Fifteen years ago, Sweetness, Samurai,Iron Mike, the Fridge and a comic book’s worth of superheroes roared out of Chicago, taking the NFL by storm. By the time, the season was over, they had shuffled their way to the Super Bowl. Reliving that glorious season, the Bears wonder, "Why didn’t we ever win it all again?"
by Andrew Santella
GQ, October 2000
Everything about the 1985 Chicago Bears was oversized. Start with the Bears' first-round draft pick that year: a 330-pound defensive-tackle-turned-fullback-turned-pop-sensation named William "the Refrigerator" Perry. Equally enormous were the blowouts the Bears registered: a 44-0 rout of the Cowboys, back-to-back playoff shutouts of the Giants and Rams, a record-setting laugher in the Super Bowl against the Patriots. Then there was the Bears' ample collective ego, made manifest in the "Super Bowl Shuffle," the seminal sports-to-music crossover that has inspired so many imitations. But biggest of all may be the lingering disappointment, the sense of missed opportunity, many of the Bears still harbor: With all that talent, they wonder, how in the world did we manage just one championship?
Gary Fencik: Mike Ditka was the first head coach I had ever had in the NFL that had stated the goals of the organization. (When he took over in 1982), he said our goal is not only to win the NFC Central Division; our goal is not only to win the NFC; our goal is not only to get to the Super Bowl; but it's to win the Super Bowl. And then he said, "Half of you won't be there when we get there."
Mike Ditka: I tried to convince them that we weren't just capable of winning a Super Bowl, we were worthy of winning a Super Bowl.
Dave Duerson: The making of the '85 team all took place in '84. We got in a nasty fight with the Raiders that year and that kind of set the tone. We won the game and we also won the fight. And, you know, we took on a different attitude.
Dan Hampton: We were probably more reckless and aggressive in '84 than we were in '85.
Matt Suhey: Then we walk on the field in San Francisco (in the NFC championship game) and, my God, the pressure was just, wow.
Jay Hilgenberg: They spanked us good that game.
Duerson: They beat us 23-0, they kicked our butts and embarrassed us. They played at a level we'd never seen before. We were completely caught off guard at the speed at which the playoffs were played.
Ditka: They put a lineman (Guy McIntire) in the backfield against us to block at the end of the game. I forgive very easily, I just don't forget. But I knew after that game that I made a commitment personally and they made a commitment personally that we were gonna kick their ass next time we played them, period. That's what I explained to them and that's the way it had to be.
Steve Fuller: That game was the impetus for an offseason program unlike any I'd seen. Everybody had a poor taste in their mouth about how we played. Guys that you never saw working out in March or in late February were in the gym every day.
Already possessing the league's best defense, the Bears used their first-round pick in the 1985 draft on defensive tackle William Perry of Clemson. Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who thought the team needed another cornerback, called Perry "a wasted draft choice."
Buddy Ryan: He was a good kid, but he wasn't a very good football player. He could have gone in the fourth round.
Ditka: I thought he was a good football player in every sense. I thought he was one of the better athletes I'd seen and at the time he was an exceptionally big man. He had great quickness, great explosion. He could dunk a basketball.
Ryan: He could dunk the basketball, but he couldn't run down the court twice.
Perry: Buddy just didn't care for no rookies.
Hampton: The thing about it was the hype of the Refrigerator. We got the No. 1 defense in the league and we draft this guy and the media wants to build it up like he's the savior. Save what? We're No. 1. Whatcha gonna do? Anyone that's 350 pounds isn't gonna overwhelm you with work ethic. But the thing was, Fridge had an amazing amount of natural ability, he was a good guy, he took the ribbing and obviously we accommodated him and grew to really, really love the guy.
Hilgenberg: I was happy he was on the Bears so I wouldn't have to play against him in games.
In the third game of the season, a Thursday night game, the injured Jim McMahon replaced Steve Fuller at quarterback in the third quarter and rallied the Bears to a 33-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
Jim McMahon: I was in the hospital Monday and Tuesday (with a back injury) and got out Wednesday. I went to practice Wednesday and just kind of sat in the stands with the guys from ABC because Joe Namath was there. And Ditka got (bleeped) off because he thought I wasn't watching practice, I guess. So he told me I wasn't gonna play.
Ditka: He just could not throw the ball during the week.
McMahon: I wasn't planning on playing, but I went out and did my usual pregame stuff and all of a sudden I started feeling pretty good. I don't know if it was adrenaline or what. Sometimes a lot of pain goes away on game day. But during the warmups I was throwing the ball real well and I went up to Ditka and I said, "If you need me tonight, I'm ready."
