TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS AFTER CHICAGO'S LAST SUPER BOWL CHAMPS MERCILESSLY SHREDDED THE NFL, IT'S NOT THE DEVASTATING 46 D OR EVEN IRON MIKE THAT ONE HEART REMEMBERS MOST FONDLY. IT'S A SINGLE THURSDAY IN SEPTEMBER
This is an article from the Oct. 28, 2013 issue
IN JANUARY 1986, I went through the wardrobe. In this case the home country was Chicago, the wardrobe was a chartered L-1011 wide-body airliner crammed with besotted Ditka-loving Superfans, and Narnia was the French Quarter, where what seemed like my entire city had come to watch the Super Bowl, get drunk and celebrate the greatest Bears season ever.
Chicago had gone 15--1, devastating many NFL powers in the process. We'd count them off on our fingers like Sonny Corleone cataloging rats in The Godfather. Washington? Taken care of (45--10). San Francisco? Sleeps with the fishes (26--10). Dallas? Dead to me (44--0). Only Dan Marino and Miami had bloodied us.
It was not just the winning but the way it was done. These were the Bears of the 46 defense, the most vicious force in football history: Samurai Mike Singletary, eyes bugged out, at linebacker; Dan (Danimal) Hampton, leaping over guards en route to the quarterback; Richard (Sackman) Dent, closing fast from the blind side.
Many of the players were on the streets that weekend, getting tanked with fans at Big Daddy's and the Napoleon House. Most memorable of all was Jim McMahon, the Punky QB who made the whole thing go. When Mac started, the Bears won. I was a 17-year-old nut who had never experienced anything like winning, and McMahon was my hero, my gateway drug into fanaticism. I saw him heading up Bourbon Street one night, guard Kurt Becker clearing a path. Then I spotted him again in the patio bar at Pat O'Brien's. This time I approached shyly—modified mullet, a plug of Copenhagen fattening my lip. One of us was wearing a number 9 MCMAHON jersey, and it was not him. He grinned, turned to me slowly, read his own name on my back and said, "F-----' A."
The Bears were headed for a cakewalk in Super Bowl XX—Hampton said he knew that it was over on the Wednesday before the game, when he saw the eyes of Patriots quarterback Tony Eason—but that was just the season capper, more anti than climax. The score was 46--10, which makes it sound closer than it was.
A great season is about getting there, quarters and halves, strings of moments that live forever. And in 1985 the wildest of them featured McMahon.
EVERY FAN has a favorite game. Mine was played on Sept. 19, 1985, in the third week of the season, the Bears versus the Vikings in the Metrodome, which coach Mike Ditka, to the annoyance of Minnesotans, called the Roller Dome. The Bears had defeated New England without incident the week before, but McMahon had ended up in Lake Forest Hospital, where he spent two days in traction. Fans serious enough to read injury reports would have assumed that number 9 had wrenched his body executing like a daredevil.
Most quarterbacks avoid contact; McMahon actually sought it out. He loved hitting and getting hit. Ditka described him as a quarterback who thinks he's a linebacker. At the end of scoring plays, he'd race downfield 20 or 30 yards in search of a lineman to head-butt. A football kiss. "No question that he shortened his career because of the way he played," Ditka would write in his book In Life, First You Kick Ass. "He ran, he dove, he hung onto the ball too long.... He had no regard for his body. But I couldn't change him. It would have ruined him."
Only later did I learn the truth: McMahon had hurt his back not in the game but while sleeping on a water bed. Years ago, when I went to a neurologist complaining of numb fingers—I thought I had a brain tumor—he told me that I was suffering from a condition known as park-bench palsy, a name derived from hobos who passed out on benches with one arm hooked over the top. It's also called honeymoon palsy, as it's common among new husbands who, not wanting to be rude, let their brides sleep all night on their outstretched arms. Mac had contracted water-bed palsy: a win over the Patriots, a drunken debauch, a stumble upstairs and a swoon into the watery waste followed by hours of dreamless sleep in the most awkward position.
He showed up at practice in a neck brace. It was the sort of monstrous thing you wear when trying to turn a fender bender into a life-changing lawsuit. Ditka took one look at him and said, "You're not playing." This was Tuesday, and the game was scheduled for prime time on Thursday. McMahon did not accept Ditka's decision. Asked about the game, he smirked and said, "There's no possibility I'm not playing."
