Exclusive: Jim McMahon Talks Bears Football, Ditka, Concussions, Tom Brady, and More

Jim McMahon
AP Photo/Fred Jewell

The New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams will play for it all in Super Bowl LIII Sunday, but to many, the greatest NFL team of them all is still the group that cruised to victory back in Super Bowl XX.

The 1985 Chicago Bears were brash and cocky. But they were also good, really good. Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense revolutionized football and the big, bad Bears beat up on whoever got in their way. Chicago posted a dominant 15-1 record in the regular season and went on to blow out the New York Giants, and coincidentally enough, the Rams and Patriots in the postseason. The Bears defense was all-world. But their offense was pretty capable as well.

One man who knows all about that Bears offensive attack is Jim McMahon. The ‘Punky QB’, as he was nicknamed in “The Super Bowl Shuffle”, was one of the best leaders sports has ever known. McMahon piloted the ’85 squad’s offense with toughness and grit. He looked like a quarterback but had the reckless abandon of a stunt man. McMahon was the perfect guy for 1980s Chicago.

As far as the legendary team’s place in history, McMahon doesn’t say the Bears are better than everyone in the history of the game, but he doesn’t say they aren’t either. “That’s not for us to decide, but we would line up against anybody and think we have a good chance,” McMahon told Breitbart Sports. The soon-to-be sexagenarian knows exactly why his offense was so successful. Sure, the Bears featured Walter Payton, one of the best football players ever, as their top back, and yes, McMahon had the Midas touch on a regular basis, but it was the offensive lineman that made the 1985 season a championship one. “That’s who doesn’t get the credit that they deserve,” McMahon said. “Everybody knew we were going to run the football and we were still able to do it. That’s a credit to those guys up front.”

Those guys: Jim Covert, Tom Thayer, Jay Hilgenberg, Mark Bortz, and Keith Van Horne helped Chicago lead the league in rushing for several years in a row. During the Super Bowl season, the Bears led the NFC in scoring and were second in the entire league in points.

While 1985 was the last time the Bears won it all, the team still has the second most championships in NFL history. As the franchise gets set for its 100th season, the support for the Bears is how it’s always been…fierce.

“The Bears are Chicago’s team,” said McMahon. “They love the Bears. They’re very passionate and knowledgeable. They understand the game. They’ll love you if you just play hard. They can see who’s playing hard and they’ll love you for that. But if you play hard and you win, they’ll love you forever and it’s been proven in the last thirty-five years.”

Indeed it has. The 1985 Chicago Bears are cherished, not only in the Windy City but by Bears fans and really, football fans worldwide. The high level of play is one reason why that team is still so revered, but the characters that played on that club may tell even more of the story. From music videos to TV commercials to controversy on and off the field, the Bears were the wild boys of football. In part, they got that personality from their coach, Mike Ditka.

Ditka is as big of a Bears icon as anyone. Da Coach is still synonymous with the franchise. Even current Bears signal caller Mitchell Trubisky, who was born nine years after that 1985 team hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, dressed up as “Iron Mike” for Halloween this season. Ditka is a legend in Bears country.

Legend or not, Ditka met his match when it came to McMahon. The coach and the quarterback would have shouting matches right on the sideline. On at least one occasion, McMahon stuck his tongue out at his coach. How ever you categorize their colorful relationship, the numbers don’t lie. Ditka-McMahon worked even if the two alpha Bears drove each other crazy.

“Early on I think it was OK, then it just got to be quite a strain,” said McMahon. “But, I would’ve loved to play with Mike Ditka. He was a great football player and had he ever been in my huddle I think he would’ve had a better understanding of me. I didn’t do things just to piss him off. I was doing things to win football games. The way I was taught in college, if I saw something that I could exploit on the defense, to do that. That’s hard to curtail especially when I come from an offense in college where I got to throw it almost every down. Now, I’m handing it off eighty percent of the time which for a quarterback is pretty damn boring. It’s a great option to have when you’re handing it off to Walter, but Mike and I would butt heads. I would say ‘Hey, why can’t I just throw it to him instead of having him run through the line, why can’t he get past the line, and I can throw it to him?’ I know I can throw it five yards, you have to give me that much credit.”