Ditka: We thought we could play the other way, but we didn't do very well. Of course, he was begging to get in the game the whole game and driving me nuts.
McMahon: I could see it was slipping away. They were doing everything right and we couldn't do anything. I'm convinced to this day that he only put me in the game because he got tired of me chewing his ass out.
Hilgenberg: It was unbelievable what happened next.
McMahon: Finally, he put me in and sent me over the play and it was a screen pass. Minnesota, knowing I'd been hurt, blitzed me the first play. And I come away from the center stumbling a little.
Tom Thayer: Walter (Payton) picked up the blitzing linebacker, knocked the (bleep) out of him. If Walter doesn't make that hit, Jim might have gotten hurt on that play. Walter stood up there and knocked the dog out of him and allowed Jim to make the completion.
McMahon: I looked up and Willie (Gault) was 10 yards behind his guy, so I threw it to him. And he ran under it. Touchdown. Everybody was going nuts and I come off the field and Ditka's (bleeped) off. He says, "What play did you call?" I said, "I called the damn screen pass." He says, "Well, why'd you throw it to Willie?" "Because he was open."
Fuller: Literally, I can remember hundreds of times that year where Jim would walk off the field and Mike would come over and they would literally curse at each other, you know, 30, 35, 40 seconds.
McMahon: He thought he was an offensive coordinator, which he's not.
Fuller: If you look at Mike's history with quarterbacks, you know, don't feel special because he's yelling at you, because he yelled at everybody at that position anyway.
Ditka: I guess in about three-and-a-half minutes, he threw two more (touchdown passes).
McMahon: We got a quick turnover and the next play was designed to be a bootleg pass. The safety jumped the tight end and Dennis (McKinnon) got in behind him and we were two for two. And it should have been three for three. The next play, I saw Willie was gonna beat his man and I threw it to him and bounced it off his head. But as it ended up, I hit Dennis a few plays later on another broken play. That kind of sealed the game.
Ditka: That was the game that really made them believe in themselves a lot more offensively.
Suhey: Jim let it hang out. I mean, Fuller was extremely capable in doing the offense, but McMahon took chances. And for the most part, he was successful.
Three weeks later, the Bears avenged the previous years' season-ending loss to the 49ers, beating San Francisco 26-10. Ditka completed the payback by inserting Perry in the offensive backfield for the game's final two plays and twice calling "34 dive straight." Perry carried both times, picking up two yards on each. They were his biggest rushing gains of the season, and they launched a new phenomenon.
Perry: They asked me to run the ball and block and I said, "Yeah." We started the plays on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. It was fine with me, because at that time I was a rookie and the only thing I was doing was on special teams. I wasn't starting on defense yet, so it was just something to be on the team.
Hampton: We put him on offense during the week in practice and we thought it was hysterical.
McMahon: My biggest problem was trying to get my hands and arms out of his when he tried to grab the ball. It's tough to explain to him, you don't grab the ball, I'll put it there. But he saw the ball and he wanted to grab it and everything that was around it. Nearly pulled my arms off a few times.
Ditka: When we got the lead, I put Perry in the backfield and ran him with the ball. And that's where it started.
McMahon: Ditka was just getting back at (49ers coach Bill) Walsh and then all of a sudden it became a pretty good play, because trying to stop him was not fun. Just ask the guys he hit.
Hampton: They put him in the game, it was almost like you could see a magical baton go from their sideline over to ours. It was a transformation. They knew and we knew they were no longer king of the hill. We were.
Ditka: And then in the meetings, we'd say, "Well, if he can block for a touchdown and run for a touchdown, then we'll let him catch a pass for a touchdown." We had a play in where he threw the ball, we thought we could throw a pass for a touchdown. It was something that kind of unified our team. We worked on the goal line in practice and the guys said, "This is gonna be good."
The next week, on Monday Night Football against the Green Bay Packers, Perry lined up at fullback on four goal-line plays, scoring a touchdown and opening big holes on two Payton touchdown carries. The performance turned Perry into a national celebrity. He did commercials for appropriately gastronomic products -- hamburgers, bacon, macaroni and cheese -- and before the season ended he was on the cover of Time magazine.
Hampton: The dynamic of Fridge playing offense, running over George Cumby (of Green Bay) on Monday night, all those things built the lore of the Bears. We were bigger than life and Fridge had a lot to do with that, with his offensive performances. I've seen a lot of damn car wrecks. I've seen a lot of mayhem in my life. Watch him hit George Cumby. Players respect (stuff) like that.
