Games in the National Football League, as some incisive announcer might tell you, are won on the football field, which is why teams like the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins and the multiple Super Bowl winning squads such as the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70's, San Francisco 49ers of the 80's and modern day New England Patriots are considered the cream of the crop. And yet the '85 Chicago Bears, the subject of director Jason Hehir's documentary in ESPN's ongoing 30 for 30 series, arguably hold more cultural cache than any of the aforementioned teams put together even though that iconic Chicago squad did not achieve a perfect record and earned but a single Super Bowl title. And that's because the '85 Bears, more than their legendarily ferocious defense and record-setting Hall of Fame running back, were a team of towering personalities.
Fridge. Sweetness. Jimbo. L.A. Mike. Fencik, the guy whose name just sounded like a nickname. They had a punky quarterback with sunglasses who fired shots directly at the NFL commissioner with magic-markered headbands. A defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan, who thought he was bigger than the coach and a coach so big they just called him Da Coach. Much like they called the '85 Bears Da Bears. Make no mistake, John Fox and Jay Cutler and Mike Brown, my beloved ex-Cornhusker from the non-glory days of Dick Jauron, were not Da Bears. The '85 Bears were Da Bears, then, now, forever. All this is why Hehir barely even bothers to discuss the on-field specifics of their historic Super Bowl thrashing of the Patriots. The game itself was subordinate to the team's compelling temperament.
Strangely, though, for a team of such brash pizzazz, Hehir's aesthetic conspicuously, disappointingly fails to honor that flamboyance. Like so many of the recent 30 for 30 docs he forgoes any kind of narrative ingenuity to chart the squad in basic narrative terms, its rise from a bungling outfit with a solid defense and no offense, beyond the astonishing late Walter Payton, to a championship behemoth to its eventual fall when those personalities finally went bust. He recounts this with a formidable series of talking heads and NFL Films-ish on-field field footage, but not a whole lot else. There are moments when Hehir serves behind the scenes footage, like McMahon drinking a can of Bud Light in a press conference right after being drafted by the Bears or Ditka sucking down a cigarette on the practice field, that don't come across cut and pasted from a hundred other sports documentaries, and you're desperate to see more of them.
Still, for all the formal blandness, these Bears, particularly McMahon and defensive tackle Steve McMichael, speak with an incredible candidness that leaves you wishing for more tell-it-like-it-is from today's athletes, though as is pointed out if players behaved now like the Bears did then they probably would have all been arrested. In other words, it's not simply the dominance that will never be replicated but the demeanor.
For all the echoes "The '85 Bears" is sure to awake, however, Hehir, to his credit, does not ignore cause and effect, addressing the reality of concussions, like the team's safety, Dave Duerson, who in 2011 took his own life and was consequently discovered to have CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Linebacker Otis Wilson says he has no symptoms as of today, but also notes he has made preparations with his family if that changes, and his manner betrays a fear that it will change which I'm certain is applicable to nearly every player, former and current, too. Even so, Wilson, and all the others, make clear, as ex-players in pain so often do, that they would not do anything differently.
Films like this, for better and worse, are exercises in nostalgia. The sportswriter Joe Posnanski has written that baseball "will never stop being the game it was when you were 10 years old. That's the charm. That's the nostalgia. That's the trap." When I read that I immediately thought how I'm endlessly wishing that college football, my preferred sport, existed now exactly as it existed in 1987.....when I was 10 years old. And I feel fairly confident in thinking that all the players featured in this documentary, and that all the fans watching along at home, wish that in terms of the Chicago Bears it was still 1985. How could they not since that's when it was perfect. That's the charm. That's the nostalgia. That's the trap. You watch and wish player personalities could still be this outsized, concussion was a hazy word that meant nothing and Ditka was a Polish god who would not go on to trade every draft pick the New Orleans Saints had to acquire Ricky Williams.
Near the end McMichael summarizes that his "whole experience was about walking out that tunnel and hearing that crowd. That's when you're really alive, baby. And do you ever get back to that point once it's gone?" He answers his own query so quickly and pointedly that it wrecks your heart.
"I haven't," he says.