|February 1, 2020
Sheilla Dingus & Derek Helling
|The 1985 Chicago Bears are considered to be one of the best rosters ever to come together in professional football. There was an intense rivalry between head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan—a rivalry so dysfunctional that it actually fueled the team. The offense, though thrilling, has been referred to as “aim, fire, shoot,” as alluded to in quarterback Jim McMahon’s line in the team’s Super Bowl Shuffle call to arms, “When I hit the turf, I’ve got no plan. I just throw my body all over the field. I can’t dance, but I can throw the pill.” From the defensive side, future Hall of Famer, Richard Dent is credited as saying that Ditka “is the reason we won Super Bowl XX and the reason we didn’t win three.” Wall Street Journal described the defensive mindset: “Ryan was more than a coach. He was the leader of a sect, where hitting was a ritual and concussing was a triumph and getting concussed was a sacrifice.” Their defense was ranked first in the league and in the course of 16 games, they gave up fewer than 13 points a game. In their first two playoff games, they allowed zero points. There were games in which the other team barely breached Bears territory. In 1985 they allowed competing offenses only198 total points that year. In one six-game they stretch scored 27 points while the six opposing offenses managed just 27 points. They won 15 games, only to be foiled by the Miami Dolphins, denying them a perfect season a little over midway through. Determined that loss wouldn’t define them they did something pretty ballsy. They announced they were Super Bowl-bound in high style with their iconic Super Bowl Shuffle video, the proceeds of which, they donated to charity.
The Bears were the top seed in the NFC that year and easily earned the NFC Championship, becoming the first team in NFL history to record back-to-back shutouts in a playoff series. In Super Bowl XX they defeated the New England Patriots 46-10, setting records for the most points scored in a Super Bowl and the largest margin of victory in the Championship Game. Patriots quarterback Tony Eason is the only starting quarterback in Super Bowl history to finish the day without a single completion. He finished 0 for 6, with three sacks and a fumble. The 1985 Chicago Bears are one of the few teams to consistently challenge the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins for the unofficial title of the greatest NFL team of all time. In 2007, the 1985 Bears were ranked as the second greatest Super Bowl championship team on the NFL Network’s documentary series America’s Game: The Super Bowl Champions, ranking behind the 1972 Dolphins. Other sources rate the 1985 Chicago Bears as the greatest NFL team ever. They captured a piece of history along with their Lombardi, but not without cost. Sadly, for many of the players on that acclaimed roster, the violence of the game took a heavy toll. In the video below, the team’s “Hit Men,” Gary Fencik and Doug Plank discuss the dangers of concussions and CTE. While Fencik, who played 12 seasons with the Bears and remains their all-time leader in interceptions and total tackles and Plank who played his entire 8-year career with the Bears, retiring two years before the Super Bowl Championship have suffered few ill effects of the game as of yet, some of their teammates have not shared in their good fortune. Ken Belson of the New York Times recently did a profile of the 1972 Miami Dolphins team in which he wrote:
A half-dozen members of the team have died from a variety of causes not connected with football, including heart attack and cancer, and another half-dozen or so have reportedly been affected by cognitive impairment. The symptoms in many of those players occurred at a younger age than the general population experiences them, according to a 2011 study from the Annals of Neurology, a publication of the American Neurological Association.In all, roughly a quarter of the 1972 team’s players are dead, and so far three of them have been found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head trauma that can only be diagnosed after death.
Checking in on the Bears
The 1985 Bears team is a little more than a decade younger than the 1972 Dolphins and at this point, only two players are deceased—one with CTE. That player, of course, was Dave Duerson.
#22 Dave Duerson
Dave Duerson played defensive back in the NFL for the Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Phoenix (now Arizona) Cardinals from 1983 to 1993. He won two Super Bowls (1985 and 1990) and played in four consecutive Pro Bowls during the late 1980s. Collegiately, he spent four years on the field for the University of Notre Dame after growing up in Muncie, Indiana. He was an All-American with the Fighting Irish.
After his retirement from the NFL, Duerson worked in the foodservice industry. He also was active with the NFLPA, serving on a volunteer panel that helped consider the retirement benefits claims of former players like himself. During those early post-NFL years, colleagues described him as jovial and successful.
