What’s to be done with football? Surely as it knocks you down, it lifts you up — hurts, elates, offers artistry, offers ferocity, both the spirited and malign varieties. Broken fingers, broken noses? The game was always a school of hard knocks, a brutal metaphor for the price of doing business in America: few who participate emerge unscathed. But ruptured organs and brain damage enough to fill Bedlam? A football team can be the saving grace of a city on its knees, but is there hope for football?
This question — which has gained urgency over the last year — is at the heart of Rich Cohen’s deep-running, soulful Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, his discerning probe into the mysteries of a great team — his team, when he was a seventeen-year-old Chicagoan and nothing mattered more. Football is violent — the Bears of Cohen’s chosen season were the embodiment of crazy abandon — and it casts a shadow over the book’s landscape as inevitably as smokestacks darkened the skies over the mill towns where so many memorable players were raised.
Cohen visits those towns, the hard-bitten industrial burgs where football first put down roots, for as much as Monsters is a search to understand the hows and whys of the ’85 Bears, it is also a snappy, vest-pocket history of professional football, Chicago as a city — its quilt of immigrant neighborhoods, its communities of outcasts — and the Bears as an institution. These histories and backgrounds have exceptional color, and Cohen writes with as much jump as he does heart — you’re listening very closely when he speaks of the quarterback’s existential aloneness — which makes for a pretty unbeatable combination. He keeps sneaking into the story, not demanding much attention but spreading the kind of sympathy that draws you near. It is for the young Cohen that you become invested in the ’85 Bears; he sparks that initial iota of caring that blossoms into pulling for the team, and worrying for them.
Another simple truth is that the ’85 Bears were a great team because, as happens, the stars aligned into a cockamamie arrangement that worked beyond anyone’s ability to predict. Mike Ditka, the incandescent head coach (ready, fire, aim!), hated the defensive coach, Buddy Ryan, who gave as good as he got — let’s just say that their communication was confined to invectives — but they both knew their stuff, one brimming with passion and the other a brilliant strategist when he wasn’t telling Ditka off. (Ryan also had the players’ respect and the owner’s ear.) Both gathered around themselves great talent full of “the old zipperoo,” owner and early coach George Halas’s term for the transcendence of pain, and both were innovators, because that is how Ryan saw the game and because Ditka had Jim McMahon for quarterback, whose unbridled antiauthoritarianism — which infuriated his boss — was matched only by his canny field sense, audible after audible.
As much fun as Cohen has with the offense — and with McMahon, Walter Payton, Willie Gault, and all 325 pounds of Refrigerator Perry going up the middle (“Call it a sideshow,” said Ditka. “I call it beating their ass”), there is plenty of high entertainment — it is Ryan’s 46 defense that reigns supreme. Ryan’s 46 didn’t pressure the quarterback; given half a chance it beat him into jelly. In fifteen out of sixteen regular-season games that years, the Bears were given that half-chance, outfoxed only by Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins, whose counterstrategy would later become the 46’s death knell, though not before a Super Bowl win.
Drawn to a T by Cohen, and aided substantially by horse’s-mouth interviews with a number of key players, the ’85 Bears defense appears in all their terrifying glory, the old zipperoo raised to another power altogether. Opposing quarterbacks didn’t pop greenies before a game; they took Prozac. “By the middle of the first quarter, my only thought,” remembers Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White before he was knocked unconscious in the second quarter, was to “get the ball out of my hands as fast as I can.” The defense had a surfeit of gentlemen like Steve McMichael, who was cut from the New England Patriots, as a coach noted, “cause we think you’re the criminal element in the league,” and whom Cohen characterizes as “big and scary…a screw-loose sort of guy you approach with extreme caution.” Not that there was a lack of defensive brains and savvy, but the point was to hit with delirious, smash-mouth fury, because the next point was to win. Scare the opposing teams witless and you become the champions. Still…”they were dirty and mean, carrying on a Bear tradition of operating on the legal line.” No more, as the rules have cracked down. “My entire career,” said the safety Doug Plank, “would be considered a penalty today.”
Yet today, as Cohen points out, the players are “so big, so athletic, and so fast — it’s as if football has outgrown its skin, as if the stars have become too powerful for their own good.” With increasing awareness of the dire straits caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the disorientation and despair resulting from repeated blows to the head — something football finds difficult to avoid — why are we party to the game? Is it the conundrum of the car wreck: it will be sickening, but you’ll look anyway? Is there some evolutionary advantage, or is it frontier justice, a Nietzschean breaking of the enemy, a Jungian darkness that completes us? Is it a cautionary tale of life’s swiftness or the celebration of an ethos?
Maybe, long ago. Football was a working stiff’s game, with a working stiff’s hardscrabble ethos, though they can’t afford tickets anymore. “It expressed certain truths about American life,” writes Cohen glumly: “the dangers of the mines and the mills; dirt, struggle, blood, grime; the division of labor; the all-importance of the clock.” But the feeling in the air is that the players have outgrown the sport, and the sport has outgrown its ethos.
And that’s a tragedy: but Monsters, at least, is a triumph.