"The one problem [McMahon] had was with authority," Ditka wrote. "He had a problem with his father, he had a problem with his Brigham Young coach, and he had a problem with me. Authority figures. He was defiant just because he didn't want to be known as a conformist, or a guy who would listen. He sure as hell didn't care about being the All-American boy."
Mac showed up at his next practice in street clothes and sat in the bleachers with Joe Namath, who was interviewing him for ABC. McMahon would not miss a chance to hang out with Namath. He was Mac's spirit guide. "I never was a hero-worshipper, or jock-sniffer, or autograph seeker," McMahon wrote in his 1986 autobiography. "I liked Mickey Mantle, I think Jack Nicholson is super.... If there's one person in sports I identify with, it's Namath."
At the end of practice, when the press asked if McMahon would play, Ditka was more emphatic than ever. "Did you see him up there? No f------ way." He then cited a rule in the manner of a judge citing legal precedent: "If you don't practice, you don't play."
"That's a high school rule," said McMahon. "There's no possibility I won't play."
Most of us believed the Ditka-McMahon feud was phony, ginned up for the press like a subplot in professional wrestling. But when I floated this theory to Steve Zucker, then McMahon's agent, he said, "I was the go-between. I put the fires out. Believe me, it was real. They wouldn't talk to each other for weeks. But it was like father and son. They wouldn't talk, but they loved each other. Sort of. They respected each other. They were both very stubborn men."
McMahon was told not to dress for the game, but there he was before kickoff, in uniform, throwing spirals. The Bears were in their white jerseys. Mac, his bottom lip fat with chewing tobacco, wore an Adidas headband to keep the hair out of his eyes. He was concentrating on each toss, focused in the manner of a fighter pilot who had swallowed a handful of greenies in the hangar. Ditka, commenting on how sharp Mac seemed just two days out of traction, said something like, I don't know what they gave him, but he came flying out of that tunnel.
Interviewing NFL veterans, I sometimes felt like the kid talking to Clint Eastwood's broken-down gunfighter in Unforgiven:
KID: Was you ever scared in them days?
MUNNY: I don't remember, kid. I was drunk most of the time. Give me a pull on that bottle, will you?
The ABC cameras found McMahon on the sideline and seemed reluctant to pull away. Mac was a star—he had that on even his worst days. Frank Gifford of ABC said there was no chance McMahon would play. Ditka had characterized his role as "catastrophe quarterback." Namath wasn't so sure. Boy, I don't know, Frank. Jim told me there's no chance he won't play.
THE GAME STARTED, then dragged. It got boring. The defense did what the 1985 Bears' defense did, but Steve Fuller, who started at QB for Chicago, could not produce. It was three and out, three and out. Most drives ended in a punt. The defense began to lose faith. You could see it in the way they jogged onto the field after yet another failed possession. In the third quarter the Bears were losing 17--9, and there seemed to be no prospect of putting up more points.
Meanwhile, McMahon was following Ditka up and down the sideline, talking, yelling, demanding: Put me in! Put me in! Ditka ignored him the way that a big dog ignores a yapping little dog until the yapping becomes intolerable, at which point he responds with a few ominous big-dog barks. No, I won't put you in! Do you know why? Because if you don't practice, you don't play! This was more exciting than anything happening on the field; it was a high school soap opera, the coach driven mad by the flaky quarterback.
By the middle of the third quarter, McMahon had his helmet on and was playing catch on the sideline. Gifford said McMahon was warming up on his own: Ditka won't let him play. You felt just how badly Ditka wanted to win without McMahon. He hated how talent seemed to give the QB permission to do whatever he wanted.
In the last minutes of the quarter Minnesota took on the air of a team mopping up. It was all over. "The offense was sputtering, doing nothing," Ditka wrote. "I could see that Walter [Payton] was not himself. And all of the time, as we were falling behind, McMahon was bugging the s--- out of me. He was pouting down on the bench, then he was standing behind me, then he was following me around like a puppy. I turned around and almost stepped on top of him. 'Put me in,' he was saying, 'I can play. I'm fine.'"
Ditka finally threw up his hands and said, "All right, just go."
McMahon fastened his chin strap and ran into the game. As soon as he got on the field, you could feel a change in the weather. "Jim rolled in like a gunfighter strutting into Dodge City," Singletary wrote in his own autobiography. "You could see the whole offense pick up." The running backs, the linemen, the receivers—they lifted their shoulders, their chests filled with air.
