The 1985 Chicago Bears were a perfect mix of fierceness and flash. Relentless, especially on defence, the Bears were also expert entertainers, as proven by their Grammy Award-nominated Super Bowl Shuffle performance. They could make you laugh at their lack of rhythm on MTV one day, and then make you cry when they pummelled your favourite team the next. Few pro teams have come close to matching their swagger. And the Bears backed it up, going 15-1 that season before embarrassing the New England Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl.
In the quarter-century since that lopsided title game, the greatest football team of all time has suffered tragedy and misadventures of a similarly epic scale. The first tragic blow struck in 1999, when Walter Payton, Chicago’s Hall of Fame running back, died of bile duct cancer at 45. Last month, it was revealed that fan favourite William “the Refrigerator” Perry, then a 320-lb. lineman, is now, at 48, stricken with a rare autoimmune disease and barely able to move from the chair in his living room. And just three weeks ago, Dave Duerson, the Bears’ Pro Bowl safety, killed himself. In a suicide note, he described vision problems and pain in the left side of his brain. So as to ensure his brain could be donated to science for concussion research, Duerson put a bullet in his heart.
Duerson is one of 300 athletes—half of them football players—to have pledged their brains to Boston University’s Sports Legacy Institute, which studies the long-term effects of sports-related head trauma. Jim McMahon, the team’s cocky quarterback, is another. Last fall, McMahon went public with his struggle to remember things, a result, he said, of taking too many hits to the helmet. “My memory’s pretty much gone,” the 51-year-old told the Chicago Tribune. “There are a lot of times when I walk into a room and forget why I walked in there.” (For fans, what’s impossible to forget is his similarly disheartening role as a spokesman for MVP, an erectile dysfunction drug. In ads for the pill, which promises to increase stamina and size, McMahon says it can “make you a champion in the bedroom!”)
Physical pain is a constant for many of the former greats. McMahon has been on the operating table 19 times. Meanwhile, Wilber Marshall, a linebacker who was counted on to deliver bone-crushing hits, has spent most of his retirement battling the NFL for disability benefits. Marshall reportedly needs several surgeries, including a spine fusion and two knee replacements.
But nobody from that Bears team is as broken as “Refrigerator” Perry. For those who tuned in to this year’s Super Bowl pre-game show, it was hard to watch the where-are-they-now segment on “the Fridge.” Where he isn’t is the 18,000-sq.-foot home he built after his 1994 retirement (his ex-wife got that in the divorce). Instead, Perry lives in an unfinished home in Aiken, S.C. The lessons from 28 days in alcohol rehab in 1988 never stuck. And while he cashed in on his celebrity for a few years after football—countless autograph sessions; an appearance on the competitive-eating circuit—things have spiralled out of control. In 2007, he suffered partial paralysis. “I couldn’t get up,” Perry told ESPN. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t hold a fork or spoon.” Though initially reluctant to get help, when Perry finally did, doctors diagnosed him with an advanced case of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder in which one’s immune system attacks the nervous system.
In the two years that followed, Perry’s weight plummeted. He had become so much a shell of his larger-than-life self that Willie Gault, a wide receiver with the Bears from 1983 to 1988, told Maclean’s that Perry was unrecognizable, even to former teammates. “Shortly after he had been in the hospital—I think he was down to 190 lb., which I couldn’t believe—someone said they’d seen him in a wheelchair at an event in Chicago and didn’t recognize him,” says Gault.
Perry has since ballooned to closer to 400 lb., and needs a cane to walk. And his exercise regimen consists of little more than trips from his chair to the washroom or the liquor store.
Rick Telander was shocked when he heard the news about Perry. In the mid-’80s, Telander, then a senior writer with Sports Illustrated, lived within field-goal distance of Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Ill., where the Bears practised. He got to know some of the players personally, and Perry occasionally stopped by to see if Telander wanted to play some pickup basketball: “He was very lithe and agile at about 320 lb. I saw him dunk, if you can imagine,” says Telander, who wrote the 25th anniversary edition of The ’85 Bears: We Were the Greatest with Mike Ditka, the Bears’ famous coach. “You couldn’t really guard [Perry] but he wouldn’t just bowl you over like a lot of big guys would. He was gentle. It was an indication of his sensitive nature that nobody really got. He was the gap-toothed clown. Everyone needed the fat man and he was a nice guy willing to play that role.”
So, added up, have the ’85 Bears suffered more pain than other teams? It’s tough to say. After all, football has spread plenty of pain around. According to one study, former NFLers between the ages of 30 and 49 are 19 times more likely than the average person to receive a diagnosis related to memory loss, like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Considering the smash-mouth brand of ball the Bears played, Chet Coppock, a veteran of sports talk radio in the Windy City, says he wouldn’t be shocked if Duerson’s brain shows signs of trauma. “That team not only played the opposition, it was almost as if they played each other,” says Coppock, who co-hosted The Mike Ditka Radio Show in the early 1990s. “Marshall wanted to hit harder than [Mike] Singletary. [Dan] Hampton wanted to hit harder than [Steve] McMichael. [Gary] Fencik wanted to hit harder than Duerson. And vice versa.”
The ’85 Bears are still a hot topic on talk radio in Chicago, says Coppock, and Duerson’s death has hit fans hard. After Payton’s death, he says as a point of comparison, there was “enormous sadness.” With Duerson, a devastating hitter and later a Harvard business school grad, “it’s shock.” Nobody saw it coming. “Dave Duerson could have been the head of the players’ union, a senator, a multi-millionaire businessman, a philanthropist,” says Telander. “He could have been anything.” Most recently, he had his own consulting business, was hosting an Internet radio show, and was a member on several boards. There had been some cracks. Duerson had filed for bankruptcy last fall. But when Gault spoke with him in January—they discussed the possibility of another reunion event and Duerson’s upcoming wedding—his former teammate was in good spirits. “It didn’t appear anything was wrong,” says Gault.
The fact that Duerson’s Harvard-educated mind will go to concussion research is a silver lining. The long-term effects of head trauma have been a hot topic in all sports, but especially the NFL, which just announced that starting next season teams will use a standardized sideline test to diagnose concussions before letting players back on the field. Meanwhile, Walter Payton’s legacy lives on in his foundation for underprivileged children, as well as the increased awareness regarding organ donation (Payton died while on the waiting list for a liver transplant). Todd Bell, another Bear from that era who sat out the ’85 season due to a contract dispute, also died young. His death at 47 of a heart attack is what partly inspired Gault to start his Athletes for Life Foundation, which aims to educate people about the dangers of heart disease.
Not everyone on that roster, of course, has come on hard times. Gault has enjoyed a bit of Hollywood stardom, and holds four Masters athletics sprinting records. “I never drank, never did drugs, I ate right—I’m a vegetarian,” he says. “I played hard but I protected myself. I understood that the game would be over at some point.” Some have had success in business, others in football: Leslie Frazier is the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach. But not even Singletary, who was just hired as the Vikings’ linebacker coach, has lived up to the high expectations he set himself with a stellar career on the field. His 2½-year experiment as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, which ended in December, featured awkward sideline clashes with his players and one halftime rant in which he mooned his team to show his displeasure with how the club was playing.
As for all the tragedy, Telander sees it as somewhat inevitable: “It’s almost Shakespearean,” he says. “These guys, whether they knew it or not, were at the peak of their lives. The higher you rise, the greater you fall. There really isn’t a place in the regular world for champions, for heroes.”