The Bears at 100: Cheers and a Few Tears
ROSEMONT, Ill — Jim McMahon still exudes cool, oozes it effortlessly. The former Bears quarterback sauntered down the Orange Carpet in shiny black sunglasses, sporting one small hoop earring and a vintage “Mike Ditka Celebrity Golf Tournament” shirt. Aside from his shiny bald head, it could have been 1985. The “punky QB” has not yet kicked his habit of chewing tobacco while giving interviews, and he gestured with his spittoon as he greeted old teammates scattered throughout the ballroom. There was defensive end Richard Dent. And safety Gary Fencik, who was in the middle of a hands-on demonstration of Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense with two reporters. “So I would give you this signal and you might say, oh, I know I can really cover him and I can jam him,” Fencik said. “It was like a pitcher and catcher and you’d give me a signal ... ”
There was linebacker Mike Singletary, in his gold jacket and glasses. Defensive tackle Steve McMichael crossed the orange carpet shortly after McMahon.
“What’s up buddy?” McMahon yelled to Fencik, his old safety.
“I got you baby!” Richard Dent shouted to McMichael.
“Hey Richard, I’m gonna throw a block on Mike Singletary so all these years later he can actually see what it really feels like to take on a block!” McMichael broadcasted back to Dent. Singletary chuckled.
Thirty-four years later, the ’85 Bears are boisterous as ever, but they represented just a decade of history gathered at the convention center in this northwest suburb of Chicago, hard by O’Hare, for the team’s official celebration of its 100th season.
Dent, wearing his gold jacket, was deep in discussion with another Hall of Famer, middle linebacker Dick Butkus. Ditka, the coach of that ’85 Super Bowl team, chomped on his gum and chatted with tackle Bob Wetoska, his old teammate from the Bears’ 1963 NFL championship team.
Khalil Mack, the star outside linebacker on the current team, high-fived fans lined up on the other side of the carpet before heading to the Blue Room, where 197 Bears players from the 1950s to today gathered to take the stage and kick off the weekend.
This year the NFL celebrates its 100th season, but only two franchises remain from the league’s original season, the Bears and Cardinals (born in Chicago, moved to St. Louis and now residing in Arizona; the Packers were independent until 1921.). This year’s three-day celebration constituted largest gathering of Chicago Bears ever. The convention featured panels with groups of players, personnel staff and coaches, autograph signings and all 28 of the Bears’ Hall of Fame busts on display outside of Canton for the first time. The busts were packed in double-thick boxes and surrounded with bubble wrap and then placed in a nondescript truck to make the eight-hour drive from Canton so as to not call attention to their value. Once the bronzed Bears Hall of Famers arrived, they were unpacked and lined up in chronological order.
More than 9,000 tickets were sold to fans, and the line for Friday’s opening ceremonies extended several blocks down the road. Perhaps fortunately for the turnout, the Bears’ 100th season follows a year in which the team went from worst to first and made the playoffs for the first time since 2010, under the direction of Matt Nagy, who was named Coach of the Year in his rookie campaign.
In a panel on Sunday, 96-year-old team matriarch Virginia McCaskey talked about Nagy’s lighthearted coaching style, comparing it to the serious style of her father, George Halas, the Bears founder and longtime coach. “All through the season,” she said, “it was very serious work and very concentrated situations. There are those pictures of him in the locker rooms after the various championships. And I love them. But our present-day coach has made each game and each week a possible celebration. And I think that is a very excellent difference.”
Nostalgia ran high on opening night with the introduction of the players by decade, starting with the 1950s. The crowd erupted at the highlights of Walter Payton. Electrifying return man Devin Hester bounded onto the stage dancing to Soulja Boy’s “Crank That,” his own entrance song during his career in Chicago. Cornerback Charles Tillman filmed the crowd on his iPhone as they chanted “PEA-NUT, PEA-NUT!” The crowd reserved its boos for a clip of quarterback Jay Cutler, who was invited but did not attend.