"Every good starting quarterback has got that confident arrogance—I'm better than everybody else," defensive tackle Steve (Mongo) McMichael wrote in his book, Tales from the Chicago Bears Sideline. "When I talk about the difference between Jim McMahon and Steve Fuller, I'm not talking about athletic ability, I'm talking about presence—the kind of person who everybody knows is around. It's like when you're at the high school dance and the most popular girl walks in the gym, all eyes turn to her."
McMahon took a knee in the huddle, grinned and said, "All right, boys, we're going down that field and getting six."
Not being sure about McMahon's physical condition, Ditka had sent him in with a conservative play: a screen pass. But when the quarterback got to the line, he noticed something. Having noticed something, he called an audible. Ditka, on the sideline, having been turned into a spectator, cursed, threw his clipboard. McMahon stumbled as he took the snap and came very close to falling down. (Later speculation attributed this stumble variously to his back, to being rusty, to the painkillers that lit him like a Christmas tree, even to the aftereffects of a long night of partying. "I don't know if I should tell this on him," McMichael wrote, "but ... yeah, he'd been out all night. Smelled like alcohol, you know?") McMahon righted himself, then set up in the pocket. A Vikings tackle got through and was heading for number 9 with all the steam of a free runner. He would have ended the play, maybe the game, but at the last moment Payton, freelancing into the action, took the rusher out. This incredible block—Sweetness launching himself into the knees of a man twice his size—shows what made Payton one of the best backs in football history.
He had given McMahon an extra second, and the QB used it to find Willie Gault deep downfield. Mac launched a screamer, a high flier. Gault snagged it on the run. Just like that the gunfighter had picked off the first of the bad men, the leather-clad phantom hiding in the shadows on the balcony. One play, 70 yards, touchdown.
When McMahon got to the sideline, Ditka grabbed him, got in his face and said, "Tell me, what f------ play did I call?"
"Then why the f--- did you do that?"
"'Cause Willie was open."
It was not just the offense that McMahon brought to life; it was the defense too. "I've never been around another quarterback who had that kind of effect," safety Doug Plank told me. "He made everybody better, not just the receivers and tight ends but the linebackers and safeties. He'd be head-butting the guys as they went onto the field."
On the Vikings' next possession, Bears linebacker Wilber Marshall picked off a pass. A minute later, Mac was back on the field. Ditka sent in a running play. Mac saw something. He called an audible. Ditka kicked over a cooler. Mac rolled left and hit receiver Dennis McKinnon in the chest as he crossed into the end zone. Two plays, two touchdowns. Bears 23, Vikings 17.
The Vikings came apart after that, took penalties, made mistakes. Is there a moment in the movie when some of the actors realize they've been cast as the bad guys?
McMahon ran for a first down. "Gutsy little man, isn't he?" said Gifford. "Pinched nerve and all."
A few plays later, on an audible that McMahon later described as "another sandlot maneuver," he found McKinnon in the end zone again. If I had known then what I know now, I'd have quit watching sports that day. It was never going to be better.
I snapped a mental picture of McMahon in the fourth quarter. He was watching from the sideline as the final seconds ticked off on one of the great quarterback performances: seven passes, three touchdowns, 166 yards—in seven minutes. He'd taken off his helmet and fortified himself with another plug of chew. His hair was pushed back, and he looked tough, with a three-day growth of beard. You could tell that he was loved and admired, the sort of guy who would dominate even those nights when he was not around; when his name was invoked, everyone would laugh and say, "McMahon, that crazy f-----.... "
I KNOCKED ON the door. A television, which had been blaring news of an outrage on the other side of the world, was switched off. There were voices, then the door opened. A dark-haired woman shook my hand, then stepped aside, revealing a bald, medium-sized guy in his mid-50s. He looked haggard, beat up in the way of a dockworker in his 10th year of retirement. He was wearing a tank top that revealed sloped shoulders and shapeless arms, the arms of a once powerful man who, at some point, decided to take a rest and liked it. The shirt was engaged in a dialogue with itself. In big letters, it asked, GOT MILK? In smaller letters beneath, it answered, GOT POT.
He nodded at me, then smiled, revealing the plug of tobacco tucked in his lower lip. After shaking my hand, he spit in a cup. His eyes were buggy. "Come on," he said. This was my first physical contact with Jim McMahon since that meeting in the French Quarter a million years ago. On some level I probably wrote this book just to hang out with the quarterback. I followed him to an office in the back of his house. Mesquite and cactus, Weber grills, sauna and steam, sunshine all winter—Mac had forsaken Chicago a decade ago, sold his house, moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., to one of the adobe mansions that run beside the low, brown hills.