The idea worked. Soon the Bears were regularly passing it to Payton out of the backfield. ‘Sweetness’ wound up with more receptions than any player on the team, including the wide receivers. Sometimes though, old school Ditka just didn’t like it when McMahon would change a play. “He came from a background where we were going to run the football and that’s what we did,” McMahon said. “So, whenever I had a chance to throw it, that’s when I would do it, and sometimes that would upset him.”

Ditka, McMahon, and the rest of the Bears upset a lot of people along the way. While the coach was never shy to tell off a reporter, the quarterback had his run-ins with the press and even a well publicized spat with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. This was the attitude of the Bears. This is why they were so tremendous.

“We had the best talent,” McMahon said. “It’s hard to lose when you have the best talent. Then when you have schemes that are different like we did on defense, you put the talent with that defense, it made for some pretty easy Sunday work. It made it tough on the offense because we had to deal with that every day. We were in pads three days a week and everything was live, there was no pussyfooting around in our practices. Guys got hit every day.”

Those hits added up.

“I think that took it’s toll,” McMahon said. “I was there seven years. After seven, I was exhausted. Imagine the guys that were doing the hitting every day.”

The injuries to McMahon were plentiful. He missed the playoffs in both 1984 and 1986. He was less than 100-percent at other times. If he had been healthy, many feel the Bears would have captured more Super Bowls besides their 1985 title. McMahon wholeheartedly agrees. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” he said. “We had our chances. It should’ve been four in a row.”

Dave Duerson, a safety on the ’85 Bears, committed suicide in 2011. Doctors later determined that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to concussions. This hits home for McMahon in more ways than one. Not only did he lose an old teammate, but McMahon himself has battled depression and headaches. Only in recent years has he been able to manage things better, thanks to a spinal cord adjustment procedure that he receives multiple times a year.

“It’s not going to go away,” McMahon said. “At least now I know what’s wrong with me. Guys that I played with that have taken their lives, I had the same thoughts as them. But I found somebody to help me and they explained to me what’s happening. I have to go back to New York about every three months to get another adjustment. My neck is so screwed up that it doesn’t allow my spinal fluid to get out of my brain. When that starts backing up, that’s when I start really having problems. Bad head pain and forgetfulness and stuff like that.”

Because of his all too personal experience, McMahon co-founded Players Against Concussions. He also has some strong opinions on youth football. Based on the conversations he’s had with his doctor, McMahon wouldn’t recommend any boys playing tackle football until their junior year in high school. “Physically your body’s not ready for that,” said McMahon. “Too much can go wrong. I’m not saying make the sport go away. It’s not going to go away. It’s a great game. It’s a great character builder. But until you’re at least a junior in high school, you’re not physically ready to do that. You can still learn the game, learn the fundamentals, those seem to be going away a lot. You don’t need a whole lot of time. Colleges will find you. If you take two years of high school ball and have any talent, the college will find you. Same with the pros. Not everybody on the pro rosters is from USC or Notre Dame or Clemson or Alabama. If you have talent, you’ll be found, and if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine. Just know there’s going to be repercussions and when you do get injured, you have to get diagnosed properly. That’s another big problem. These guys just don’t get diagnosed the way they should.”

The spiky hair is long gone, McMahon is completely clean shaven on top of his head. But the signature sunglasses that fans remember, are still a constant. Not that he has any choice. The shades are not to be cool like so many tend to believe. When McMahon was six years old he was trying to untie a gun holster using a fork. His hand slipped and the fork stuck right in his eye. “Two prongs went dead center in my eyeball,” McMahon said. “I nicked my retina and just kind of shredded the eye. I wear them to this day. When people get their eyes checked they get them dilated and then they give them those dark glasses to wear home. Well, my eye is constantly like that because they had to cut a big chunk of my iris out. That’s the reason for the sunglasses. One of these days people will figure it out.”

