded the contest, the crush of out-of-town media that created a playoff atmosphere in early September, the tension-filled practices that Bears coach Mike Ditka conducted.
"I've been laying low all week," Fencik said. "The media buildup has been unbelievable and I don't want to add to it. It's very tough trying to put your feelings into perspective about a game like this." Two years of bitterness between Ditka and Ryan had laid the groundwork, a feud that served as a dark undercurrent to the euphoric days of the Bears' Super Bowl season of 1985. When Ryan got the Eagles' job, the bitterness surfaced, and Ditka spoke openly about his sense of relief that Buddy was gone. Then the feud went into a dormant period. But when the schedule was released, Sept. 14 was circled in red, because now the two coaches could have it out in the only arena that counted.
The problem was that it was more a handicap race than a true test.
The Eagles had been blown out by the Redskins 41-14 in the first week of the season. Their offensive line had been overrun, and if Washington could do that to them, my god, what was going to happen when they faced the Bears?
The fact that Chicago had lost its starting quarterback, Jim McMahon, and was going with Mike Tomczak, a free-agent rookie last season, didn't cut much ice, especially with the oddsmakers. They posted an abnormally high opening spread of 18 points, which was only bet down to 16 by game time. A mere win wouldn't do it, it had to be annihilation.
"I'm looking for that perfect game," Ditka said on Wednesday. "Zero, zero, zero—points, TDs, yardage."
"Especially this week?" someone asked him.
"Yes, this week would be really wonderful," Ditka said, sarcastically.
"One thing is certain," Fencik said. "The dogs will never be called off."
Someone asked Fencik if he really wanted a blowout, considering his closeness with Ryan.
"Oh, hell, yes," he said. "That's the whole point. It's putting something to rest that has to be put to rest, not only for Mike Ditka but for every player on the team. We're a better team now than last year and we want to prove it. We want to lay this to rest once and for all.
"What we had with Buddy—well, that was unique, but it's over. Those meetings of ours, there was never anything like them, guys lying around all over the room, the whole place filled with the smell of Buddy's Captain Black pipe tobacco, Dan Hampton sprawled out in the back, dozing off, and Buddy yelling to him, 'Big Rook, you got that front?' and Danny's eyes popping open...'Yeah, Buddy, I got it.' The laughter that used to come out of that room. The offensive meeting was next door, and afterward those guys used to say, 'What are you guys laughing about all the time?'
"Vince Tobin's the defensive coordinator now. He's a good coach, but things are different. We saw that in our first meeting. Otis Wilson put his feet up on a chair and was told to take them down."
The week preceding the Bears-Eagles game took some strange turns. In Philadelphia, Ryan slowed his motor mouth down—at least when he was talking about the Bears, low-keying the confrontation, reminding people that his young Eagles still had to face Denver and the Los Angeles Rams in the next two games.
"I'm not saying we don't want to win the damn game," he said, "but it's kind of ridiculous. Here we are a 7 and 9 team, and they're treating this game like a Super Bowl. As far the stuff between Mike and me, that's history, maybe not for him but it is for me."
The quotes coming out of the Philly locker room were sensible, basically muted. Then on Thursday, a free-agent fullback from San Diego State named Mike Waters, who had averaged 1.3 yards in three carries against the Redskins, let fly in a rare burst of rookie madness. The Bears were "pansies." Singletary was "a big baby" because of the way he yelled at his own players. As for Waters himself, "I'm sure I'll be one of the guys knocking them on their butts."
"What can you say? He's from California. He's different," said Philly quarterback Ron Jaworski. "The problem is that I'm the guy who's gonna wind up paying for all that."
"I told him, 'What the hell are you doing?' " Ryan remembered. "I said, 'You take on Singletary, you're gonna be picking Riddell helmets out of your ribs.' "
"An IQ the size of his yardage average," Hampton said. "Hopefully, when the score's 35 to nothing I'll go over to Buddy and say, 'Give us that All-Pro running back. See if he wants to play with us pansies.' "
In Chicago, though, a weird story was breaking about Richard Dent, the defensive right end and Super Bowl MVP. On Wednesday after practice he sprained his back lifting weights. Five minutes before Thursday's early meetings he relayed this information to Fred Caito, the trainer. Ditka was informed, and his message to Dent was no practice, no play. He declared his superstar pass rusher out of the Eagles game, a status that remained quo even when Dent engaged in the full Friday and Saturday workouts. Bear veterans saw a different message in it. Dent was being informed that his summer progress had been leisurely and it was time to shape up.
"Oh, Dent might miss a series or so," Ryan said, "but you watch, when things get tough he'll be right in there."
Dent entered the game—to stay—on the Eagles' third series, with Philly in front 3-0 early in the second quarter and backed up on the four-yard line. Waters, the motivational specialist, had played one series and was to sit out the rest of the game. Jaworski had been a third-down magician, dodging the rush, reading on the move and throwing for completions, generally underneath left cornerback Mike Richardson's coverage. But with Dent in there the Chicago defense had the bite it needed, and the game settled into a pattern—mistakes and frustration.
The Eagles finished with six turnovers, the Bears with four, but Chicago's kicker, Kevin Butler, missed four field goals and that evened things out. Jaworski was knocked groggy twice ("I feel like I've just gone 15 rounds with Ali," he said afterward), the last KO coming at the very worst time, near the end of regulation play when Philadelphia had a chance to win.
When the Eagles won the toss in overtime, Jaworski was ready to go in again, but rookie return man Charles Crawford fumbled the kickoff and the Bears took over on Philly's 35. Payton, still remarkably fresh and facing a tired team, took command, carrying six times for 29 yards (he had 177 on the day), and a final 23-yard field goal by Butler won it.
A casual fan might say it was kind of a sloppy affair, but that's a short-sighted view. It was more than a game, it was a psychological study. The Eagles were heroic. Ryan kept them at a high emotional and physical level, and the only problem now is keeping them there for the rest of the murderous schedule. At least the Philly fans, who turned a bit rebellious after the Redskin blowout, will be in the Eagles' corner for a while.
And how about Payton, who had been almost an afterthought this season?
"My role on this team doesn't matter," he said. "I've been the stagehand, the guy who draws the curtain, who says the last word, the leading man, everything. As long as they pay me to do a job, I'll do it."
He collected a game ball. So did Richardson, who came up with back-to-back interceptions off Jaworski's replacement, Matt Cavanaugh, near the end of regulation. So did strong safety Dave Duerson, who finished off the hat trick—interception, sack and forced fumble—when he hit Crawford in OT. The irony there is that Duerson is one of the Bear defenders who had mixed feelings about Ryan.
"I never felt I got the recognition from Buddy that I deserved," he said. "At times I felt totally defeated by his criticisms. But you know something, I think that maybe in the back of his mind he's pleased I did well today."