When I asked Steve Zucker what McMahon wanted from him as an agent, he said, "Jim wanted just one thing: enough money so that when he stopped playing, he'd never have to work again."
Here's how Mac described that fantasy of "nothing" in his autobiography, published when he was 26: "When I retire, maybe I can fulfill another dream. You know how Golf Digest lists the top hundred golf courses every year? I'd like to just get on a plane and play them, one after another. What a way to live."
McMahon played his last NFL season in 1996, in Green Bay, where he spent most of his time on the bench. He'd been brought in as a mentor for Brett Favre, a sort of Merlin to teach the boy king the dark magic. That's football: First you're young; then, if you're lucky, you're old; then you're gone. He made it back to the Super Bowl with the Packers that year but refused to play. "[Coach Mike Holmgren] asked if I wanted to go in, but I said no," Mac told me. "I said, 'I played in this game when it meant something. I'm not going in to mop up.'" For a time Mac hosted a golf tournament in Lake Geneva, Wis., the Barefoot Classic, at which the only requirement was that players compete without shoes. Now and then he shows up on a sports channel. In a particularly strange episode of Reel Fishing he was seen drinking all afternoon, then peeing off a boat. In 2003 he was pulled over in Navarre, Fla. He'd been weaving. If you examine the way McMahon greeted the police, it tells you everything you need to know: According to the Associated Press, McMahon told his arresting officer, "I'm too drunk. You got me."
"He was pretty well wasted," Officer Henderson agreed.
Mac and I spent two or three hours in his office, drinking beer, chewing tobacco and talking. He was wearing shorts and flip-flops. He sat in a swively desk chair. His computer glowed. His shelves of memorabilia—footballs, awards, pictures taken on red-letter days, the young McMahon covered in grime, the old McMahon posed with presidents—looked down. His dogs came in, two Doberman pinschers who ran around smelling everything and a poodle who seemed to be in charge of the operation. Mac's girlfriend refilled drinks. Her name is Laurie Navon. He had a gold hoop in his ear. He had houseguests. You could hear their happy voices in the distance, in the pool. Now and then Mac seemed impatient to rejoin the party, but mostly he had nothing but time.
At first he was unrecognizable, or nearly so, but as we talked the years fell away, and I found myself in the company of the quarterback I'd followed so zealously. This McMahon and that McMahon are the same person, after all—the same house after a hundred years in the rain, when the ivy has penetrated the tuck pointing and the broken window lets the wind wreak havoc.
We talked about Chicago and the suburbs. McMahon has four grown kids and told me how strange it was to sit in the bleachers at their games, where every eye followed him and all the fathers seemed to want something. "The parents were a pain in the ass," he told me. "Especially the hockey parents. I actually got into a couple of ... well, they weren't altercations, no punches were thrown, but words were exchanged. I'd try to sit away from everybody. They tend to mouth off. I remember when my son was 10 or 11, playing in one of those rinks where you can stand behind the goalies. There were four or five fathers beating on the glass, and I thought I saw a guy flip off the kids. Sure enough, a minute later, I see my son whack the glass—the guy is flipping him off.
"After the game my son comes out of the locker room, and I see him jawing with somebody. I look over. It's the same guy. He's about 6'3", in a business suit, glasses, buddy-buddy with his friends. I tap him on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, tough guy, what's your problem? Why are you flipping off little kids?' He says, 'I didn't flip off your son, Jim. I flipped off the other kid.' I said, 'Does that make it right, ass----? I should beat the s--- out of you right here.'
"I almost hit him but thought, No, I can't. So I asked my son, 'Do you want to kick his ass?' He said, 'Yeah,' dropped his bag, and jacked the guy in the chest, knocked him into the glass. The guy took a step toward my son. I said, 'You take one swing, pal.' He just stood there. I said, 'Yeah, that's what I thought,' turned to my boy, and said, 'Let's go.'"
I didn't know how to respond to this, so I asked about audibles. Why did he call so many audibles? Was he doing it just to drive Ditka nuts? "Nah," he said. "That was a side benefit. Truth is, there were times when our offense was just not producing. Unless you did something, it wasn't going to happen. That's why, any chance I got, I'd throw it."
"Was it fun?"
"Was what fun?"
"F--- yeah, it was fun as hell," he said, smiling. "But if you're not playing, if you're injured or backing up or whatever—that sucks."
Longform since 1954.
For a longer version of this excerpt and extra photos from throughout McMahon's career, go to SI.com/longform