Duerson: That year was really the beginning of professional athletes' taking over the world of endorsements, and Fridge was at the forefront of that. For a rookie to get hype, that was unheard of. You know, hype was for All-Pros, perennial All-Pros. So you know, that was different for a lot of us, particularly those first couple of weeks when the hype came about. As you can imagine, there were some veterans that did a little grumbling.
Fuller: I guarantee you, if you took the whole roster and picked a guy that would probably least likely want the kind of attention that was coming his way, it might have been William.
Duerson: But shortly thereafter, there was enough for everybody.
Hilgenberg: When we traveled, it was almost like we were a rock band or something, the way you see the Beatles, you know, with the crowds.
Duerson: Bear mania just caught the imagination of the entire country. There'd be some 300, 500 fans inside the hotel to greet us everywhere we went. And as the season went on, those numbers grew.
Fuller: With Walter and Jim McMahon, with Mike Singletary, with Perry, with Hampton, strong personalities and great players, when the attention started coming, they got most of it, and deservedly so. But the unusual thing was, the next tier of guys, the journeyman players or good everyday players started (getting attention). When Jim began doing Taco Bell, there was a local opportunity for someone else to fill in. You know, William started doing national ads and the second tier of guys were now assuming a role they had never seen before and never would again. And probably on any other team, your best bet is an autograph on Tuesday morning at the hardware store.
Hilgenberg: Everybody was doing promotional appearances. The offensive line did that poster, the Black and Blues Brothers. It was like a Hollywood team.
In mid-November, the Bears won their 11th game without a defeat, beating the Dallas Cowboys 44-0.
Ditka: I didn't like that. I never felt good about the score of that game. The Dallas organization had always meant a lot to me. Tom Landry was my mentor, my friend. They couldn't do a thing that was right that day and we couldn't do anything that was wrong.
Mike Singletary: The thing for us was, we wanted to send a message. We hadn't beaten Dallas and they were America's team. And we wanted to be America's team.
Hampton: When Ditka showed up in Chicago, you know he comes from (coaching in) Dallas and he would say, "Dallas this and Dallas that." We were so sick, sick, sick of Dallas. We had played down there in the preseason and we got into a bunch of fights. So I said, let me tell you something, when we come back here in November, that little cart that carries people off the field, you better get that sonofabitch with a full tank of gas because we're gonna be ready.
Thayer: If Dallas had had three or four more quarterbacks, they would have had to use them, because our defense was hurting their quarterbacks and they would come out for a few plays and then have to come back in.
Fuller: I've never seen situations where guys were physically beaten up like quarterbacks were that year. It was an incredible amount of times that the guy did not finish the game.
Duerson: The way we whupped up on the Cowboys, it just basically spelled doom for anyone who would have stepped on the field with us.
Hampton: That cart, it got used all day.
In the season's 13th week, the Bears suffered their only loss, 38-24, at Miami, on a Monday night.
Singletary: Man, we were going to go on Monday Night Football and knock Marino out and everything else. We were cocky.
Hampton: We've been practicing in snow for two or three weeks, we fly down on a plane, get on an air-conditioned bus to go to the hotel; of course, we don't leave the air-conditioned hotel. And the first time we hit the heat was that night, pregame, and I about fainted.
Thayer: All of a sudden it's 80 degrees out. A group of us got to the stadium early that day, we're on the field playing football and running long pass routes and catching the ball. I think we got so tired before the game that by the time the game actually started, we had a hard time playing.
Hilgenberg: They whipped us pretty good. That first half everything just fell apart. We had a punt blocked for a touchdown.
Singletary: You knock the snot out of Marino, you're looking for a pick, it bounces off a guy's head, (Mark) Duper gets the ball and he runs for a touchdown.
Hampton: McMahon was down again and we go in there with Steve Fuller, who I love, but we've got the No. 1 running game in football and they've got the No. 28 run defense in the league and so Ditka starts the game by calling six passes, which I mean, honestly, does that make any sense? Oh, he's really gonna throw them off.
Ryan: That was right before the Pro Bowl voting and everyone was playing their own game, trying to be a hero and get to the Pro Bowl.
Duerson: What cost us the game, you know, was Ditka was involved on the defensive side where he should not have been. He was pulling starters out of the game and putting in reserves and he and Buddy got in a rather ugly little fistfight at halftime.
Ryan: We didn't have any confrontation. I don't know where that came from. Mr. Halas hired me to coach the defense and him to coach the offense.
Fencik: Everybody was witness to it. The Orange Bowl doesn't have very large locker rooms, it's a crowded area and Buddy, I know, was visibly upset that we had not been coordinated on defense and I think Ditka threw some gas on the flames and they had words. Everybody was (bleeped) off, players were mad, coaches were mad and you've got 70 really emotionally charged people and your adrenaline's very high. The fact of the matter is everybody is always yelling at everybody because you've got 70,000 people yelling at you. There's no such thing as hushed whispers in the NFL.
