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We Are the Bears!: The Oral History of the Chicago Bears

We Are the Bears!: The Oral History of the Chicago Bears

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We Are the Bears!: The Oral History of the Chicago Bears

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Sep 1, 2014


Featuring exclusive interviews with the greatest players in team history, Richard Whittingham’s We Are the Bears is the definitive story of this classic NFL franchise, told by the men who built it. This oral history of the team, which features numerous legends—including Mike Singletary, Mike Ditka, Gayle Sayers, Dan Hampton, and many others—will delight fans of all ages.

Sep 1, 2014

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We Are the Bears! - Richard Whittingham

This book is dedicated to the memory of George Halas, who gave pro football the Chicago Bears; the legion of Bears, who made it so enjoyable these many years; and Richard Youhn, who was their most devoted fan.


Foreword by Mike Singletary

Introduction by John Mullin

1. Joining the Bears

2. They Were Monsters…of the Midway

3. Papa Bear

4. Bears Remember Other Bears

5. Special Memories

6. Coaches

7. Enemies Remembered

8. The Champions


Foreword by Mike Singletary

I was born in Houston, the last of 10 kids. I was sickly as a kid, and the doctor said I might never really have a normal childhood, but he was wrong. Prayers and God’s faithfulness brought me through all that.

My mom and dad, unfortunately, divorced when I was 12 years old. When that happened, it was really difficult. Then, about six months later, one of my brothers was killed in an auto accident.

All that really made me focus and determine what I needed to do at that point in my life. And my mom challenged me after my brother passed away, challenged me about life. You’ll find life isn’t fair, not everything is gonna be fair, she said. "You gotta make up in your mind what you’re going to do. What are you going to do with your life?" She asked me if I could become the man around the house, and it was the first time that I really felt needed. And it was because of that that I really began to form a vision for my life. I sat down and wrote it out, my vision for life. And that was: to get a scholarship to go to college, be an All-American football player in college, get my degree, get drafted and play in the NFL, buy my mom a house, take care of her, become an All-Pro, and go to the Super Bowl.

That was a long way off, however.

I started by playing high school football at Worthing High School in Houston. Middle linebacker. And I just remember high school being a great experience for me, mainly because of a gentleman by the name of Oliver Brown. He was very much a gentleman and, at the same time, an outstanding coach and a great teacher.

At that particular time I was very small and not a lot of colleges came to recruit me. So I said, You know what? Whoever comes, that’s where I’m gonna go.

Baylor University was the first school to come and talk to me. I remember sitting down, talking to Coach Teaff at Baylor University. You come to Baylor University, you’re gonna have the opportunity to play, and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think you could play. I think you have something that is rare, that’s a very rare commodity, which is intensity. I like that, and for that reason, I want to offer you a scholarship and an opportunity to play at Baylor University.

Then he said, You will get your degree. I will make sure personally that you go through school and get your degree.

Later the NFL scouts came to Baylor. I remember talking to different ones. One especially. Jim Parmer came down for the Chicago Bears. He called me over—I was out on the field working out—and he asked if that was me he’d seen on film.

I said, Yes, it’s me.

He said, Well, you look bigger on film.

I said, Well, this is the size I am, and this is all I need. I had a little chip on my shoulder about my size.

Jim said, Well, I’m sure that’s quite right.

At that time, in college, I was close to 240, and I was about 5’11, maybe 5’111/2.

They wouldn’t give me that other eighth of an inch.

So, he said, Well, it looks like you move pretty well, and, you know, I like what I saw on the film there. I think Chicago would be interested in you.

I said, Well, make sure you tell them to get me in the first round, or I won’t be there.

He said, Well, you know. I don’t know who we’re gonna take in the first round. I think they were drafting 11th, or something like that that year.

And I just told him: Sir, I know you don’t know me from the man in the moon, but whoever you have playing linebacker up there…Well, sir, I’m going to make you forget about him.

He laughed at me and said, Son, he said, that will take a lot of doin’.

On draft day in 1981, I was in Houston. My wife—she was my girlfriend then—my mother, and I were sitting there and, I tell you what, it was one of the saddest days of my life. I had so hoped to be taken in the first round, and I wasn’t. So I felt, Okay, you’re telling me that I’m doing all of this, and simply because I’m not an inch taller, it’s not good enough? So I really felt betrayed and very hurt. But I just remember going outside, after the first round was over, and saying, You know, Lord, if you want me to go anywhere, let me go to Chicago. Let me go to the Chicago Bears in the second round, if you want me to play this game.