Duerson may have been originally described as being on the league’s side in the dispute over cognitively-impaired players’ claims. In fact, Duerson testified before Congress in 2007 that he was unsure whether one former player’s cognitive decline was related to his career in the NFL.
Things took a turn for the worse as Duerson aged, however. He complained of blurred vision and pain in his final years but never attributed any of those symptoms to playing American football. Alicia Duerson, his former wife, said that he also started struggling to put words together and with short-term memory loss. Duerson committed suicide at the age of 50 in 2011, stating in his final communication that he wanted his next of kin to donate his brain to research efforts.
#34 Walter Payton
Walter Payton, known around the league as “Sweetness,” was a running back for the Bears for the entirety of his 13-year career. He was a prolific rusher, having rushed for at least 1,200 yards in 10 of his 13 seasons, and on October 7, 1984, against the New Orleans Saints, Payton broke Jim Brown’s career rushing record of 12,312 yards.
Payton was drafted by the Bears in the first round of the 1975 draft. Early in his career, he drew high praise as he stymied defenses, breaking record after record, including O.J. Simpson’s record of 273 rushing yards rushed in one game when he crushed 275 against the Minnesota Vikings in 1977–a record that stood for 23 years. He became a feared offensive weapon and ironically was held scoreless in Super Bowl XX. Jim McMahon recalled, “he was targeted by two or three defenders on every play, and others stated that Payton’s mere presence allowed others to shine, given that at least 2 people were targeting Payton on every play.”
His trademark “stutter-step,” a high stepping irregularly paced run was one of brains and creativity. He developed it as a way to make defenders who might have been faster than he, to pause and think, giving him a chance to see their angle and run the opposite of what they’d committed to. He used his high school experience as a long jumper to leap over opponents at times.
Payton was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993. His coach, Mike Ditka, considered him the greatest football player he had ever seen but even greater as a human being.
He was diagnosed in February 1999 with a rare liver disease, likely brought on by the over administration of painkillers during the course of his NFL career. He refused to be bumped up on the list of people waiting for organ donations because of his celebrity and recorded many TV commercials encouraging organ donation. Walter Payton died on November 1, 1999, at the age of 45.
#9 Jim McMahon
Quarterback Jim McMahon led the ’85 Bears to dominance that peaked in that historic game. He spent fourteen seasons in the NFL. His career began with promise in landing the role of starting quarterback with the Bears in 1982, but as his successes mounted on the field; his struggles with injuries and painkillers began to spiral. In the season leading up to Super Bowl XX he developed intense pain in his throwing hand and received injections of painkillers for six straight weeks in order to cope. In 1986 he received shots for pain in his shoulder for ten straight weeks. In both instances, only later did he learn that he should have sat that time out and healed rather than mask the pain and return to play too early.
Over the course of his career and through eighteen surgeries, McMahon became dependent on painkillers in a slow process that overtook him without him realizing it. In the years leading up to his retirement, he was taking as many as 100 Percocets per month, even in the off-seasons. He told Bryant Gumbel of HBO Real Sports:
“There was always just bowls of pills sitting out,” McMahon said. “You know, black ones, white ones, green ones, red ones, you know. I was on painkillers my last 11 years in the league. I was eating 100 Percs a month just to function.”
He learned for the first time in 2011 or 2012 that he had suffered a broken neck at some point in his career. He believes it happened during a 1993 playoff game when, after a hit, his legs went numb. Rather than sit out, he received medications and was pushed back on the field. No one from the NFL ever told him of this injury. In addition, he learned only a few years ago that he had broken an ankle while playing; at the time, he was told it was a sprain.
After his retirement, he found himself dependent on the painkillers that had masked his injuries and sustained him during his career. He sustained permanent damage to his extremities disc degeneration and has spent an enormous amount of money in his attempts to quell the pain.
In addition to his physical ailments and addiction issues, he has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, struggling with memory loss and depression. His brain injuries have also left him with vision problems, speech difficulties, and severe headaches. At times, the pressure on his skull becomes overwhelming. In 2015 McMahon confessed on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, “When I first heard about these guys killing themselves, I couldn’t figure out how they could do that. But I was having those thoughts myself… If I would’ve had a gun, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
In 2016 he told the Chicago Tribune:
“Some days better than others,” McMahon said. “I don’t know when it’s going to happen. Whenever my neck gets out of alignment and fluid starts backing up into my brain, it’s miserable until I get it fixed and get it adjusted. Then the pain at least goes away.”