Duerson: It was a weak fight. There weren't any exploding blows. I mean, they fought more like cats than dogs.
Ditka: It was no big deal. It hurt to see us not doing well in a national TV game like that. We had a few words. We've had other words and we've had a lot of good words, too, when we had a beer or two or a drink.
Duerson: Quite simply, Mike Ditka wanted to prove to Buddy Ryan that it was his football team. Ditka had no intentions of winning that ballgame. He was making a statement to Buddy that it was his team.
Singletary: (Ditka and Ryan) hate when I say this, but they never understood how much they needed each other. To this day, they won't admit it, but they needed each other. You're talking about two of the greatest coaches of all times and they never got the credit for it because they couldn't put aside their differences to become one.
Fencik: I know a lot of people say, "Well, if you could have won that game, you would have been undefeated." But I look at it quite differently. That game served as a wake-up call that one bad game could keep you from reaching your goal. The loss didn't stop 10 of the Bears from taping, just hours later, the video for a song called "The Super Bowl Shuffle."
Thayer: Consider this. The very next morning, they made the "Super Bowl Shuffle." So it certainly didn't hurt the confidence level of the majority of the players on the team.
Hampton: I said, "How pompous is this? We're talking about the Super Bowl and we've never been?"
Fencik: Every month, every week of my life, I get grief about the "Super Bowl Shuffle."
Ditka: I didn't know too much about it. I said, do whatever you want. But they said a video, I didn't know it was going to be called the "Super Bowl Shuffle." So when I saw it, I said, well, that's just fuel for the other team. The irony of it was, it worked out. We did win the Super Bowl. If we didn't, people would've said, "That's what caused them not to win." Well, maybe this is what caused them to win. Because you've got to have a little bit of ego in this business.
Fencik: I really think "The Super Bowl Shuffle" was like rap before rap. We were like the predecessors of rap. Somebody told me we were up for a Grammy; they wanted us to do "The Super Bowl Shuffle." I was like, you've got to be kidding me. But what it started is fairly commonplace today, to go across different mediums. I think we were one of the first.
Hilgenberg: I figured we better win the Super Bowl now or we're gonna look like jerks. The Bears became the only team to shut out consecutive playoff opponents in the same year, beating the New York Giants 21-0 and the Los Angeles Rams 24-0.
Ditka: Look at the two teams we shut out and it's pretty hard to believe that you could do that. But we did it. Everything Buddy was doing was right and they believed in it totally and they just went out there and were relentless.
Thayer: Sunday mornings, our locker room, it was like a shook-up bottle of champagne ready to blow. It's the most confident before a game in a locker room that I've ever been in my life, just knowing that every game we went out there, we were gonna win.
Ditka: I can still see Singletary going over the top and hitting (Eric) Dickerson for no gain.
Fuller: When the two came together, Eric went backward and went backward with wobbly legs. It was a statement.
Hampton: We used to dog Singletary, "Don't let him drag you for a first down, OK?" And when he hit Dickerson, whacked him in the hole, we were like, all right, all cylinders clicking.
Fencik: To win the NFC Championship Game in Chicago, when Wilber Marhall picked up that fumble and it was snowing and we knew we were going to the Super Bowl. It was a great collective moment. We were hugging, we were happy, but we knew we had one more game.
Hampton: We all wanted to play Miami again.
Ditka: Who's to say, if we'd played the Dolphins again, they might have beaten us again. I thought that wouldn't happen. But our defense was relentless. They weren't going to let it happen.
The Bears went to New Orleans to play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, and the spotlight on the team intensified. McMahon, in particular, attracted attention. He feuded with the league office about fines for unauthorized advertising on his headbands. (In response to the fines, he wore one in the NFC Championship Game that read ROZELLE, and in the Super Bowl he wore a series that advertised the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, the POW/MIA cause and an old college buddy.) He imported an acupuncture specialist to treat his injured backside. He mooned a helicopter. And a New Orleans sportscaster erroneously reported that McMahon had defamed the people of New Orleans. A record number of TV viewers would watch the Super Bowl. But behind the scenes, the Bears already were dealing with a decision that would change the team forever.
Duerson: The night before the Super Bowl, we walk into our meeting room, Buddy Ryan gets up and tells us all he loves us, how proud he is and he starts crying.
