THE SUPER BOWL SHUFFLE
In the winter of 1986, in a manner I won’t bother to go into, I came into possession of two tickets to Super Bowl XX. The Chicago Bears, the Monsters of the Midway, would play the New England Patriots in the Superdome in New Orleans. I was a senior in high school and this was my first great Chicago team, the Bears having last won a title in 1963, half a decade before I was born. The Chicago Cubs had last taken the World Series in 1908, when my Grandpa Morris was walking behind a mule in Poland.
I’d gotten permission to miss school to attend the game on the ruse that this would in fact be an informational visit to Tulane University with a side trip—“because I’ll be there anyway”—to the Super Bowl. But I found it impossible to secure passage. It seemed as if half the city, experiencing the once-in-a-generation delirium of victory, was heading south. Every seat on every flight was sold, as was every seat on every train. When my parents refused to let me drive, I toyed with the idea of running away, lighting out, thumbing it. At the last moment, salvation came via a woman in my mother’s office, who knew some fans who had chartered a plane—they called it “the Winged Bear”—for the trip to New Orleans. There were still a few seats in the main cabin, which is how my friend Matt Lederer and I came to leave for O’Hare airport in our Jim McMahon jerseys. I’m not sure what I expected: a Learjet with a dozen North Side business types, perhaps, or a DC-3 filled with a football-loving Boy Scout troop. We instead found ourselves seated in a tired L-1011, with a Kodiak bear painted on the tail, the rows packed with a few hundred fans of the cartoon variety: huge beer-swilling South Siders with the sort of mustaches that suggest virility. Every one of them wore either a team jersey or the type of Bears sweater-vest favored by Coach Mike Ditka. The seats were as stuffed as the knishes at Manny’s deli near Maxwell Street. Beers were distributed—Mickey’s, Budweiser, Schlitz—and the nasal voices rang with “We’re gonna murder ’em” guarantees. It was 4:00 p.m., and some of these men had been drinking for six hours.
The flight attendants, in orange-and-blue aprons, got us seated for takeoff, but the big fat men started unbuckling soon after. They wandered in the aisles, slurring and prophesying. One made his way to the lavatory as the plane was in steep ascent. It was like watching a ball roll up Mount Everest. A stewardess ordered him back to his seat. “Lady,” he said, “I’m full of sausage and beer. It’s out of the way, or a big mess.” Footballs were taken out of bags and spirals went zipping across the cabin. Several people were hit in the head midsentence or midbeer. A punt banged off an emergency-door handle. I envisioned the headline: BEERY BEARS FANS SUCKED TO TRAGIC DOOM.
Free-for-all gave way to pandemonium: three hundred Chicagoans blowing off decades of frustration. It was beautiful and terrifying. The pilot issued a warning. When this was ignored, he came out of his cockpit in the stern way of a parent but was driven back by a shower of empties. The rabble were led by a handful of guys from Bridgeport and Pullman. If you could morph their faces into a single face, it would be big and pink and filled with mischievous joy. They stood through the landing and sang as we touched down. Some fell in the aisles. If this were England, these would have been hooligans, but these were Chicagoans, too good-natured to plunder. As I exited the plane, I was not surprised to see the cops. A flight attendant whispered in the ear of a sergeant, pointing out the instigators, who were taken aside and cuffed.
The last image I had of these men was enormous backs, heaving with exertion, in Ditka and Butkus jerseys as they were led away. It burned into my retinas: to travel all the way to Jerusalem only to be taken into custody on the steps of the Temple. As a result, I approached the game through a veil of tears—the tears of drunken superfans arrested days before the coin toss. The arrested men never left my thoughts. I admired their commitment. They had come to express the nature of their city but never made it to baggage claim. They spent days in jail, the poor bastards. Who were they? The unknown tailgaters and bratwurst eaters, the mustache combers, the last of the old-timers, the aluminum-siding boys, the bungalow dwellers, the masses from the Back of the Yards, the pub rats and union goons. These were the real fans. They’d put in the years and suffered the humiliations and packed on the pounds and cursed the fates in a way that I never could, coming from a cozy North Shore suburb on the lake—Glencoe, if you’re keeping score at home.
The ’85 Bears developed a special bond with all their fans but most powerfully with the sort I had seen taken away. It was not just that they won—they went 15 and 1 in the regular season—but how they did it. With personality, style. This was the team of “The Super Bowl Shuffle”—a song released earlier that season by several of the players, it expressed their confidence in ultimate victory—and it was made of characters. Like the Beatles, there was a Bear for every sort of fan: Jim McMahon, the Punky QB, for the cocky daredevils. Walter Payton, Sweetness, the great running back, for the aficionados. William Perry, the Fridge, the gap-toothed 325-pounder, for big tall men. Dan Hampton, Danimal, the ferocious defensive tackle, for band geeks filled with secret violence. Mike Ditka, the coach who actually looked like a bear, for lovers of Patton-like rhetoric and the military boot. The offense was good but the defense was vicious: the famed 46, a concussion machine that swarmed and confused and beat other teams bloody.
