20 years ago, `Da Bears' stole heart of Chicago fans and never lost beat

Pro football

October 23, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

Even with the World Series in Chicago, the Ravens won't get the benefit of operating in anonymity today. The White Sox may be commanding the bulk of the sports world's attention, but it's not a stretch to believe that the home city's attention will be locked, as it always is, on Soldier Field and the Bears.

Nobody owns Chicago - not the Sox, the Cubs, the Bulls or the Blackhawks - the way the Bears do. Today's game should be a reminder. So should the daily reminiscences about the favorite team in the city's history, the Super Bowl champs of 20 years ago, who shuffled in and out of America's heart but took up permanent residence on the pedestal of Chicago sports.

Don't let anyone tell you differently the next couple of weeks, either, even if the White Sox break their 88-year championship drought. Truth be told, even in their potential hour of glory, the most hardcore Sox fans might have trouble rating this team above the '85 Bears.

You'd get the same insistence from the fans of the six Bulls NBA championship teams, led by the player you'd assume would be the biggest iconic figure in sports. In reality, though, if they held a champions banquet in town, and Sox manager Ozzie Guillen were to step out of a limo, and Michael Jordan were to follow, the fans would trample both of them looking for Mike Ditka.

At the risk of hammering the point home too hard, a reunion of that team, held at Soldier Field tonight at the same time the Sox and Astros are playing World Series Game 2, might outdraw the Series and pull a bigger local TV rating.

Those Bears - "Da Bears," the only team for which that comic description really applies - are that big. If they still run the city now, imagine what it was like in 1985, when they dominated the NFL and the cultural scene like few teams before or since.

That one phenomenal year earned them a spot in the discussions about the greatest teams ever, with dynasties like the Packers, Steelers, 49ers and today's Patriots. Actually, comparing those Bears to the Patriots is almost laughable. The current champs, determined to remain charisma-free, are the polar opposite of those Bears, who oozed personality from every pore.

So unique was that team, the defensive coordinator became a superstar: Buddy Ryan, whose son, Rex, comes to town as coordinator of the Ravens' defense. More coincidence: The last time a defense was as overpowering, and famous, as the Ravens' was in their Super Bowl year was ... the Bears, who still dwarfed the fame the Ravens generated.

The team concept, though, couldn't contain the individual expressions of the players. It remains one of the paradoxes of NFL history that the man who was the possibly greatest player of all time wasn't the biggest name on that team. Walter Payton managed to fade into the background behind Ditka, Ryan, Jim McMahon, the defense and the (unfortunately) unforgettable William "The Refrigerator" Perry.

Between the commercials, the swarm of media that followed them everywhere and the "Super Bowl Shuffle" video, the Bears became the NFL in many eyes. The Super Bowl the next January was less a championship game (much, much less, considering the ferocious whipping they laid on the Patriots) than the final act of a great show.

The most memorable play, naturally, was something straight out of the circus: Perry scoring a touchdown. It was the ultimate proof of how the spectacle of that team overcame the football; the fact that Perry got the ball for that touchdown instead of Payton is something for which Ditka apologizes to this day.

The NFL still lives off that team. It plays preseason games overseas (and this year played a regular-season game in Mexico) because of the smash hit the Bears were in London the next year, the first time a team played internationally. Add to the unforgettable images of that team the Sports Illustrated cover of The Fridge posed between two Buckingham Palace guards. The "Shuffle" video still pops up on TV every once in a while. So do various highlight films of that season with the Bears.

And so do Saturday Night Live reruns parodying fans of Ditka and "Da Bears." It was funny, as they say, because it was so true. Even the later addition of references to "Da Bulls" rang as inauthentic. Real Chicagoans will push aside even Jordan's teams in favor of those Bears.

It remains so today for the White Sox, who still represent only one side of town, and who will have Cubs followers feverishly rooting for the Astros this week.

Out at Soldier Field today, however, the faithful will be rooting for the return to glory of their real heroes, and wondering if they'll ever reach the lofty heights of 1985. david.steele@baltsun.com

Points after -- David Steele

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