Jim McMahon sat in his living room in suburban Chicago last Thursday night with his agent, Steve Zucker, and said, "Get me out of here. Get me to San Diego." Two days later McMahon brought his gleaming left earring and his glamorous right arm to the sideline of the Chargers for their preseason game against his old team, the Bears, at his old stadium, Soldier Field. What drama.
Before the game McMahon loyalists unfurled warm farewell banners (one read: THANKS FOR THE MCMEMORIES) and told him they would miss him (one fan said, "We love you forever, Jim"). During the introductions, Bears coach Mike Ditka, who had engineered the trade for a conditional 1990 draft choice, was booed more lustily than anyone in these parts could remember, while McMahon got spontaneous ovations every time he waved to the crowd. This was a McLove-In. One 40ish woman brought a sign to show McMahon, and when he waved to her, she swooned as if she had just seen John Lennon. "He saw my sign! Ohmygodhesawmysign!"
The Chargers arrived at their Chicago hotel late Friday night, and McMahon was already there, under an assumed name. He stayed up until 3 a.m. with Charger coach Dan Henning and quarterback coach Ted Tollner. They were back at it by 9:30 a.m. Henning wanted McMahon to play a series, so he learned several plays.
With San Diego leading 3-0 at half-time, and having produced a meager 89 yards of offense, Henning put McMahon in for the first series of the third quarter. "All right, guys, we're moving the ball," McMahon told his lackluster mates. "Right now." And move they did: eight yards on a simple off-tackle run by Tim Spencer, followed by a 10-yard pass to running back Barry Redden on a short out pattern, before McMahon threw two incompletions.
August 27, 1989
After that Henning replaced him with rookie Billy Joe Tolliver, who finished the drive with a 39-yard touchdown pass to wideout Anthony Miller. The Chargers had played six quarters without a touchdown in the preseason, and who started the first TD drive? The punky QB, naturally. And so the legend, perhaps, is born again.
"Having him come into the huddle was awe-inspiring," said tackle Joel Patten after the game. "You got the feeling that this was the start of something great. The lift we got from him was really something to behold."
He had done the same for the Bears. But since January 1986, when they beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, McMahon, who turned 30 on Monday, had played in only 25 of 48 games because of shoulder, knee and hamstring injuries. Add the fact that Chicago questioned the severity of some of McMahon's recent pains, the fact that the other two contenders for the quarterback job, Mike Tomczak and Jim Harbaugh, worked out with the team in the off-season when McMahon didn't, and the fact that Ditka felt—honest—that McMahon might have been the third-best quarterback on the squad, and, well, you get the idea why the Bears dealt him for an uncertain draft choice. It will be a third-or second-rounder, depending on the Chargers' performance this season, unless they win the AFC West. Then Chicago would get San Diego's No. 1 pick next year. It's a no-risk deal for the Chargers.
But not for the Bears. Tomczak, a four-year veteran and the heir apparent, and Harbaugh, who's beginning his third pro season, have combined for 14 NFL touchdowns and 28 interceptions. According to Bill Tobin, Chicago's vice-president of player personnel, if the world criticizes the deal, then the world hasn't seen Harbaugh and Tomczak in camp this summer. "They've played extremely well," says Tobin. "They have many of the same qualities Jim had, and they're younger, healthier and haven't taken as many hits. We had a great era with Jim. But we've got to play football in the '90s, too."
The trade, Ditka insists, was not a this-town-isn't-big-enough-for-both-of-us deal, although he was annoyed by McMahon's parting shots. "You know Mike's ego," said McMahon on Friday, the day the deal was struck. "Anybody who can take away his spotlight, he's going to get rid of. Mike believes he can get it done with anybody. His coaching gets it done."
Ditka wasn't happy that the Chargers flogged the Bears 24-7, but he was calm when discussing McMahon in his office afterward. "It wasn't just three weeks of camp that made this decision," he said. "It was Jim's play, and the play of the other two quarterbacks, and their work habits in the off-season. About his statement that I think I can win with anybody? No, I don't. But I think I can win with anybody who wants to win."
"I knew Ditka wasn't going to give me a chance," says McMahon. The night before the deal was announced. McMahon invited Zucker and his wife over for a cookout. After dinner McMahon popped the get-me-out-of-here bombshell. "It got to be an ego situation with Ditka, and Ditka won," says Zucker. "It's kind of funny, but I guess the Chargers and the Bears were putting the finishing touches on the deal as Jim and I were talking."
The two teams had discussed McMahon on draft day, April 23, but Chicago had turned down a deal that also included a swap of first-round draft picks. Talks resumed when Henning saw how bad his own quarterbacks were in a 20-3 preseason loss to Dallas on Aug. 13. San Diego thinks Tolliver needs two years of seasoning, and then he'll be a tough, strong-armed, Phil Simms-type of player. But the Chargers gagged at the thought of letting David Archer and Mark Malone be the caretakers. "What Jim does is drive the car he's given and not drive it off the road," says San Diego general manager Steve Ortmayer.
"Life is change," says Ditka. "Football is change." However, after Saturday's game, McMahon's old teammates and entire sections of Soldier Field didn't appear ready for the change. Defensive end Richard Dent met McMahon at midfield and gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek. Dent then bit his lip as he turned away.
Carrying his four-year-old son, Sean, off the field with him, McMahon tried to put into words how he felt. "Strange," was about the only word that could be made out, because the crowd was screaming at him so loudly. Waves of "Love you, Jimmy!" cascaded down upon him as he ducked into the tunnel and exited, for the first time in Chicago, toward the strangers' locker room.