They played with a gleeful excess that seemed a perfect expression of the city—its character, its toughness, its heartbreaks, its history. The riots at the Democratic Convention, the El Rukn street gang, John Belushi high on cocaine, Steve Goodman singing “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” Mayor Richard J. Daley scolding reporters (“the police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder”), Bill Murray playing golf on the par-three in Winnetka, the South Side blues bars, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, the Checkerboard Lounge, Kup’s Column, Mike Royko, Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray, the Pump Room, Second City, the lake in the summer and the lake when it’s a sheet of ice, Studs Terkel and Sid Luckman and George Halas’s T-formation—it was all captured in the style of that team. The ’85 Bears were the revenge fantasy of suffering fans, a dream of violence, sacks, and knockouts. On Sunday, the object was not merely to stop the other guys but to devour their ranks and wipe out their leaders. Now and then, when a Bear linebacker hit a quarterback just right, you could see his eyes roll back and brain shut down and inner light dim the way the lights in the pinball machine dim when hip-checked into tilt. At night, as I tried to fall asleep, I would recite the names on the roster—Butler and McMichael and Richardson and Dent—as Yeats recited the names of the heroes of the Irish Easter Uprising. Never again would I identify with a team in that way. And it was not just me. It was everyone.
* * *
Lederer and I stayed at a hotel just beyond the city limits, in Metairie. It was a dump but the best we could find. We woke late each morning, put on our jerseys, and caught a cab to the French Quarter. It was Halloween for adults, men in costume, dressed as other men, walking along Bourbon Street in packs, yammering and slugging back Hurricanes. (New Orleans is the city that turns its infrastructure-destroying nightmares into cocktails.) We stayed out from noon till 3:00 or 4:00 a.m., or, as Muddy Waters would say, “from can to can’t.” The drinking age was eighteen but no one checked. We waited in lines when we had to pee. When it was your turn, you stood with a crowd of grumbling men at your back. From balconies, the drifting crowds resembled schools of fish. The Bears fans in blue, the Patriots fans in red. When a school of Bears fans passed through a school of Patriots fans, there was a flurry in the water, a commotion of shoves and slugs.
At the end of each night, we went to the patio bar at Pat O’Brien’s, where some Bears players hung out till the wee hours, drinking with fans who’d done themselves up as their heroes. Imagine going to a party and everyone is dressed as you. The fan dressed as Dan Hampton cedes some of his manhood in the presence of the real Dan Hampton. Defensive end Steve McMichael was there, as was guard Kurt Becker and my favorite, Jim McMahon. More than just the quarterback, Mac was the spirit of the team. He was a character, a card, a flake, completely out there, utterly unique.
Most of the players were huge, far bigger than made sense. They dressed like college freshmen on their first night off campus: khakis and penny loafers as big as snowshoes, oxford shirts straining at the chest, hair slicked back with water that never dries. We got close, tried to overhear scraps of conversation. Did you hear what Mongo said to Danimal? It was a peak moment in our lives and, though we did not realize it, a peak moment for them, too. These were young gods, as vivid as the astronauts in Tom Wolfe, as free as the cowboys in John Ford, gunslingers drinking rotgut and throwing dice, but it would not last. Before long, they would fall back to our world, rejoin the masses they left behind in tenth or twelfth grade.
Late one night, I found myself standing beside McMahon. He was drunk, smiling, a plug of tobacco swelling his lower lip. He wore snakeskin boots. I was wearing Vuarnet sunglasses and chewing Skoal. One of us was wearing a McMahon jersey (#9), and it wasn’t him. McMahon turned me like a ballerina, read his name on my back, laughed and said, “Fuckin’ A.” He had a look I never fancied—pug-nosed and lazy-eyed with sandy hair, like one of the ragged soldiers in the gang wars of old New York—but in those days my room was filled with pictures of McMahon. He’s the reason I chewed tobacco. He’s the reason I wore a headband at the gym. I wanted to carry myself with the confidence of the QB. I wanted to scamper into the end zone a step ahead of the tacklers. That morning, as I walked along Royal Street in my jersey with my half-mullet and chew, a drunk called out, “Hey, look! It’s McMahon. Hey, Mac! We know it’s you!” I suppose this person was mocking me, but that’s not how it felt.