Like Ditka is to sweaters and cigars, McMahon is to headbands and sunglasses. When Trubisky was named to the Pro Bowl this year, the first Chicago quarterback to pull that off since McMahon in 1985, the Bears tweeted out a picture of their QB1 in sunglasses. McMahon jumped on it, tweeting to Trubisky “Congrats on the pro bowl kid. If you need some more shades I got a couple pairs laying around.” Needless to say, Bears fans of all generations loved this.

McMahon isn’t big on social media. He says he doesn’t really care what everyone is doing every minute of the day. When asked what would’ve happened if social media existed in 1985 and what that would’ve meant for the Steve McMichaels, Wilbur Marshalls, and Jim McMahons of the world, Mad Mac didn’t mince words. “Prison time, probably,” he chuckled.

McMahon isn’t a huge NFL guy either. He doesn’t tune in much. He did watch the Bears playoff game this season, but otherwise he usually only checks out a game if a friend is roaming the sidelines. McMahon keeps tabs on Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid who was his teammate at BYU and Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, a linebacker with the ’85 Bears. Otherwise, McMahon, a grandfather of three now, would match rather be spending time with family and helping people who are struggling with life after football.

Back when the Bears beat New England 46-10 to take Super Bowl XX, the Patriots were playing in their first ever super Sunday game. Since then, the Bears have only returned once while the Pats have played in nine more Super Bowls. Eight times, Tom Brady has been the quarterback. He will be under center once again Sunday looking for his sixth ring. McMahon, a two-time Super Bowl champ (he won another one as a back-up to Brett Favre on the 1996 Green Bay Packers), is impressed with what Brady has accomplished. “You can’t argue with his success, that’s for sure,” he said. “Tom has done well with his career. He’s taken advantage of the opportunities given to him. They don’t often have to go on the road in the playoffs which is nice. They seem to do well at home. That’s the one thing we didn’t do well in Chicago. We locked up home field advantage again and again, but didn’t win. These guys do that.”

The Ditka Bears fell in the playoffs at Soldier Field in 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1991. That unfortunate trend has continued for the most part. Dick Jauron’s Bears lost at home in 2001, Lovie Smith’s crew fell short in 2005 and 2010, both in Chicago, and Matt Nagy’s bunch is fresh off of a double doink of a setback in front of monster believers just weeks ago. The Patriots have not had such woes.

“It’s a credit to Tom,” McMahon said. “He has a good line. Who knows how long he can play. You can’t even get near the quarterbacks anymore. Somebody’s going to end up playing until they’re fifty.”

As for McMahon, he’s months away from sixty and things are looking up despite his ongoing physical struggles. “I’ve got two grandsons and one granddaughter,” McMahon beamed. “It’s been awesome.” Last month, McMahon was inducted into the National Quarterback Club Hall of Fame. A fitting honor for a hardnosed player.

With the Bears entering season 100, the team will be looking back at so many moments. Immortals like Halas, Grange, Nagurski, Luckman, Sayers, and Butkus will be brought up plenty. After winning a division title and making the postseason for the first time in eight years, today’s Bears of Trubisky, Cohen, Leno, Mack, Fuller, and Hicks will get their share of love too. But those 1985 Bears will always have a special place. They were the best of the best. Monsters of the Midway.

“We had a blast,” McMahon said. “That’s what I miss. Just hanging around the locker room with each other. There’s a lot of funny people in that sport.”

McMahon got to catch up with Ditka and Covert in Florida last month. Whenever he’s in Chicago he tries to see Richard Dent and Otis Wilson. That special team has a special bond. And while the days of Taco Bell spots and mooning helicopters may be behind him (no pun intended), Jim McMahon will always be Chicago’s first stringer, truly a super Bear like no other.

Follow Kevin Scholla on Twitter @kevinscholla

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