McMahon said that he’d found some relief through chiropractic, but he continues to struggle Richard Dent recalled on Real Sports the level of drugs administered to McMahon, “I mean, they’re sticking him everywhere,” Dent said. “One game, I watched them stick him in the butt, and the arms, and the shoulder, and the hand.” Both men are pursuing a lawsuit against the NFL seeking accountability for their deceptive misuse of controlled substances.
#95 Richard Dent
Richard Dent played fifteen years in the NFL as a defensive end, the first ten of which were spent with the Chicago Bears. He was an outstanding pass rusher and part of the heralded core of talented players that composed the Bears’ legendary defenses of the 1980s. He was voted MVP of Super Bowl XX, one of only 5 defensive players to win that honor over the 54-year history of the Super Bowl. He went on to win another Super Bowl ring with the 49ers in XXIX. He was a four-time Pro Bowler, and four-time First-Team All-Pro, leading the NFL in sacks in 1985. His hard-hitting success came with a cost, however.
It was during his rookie year, that Dent first became acquainted with the covert drug culture of the NFL. In his first practice following his first preseason game four players fell on top of him. His legs literally did the splits and he tore his hamstring along with tendons and ligaments in his ankle. The pain was so severe it was difficult for him to walk or even sit on the toilet. Despite being put on several anti-inflammatory drugs and pain killers, he questioned being put back on the field. He wound up playing in the last preseason game, doped up to the point that he could hardly remember playing. This is where it started and went on from there; a pill for this a shot for that which led him down a long and dangerous path.
He soon fell into a daily ritual of going to breakfast with the team, then receiving whatever “medications” were necessary to get him on the field, taking them in time to be able to practice, and then taking downers at night to “come down” and sleep.
Richard Dent remembers that amphetamines were available in jars in the locker room for any and all to take. Only after the deaths of Don Rodgers and Len Bias were the jars removed, though NFL doctors and trainers still gave players amphetamines whenever they wanted.
In 1990 while playing in Seattle, Dent suffered a broken bone in his foot. He was told by team doctors and trainers at the time that he had done all the damage that could be done to that foot and, while he could elect to have surgery, they could also supply him with painkillers to allow him to continue playing doing no further harm. Trusting that the doctors and trainers had his best interests in mind, he chose to continue playing and for the following eight weeks, he received repeated injections of painkillers in addition to pills to keep playing. He wound up sustaining permanent nerve damage in that foot and now suffers from an enlarged heart as a result of the opioid medications he received in mass quantities.
He left the NFL dependent on painkillers. Like many other retired players, the residual pain from Dent’s injuries caught up with him. After his retirement, when he was no longer able to obtain painkillers from the NFL he was compelled to purchase over-the-counter painkillers to satisfy his need for pain relief. Over the course of that time, he has spent an extensive amount of money on such medications. He is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NFL for painkiller abuse.
After retirement, Dent made his permanent home in Chicago. Despite his difficulties and health issues, he has given back to the community. Richard Dent established the Make a Dent Foundation in 1989 to honor his mother, Mary Dent, with the purpose of funding educational opportunities for underprivileged youth.
A native of Georgia, Richard Dent was inducted to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2006, having received All-American honors twice while setting records for both career quarterback sacks and single-game quarterback sacks at his alma mater. After being previously snubbed he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011, with the award presented by his college football coach, Joe Gilliam. True to his Atlanta roots, he drew from Martin Luther King, “I Had a Dream,” and praised both Gilliam and his high school coach William Lester, thanking them for helping him to realize his. He also thanked numerous teammates and Tennessee State Alumni, along with his parents, but omitted mention of Bears’ coaches Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan. The dysfunctional relationship between the two coaches, unfortunately, seemed to impact Richard Dent strongly and led to a major strain on their relationships.
Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.
Derek Helling is a journalist out of Chicago. Illinois, who covers the intersections of entertainment and sports with business, law, media and technology. He publishes a newsletter, "The Ninth Circle of Helling," that focuses on labor issues in North American sport.