* * *
We got to the Superdome an hour before kickoff. We were seated at the 20-yard line. The stadium was a simulacrum of Chicago: different sections represented different city blocks or neighborhoods. We wandered through the stands, chatting with the toughs from the West Side wards and the kids from the South Shore, glad-handing like politicians, aware that, somewhere far below, the Bears were putting on tape and injecting painkillers and swallowing greenies. Ditka called his team in for a prayer. Football coaches lead their men in prayer for the same reason God is on the mind of army grunts: because no one knows when the hammer will strike steel. A great player in his own era, a hell-raiser and late-night carouser, Ditka found religion in Dallas, under the tutelage of Cowboys coach Tom Landry. Ditka was a believer, yet there was always something a little odd about his speeches and his homilies. When he went for the spiritual, he came off like a big man in a tiny coat. “All right,” he said, taking a knee, “let’s have the Lord’s Prayer: Heavenly Father, we are grateful for the opportunity and we thank you for the talents you have given us, the chance to prove that we are the very best. Father, we ask you to give us the courage and the commitment to use these talents to the best of our ability so that we may give the glory back to you. Father, we ask that you may protect all the players in the game so they may play the game free from injury. We pray, as always, in the name of Jesus Christ your son, our Lord, Amen.”
Now let’s go kick ass!
In my mind, the Bears defense was dominant every play of the Super Bowl. That’s memory: it takes a signature moment and makes it everything. But going back and watching the DVD, I realized it was more complicated. The defense operated in the way of a heavyweight boxer, using the first few minutes of the game to feel out the Patriots for weaknesses, setting them up for the blow that would break their will. It came halfway through the first quarter: Hampton and Dent busted through the Patriots’ line, Hampton on the left, Dent on the right. These men had not been blocked: they were what Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan called “free runners,” meaning they hit the New England quarterback Tony Eason going full speed. He danced like an electrified wire, fell to his knees, then fell on his face. “He was a deer in the headlights,” McMichael said later. “He was looking at me, Hampton, and Dent, and his eyes were saying, ‘They’re fixing to kill me.’”
Eason completed no passes that day; he was sacked three times and was pulled from the game. It was the worst performance by any quarterback in Super Bowl history. McMahon ran for two touchdowns, passed for another. The final score was 46–10, which makes it sound closer than it was. I stayed in the stadium long after the game. “The Super Bowl Shuffle” was being played over and over again on the scoreboard screen. When you get old, you mock the passions of your youth: you mock Peter Frampton, you mock bolo ties, you mock Arthur Fonzarelli. But I will never mock “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” It was a song and a video released by several Bears, the proceeds going to charity; it opened with Payton rapping: “And we’re not doin’ this because we’re greedy, the Bears are doin’ it to feed the needy.” Long after Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan had been carried off the field, I stayed in the stands, my arms around total strangers, singing at the top of my ecstatic being. As I screamed the last verse, I had a moment of clarity. So this is why people suffer through mediocre season after mediocre season, I thought. So this is what’s on the other side of all that losing. It’s not just the victory. It’s being among the winners, sinking the humdrum concerns of your life into a raucous crowd, being welcomed by the mob.
I’ve been an oddball all my life. I have often felt separate and alone. Standing in that crush in the Superdome was the first time I experienced total acceptance. At that moment, I knew Bears fans all over the world were feeling the exact same way. It’s what the doughboys must have experienced on Armistice Day.
A friend of mine describes sports as “the most important unimportant thing in America.” No one starves, no borders are redrawn, no populations are exchanged. But I disagree. I think sports have gone over the top in this country, have ascended into the stratosphere of things that really matter. Pinocchio has become a boy; the shark has entered the lagoon. Your team is a nation and on game day your nation is at war. That’s what my father understood when he tried to dissuade me from following the Cubs. He believed that a Cubs fan will come to accept defeat as the inevitable end of all earthly endeavors. A Cubs fan is fatalistic: he rends his garments and cries, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity! The ultimate implication of my father’s words was left unstated: a Cubs fan has a greater likelihood of leading an unfulfilled life. Pick your team carefully, because your team is your destiny.
In the summer of 1986, I got a job driving a van filled with mentally and physically handicapped adults. I could never get the wheelchairs properly secured. By the end of each ride, half those poor suffering souls had slid to the back, where their milky eyes peered out the rear windows. One morning, I was pulled over for racing. The cop did the slow walk. “What did you think you were doing?” he asked.
“Speeding up to avoid an accident,” I told him.
He looked me over: sunglasses, chewing tobacco, football jersey—number 9.
He said, “Jim McMahon would be ashamed.”
I said, “You’re gonna give me a lecture or you’re gonna give me a ticket, but you’re not giving me both.”
He said, “Who do you think you are?”
“What do you mean?” I said. “I’m a Bears fan.”
Copyright © 2013 by Rich Cohen