But as with any large gathering of retired NFL players, the celebration was not without a layer of sadness. The toll of the sport is visible and tangible in the alumni’s slow gaits and limps, and canes and wheelchairs. McMahon, who has suffered from memory loss and severe headaches, frequently rubbed his neck and turned it side to side to get comfortable. The most emotional moment came during the recognition of the six Hall of Famers in attendance. Running back Gale Sayers was wheeled onto the stage to thunderous applause. The 76-year-old Bears legend is suffering from severe dementia. His wife, Ardie, told The Athletic that he doesn’t speak or walk much anymore, and he can no longer write. He’s down to about 130 pounds and unrecognizably frail. The trip to the convention was difficult, but Ardie was hoping that the reunion weekend would jog his memory, and maybe stir something in him. As the crowd stood and cheered, Sayers looked out into the audience and then bowed his head to wipe his eye.
Immediately afterward, the entire coaching staff (all the way down to quality control guys) and current 90-man roster was introduced. Undrafted free agents were visibly uncomfortable as they walked across the stage, perhaps thinking about the fact that at least 37 of the players announced won’t make the final 2019 roster. Fans actually cackled when kicker Chris Blewitt’s name was called. He laughed and took it in stride. Blewitt is one of three kickers competing for maybe the most wide-open job on this year’s roster. Earlier on the orange carpet, McMichael had offered some helpful advice to the personnel staff: “They better find a kicker.”
Cornerback Kyle Fuller came out last, dressed in the new Bears throwback uniforms for the coming season—a stripey replica of the 1936 team’s jersey. The current team then burst out in a Club Dub-style party on stage, and for the first time the fans joined in on the Bears’ 2018 tradition of celebrating each win with a locker room dance party, a disco ball providing colorful lighting.
On Saturday morning, McMahon and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky joined forces for a panel on quarterbacking the Bears. The two had never met, and McMahon began the conversation by handing Trubisky a white headband and a pair of black sunglasses to complete McMahon’s signature look. McMahon was notorious for rebelling against the league’s strict uniform rules, and getting fined. He’d write phrases in Sharpie on his white headband, like ROZELLE, for NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Trubisky wore the white headband and shades for the rest of the hour.
McMahon regaled the crowd with stories of defying Ditka’s play calling in the early ’80s. “[Ditka] was sending in plays even you knew wouldn’t work,” McMahon said to offensive lineman Tom Thayer, his former teammate, who hosted the conversation with Bears play-by-play voice Jeff Joniak. “I kept telling him, we don’t need to run into a brick wall all day long. Walter [Payton] was a helluva receiver too. We could’ve used him a lot more out of the backfield, which I tried to do for years. We started doing that in 1984, 1985 when we were rolling.”
Joniak then asked 24-year-old Trubisky if he ever audibles Nagy’s plays. “Yeah, I don’t think I’m there yet,” the 2017 first-rounder said. “I’m not going to change Coach Nagy’s plays. He calls pretty good plays. Coach Nagy thinks exactly like how Jim and I do. We think like a quarterback.”
Watching these two quarterbacks go back and forth, you couldn’t help but imagine what form the panel would have taken if Cutler had turned up. It certainly would have made for an intriguing panel, three generations of Bears QBs—and an airing of grievances between Bears fans and Cutler might have brought out an even bigger crowd.
But warm thoughts were the order of the day. At a panel on the ’85 Bears, the most recent title team and still front-and-center in fans’ minds (even those born after ’85), William Perry, now confined to a wheelchair, rapped his verse from the “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” On a linebackers panel, Butkus and Singletary traded technique; elsewhere current director of player personnel Josh Lucas, assistant director of player personnel Champ Kelly and director of college scouting Mark Sadowski, detailed the process of trading for Mack last summer. “As soon as we got to Bourbonnais, we start loosely talking about it,” Lucas said. “It all changed the Thursday night of our final preseason game versus Buffalo. We were home … I got up [to the box] about 50 minutes before kickoff. No one was in the box. I immediately, I was like, ‘Oh, something’s going down.’”
On Sunday, Virginia McCaskey spoke to fans and stole hearts with her enthusiasm and candor. “This weekend,” McCaskey said, “has been like a happy dream that just keeps going on and on. You wonder how many more wonderful people will be showing up, and you see how many people are saying thank you.”
The 2019 Bears are poised to build off of last season, and the momentum coinciding with the franchise’s 100th season couldn’t be more perfectly timed.
And the fans are buying in, too. Overheard in the audience during the opening ceremonies:
“I have goosebumps!”
“Honestly, this is the team.”
“I’m so hyped for this season.”
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