Hampton: He said, "No matter what happens tomorrow, you guys will always be my heroes." And we knew exactly what that meant, he was going to Philadelphia, it was his last time ever. So he walks out, and we start watching another reel of film. After about three plays, I couldn't stand it. I got up and kicked the projector over and (Steve) McMichael grabbed the chair and throws it at the chalkboard.
Duerson: One leg pierced the board. And Hampton said, "Well, I guess that's it." We all got up and we walked out. Our meeting lasted five minutes. And we were walking by the offensive players' meeting room, the door was open, and they were in shock. We were done.
Hampton: I went to the bar and had a beer with (actor and Chicagoan) Bill Murray and went to bed. We knew exactly what we had to do all year and we just took care of business.
Singletary: I was the last one (Ryan) let know he was leaving. Gary Fencik came in and sat next to me and I was watching film and he said, "Wow, man, I can't believe Buddy's leaving."
Fencik: Singletary was classic wide-eyed. I realized then that Mike didn't know.
Singletary: I was clueless. It was like Mom and Dad getting a divorce. It broke my heart and I didn't want to talk to him, see him. I had somebody to play for. Playing football is one thing, but when you have somebody to play for, somebody you'd die for, that's when the good stuff happens.
Fuller: Let's put it this way. Less distraction has brought down teams better than we had that year.
McMahon: I was getting death threats at the hotel. Supposedly, I'd done a radio show and said the women of New Orleans were sluts and the men were stupid. No one would stand next to me at practice. There were apartments overlooking the complex and I had to change my number, pretend I was a kicker hanging down at the end of the field. As I was walking back to the Bears' hotel on Saturday, there were fire engines and police cars and there was a bomb threat at our hotel. I thought they'd blown up my roommate. The game was secondary. I just wanted to get out of town alive.
Ditka: We started off the game against the Patriots uptight anyway. We called a running play with the wrong formation in the first series and Walter (Payton) gets hit before he gets the ball. We fumbled.
Thayer: So now if it goes 7-0 and they get some kind of weird confidence boost, it's a different game. But because they held 'em to a field goal, it was 3-0 and then we went on to score 46 unanswered points.
Duerson: If not for the fact that they were already in scoring range, it would have been a shutout. We would not have put our reserves in the game and not allowed the Patriots to score.
Hampton: (Patriots quarterback Tony) Eason was scared to death. I saw this guy in an interview and I said, "Look at his eyes, he's scared to death." And when we walked out there, sure he was scared. Maybe he's a smart guy.
McMahon: New England's only goal that week was to stop Walter Payton and they did a pretty good job of it. But they forgot about everyone else. That's why our play-action passes got big yards, that's why Matt Suhey was able to run for yardage. All we had to do was fake it to Wally and they were going after him.
Duerson: We were at our best on Super Bowl Sunday.
Hampton: I remember being on the sideline and the Jumbotron was playing the "Super Bowl Shuffle" and I remember thinking, "Damn, I should have done that."
As the clock wound down on the Bears' 46-10 victory, a group of defensive players approached team president Michael McCaskey on the sidelines.
Hampton: We went to talk to him about Buddy Ryan. I grabbed him by the neck and I said, "You keep him here and we'll win two or three more Super Bowls." And he said some stupid stuff: (imitating McCaskey) "Well, we're presently talking with him."
The Bears returned to Chicago for a ticker-tape parade. But a national tragedy kept the team from making the customary champions' visit to the White House.
Hilgenberg: The next day is when the space shuttle blew up. That ended the whole hoopla. We never got invited to the White House.
McMahon: We figured we'd be back a few more times. In '85, we were the youngest team in the league.
Hilgenberg: We should have been back. I remember meeting Joe Greene at a banquet a couple years after that and he said, "You know, you can't let an opportunity like that slip by." And we definitely did. I always said when we got our Super Bowl ring that I would never wear this one until we win another Super Bowl. So I never wear my ring.
Ditka: The great football teams that can repeat are really remarkable. We weren't able to do that. And we had the players to do that. But things have to roll your way and they didn't roll our way at the end of the '86 season. If they had rolled our way, we might have repeated and repeated a couple times and not changed so many people over the years.
Ryan: I don't know (what happened). I left. Maybe that had something to do with it.
Thayer: I think we're all guilty. I think the success we achieved in that Super Bowl season and because of the gratitude of the city of Chicago and how popular everyone became, there were so many distractions during the offseason, I don't think any of us prepared ourselves the way we should have.
Hampton: Say what you want about the Steelers, they got it done. Even the Cowboys, a bunch of convicts down there in the early 90s, hell, they got it done. Shame on us. Shame on every one of us. We're all a bunch of punks because we didn't win another one.