Well, He did and they did. And it was the start of what would allow me to fulfill all those other aspirations I had when I was a youngster. I was well coached by Neill Armstrong and Mike Ditka. I played on a great team with great players. I made All-Pro and we went to the Super Bowl and won. My 12 years with the Chicago Bears were just a wonderful experience; I couldn’t have spent it in a better place.

I can tell you, too, that football is the greatest game in the world, and I have enjoyed it tremendously. Coach Ditka always used to say that to play football is a privilege. Dog gone, it is. Having the opportunity to get out there and perform and earn a way to college, earn a living, and receive so many different benefits from playing football—whether it’s on the high school, college, or professional level—and to be able to give back that which you are given, that is truly a wonderful part of life.

—Mike Singletary

Introduction by John Mullin

Late in the classic movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones character threatens to blow up the Ark of the Covenant with a bazooka unless the Nazi bad guys release love-interest Marion. Bad guy and French archaeologist Rene Belloq challenges Jones, knowing Jones won’t make good on his threat, and why.

Indiana, we are simply passing through history, Belloq says, placing his hand on the Ark and turning toward Jones. "This—this is history."

What you hold in your hands right now is history. What Dick Whittingham did so well was not write about Mike Ditka, Sid Luckman, Gale Sayers, and the others, but rather to let them tell their stories themselves. Sometimes the real art of journalism is getting out of the way of the story.

The big point isn’t necessarily accomplishment or events. Those are well chronicled anyway, whether in game stories, notebooks, agate pages, video accounts, or wherever. It is in the thoughts, feelings, hidden details, and other minutiae. The devil may be in the details; aah, but that’s the good stuff. That’s what the Bears shared with Dick Whittingham, and some years later, with me.

* * *

Gary Fencik once told me that he was glad someone was going about the task of collecting the stories and recollections while he and some of his mates still had the memories to share. Looking back at that lunch with Gary, I’m sure that much of the full gravity of brain trauma was not remotely understood. What Jim McMahon and others were going through, and still are, makes these memories even more precious as time and other factors intrude. Recording, preserving, and enjoying those memories honors those who lived and made them.

If you’re lucky, sometimes you are actually aware that history is unfolding right in front of you. Some years back, John Madden was good enough to write the foreword for my book, The Rise and Self-Destruction of the Greatest Football Team in History. In it he recalled that halfway through the 1985 season, he and broadcast partner Pat Summerall got on the phone to CBS. They told their network to tear up whatever they had for an assignment schedule, and put them on the Bears for the rest of the season. It was one of those things, John said, where you just wanted to be there.

If you saw Gale Sayers play, you knew you were watching history. Gale talking about himself, others talking about him—that is the true history. Watching Dick Butkus was watching history; hearing Bill George in his own words tell of what he felt the day Butkus first showed up at his first training camp—that is history.

It wasn’t always good history, though, and not always fun. After all, history has nothing if not epic highs and near-despair lows. Jay Hilgenberg knew he was witnessing the beginning of the end of the ’85 Bears when players began quibbling over the free Super Bowl Champion hats in the locker room after Super Bowl XX.

Jay was also there before it all really got started for that team. Indeed, it definitely wasn’t all glory for the eight-time Pro Bowl center.

He was a rookie center in 1981, a backup sitting on the bench as the Detroit Lions were destroying the Bears 48–17. Jay turned to guard Revie Sorey and said, Revie, we’re the worst team in the NFL. (They actually weren’t, but they could see worst from where they were.)

Revie just nodded.

Jay was on his way to a worse point, though: But Revie, I’m the worst player on this team, too.

Revie didn’t argue that point, either.

Revie, Jay concluded, that makes me the worst player in the NFL.

Thinking of even the best of times and Bears, actor and Chicago native Joe Mantegna told me what he sensed even as the ’85 magic was happening: "In a way it was like watching a magnesium flare. The thing built up to this one moment in time and than ignited itself with this brilliance. But when it burned out, you knew deep down it wasn’t going to sustain. It was going to give you something great—great heat, for that moment—but then it was going away.

And you would never have that heat, that brilliance, again.

* * *

The history that is the Bears is particularly unique, not simply for the spectrum of characters—George Halas, the Monsters of the ’40s, Doug Atkins, the whole cast of ’85, pick any one—but because chapters of that history define and encompass entire eras: the beginnings, which have an almost barnstorming feel; the dominant Monsters of the Midway; the down times endured by Sayers, Butkus, Doug Buffone, and others; and the epic era of the Super Bowl XX team, something that became nothing short of an international phenomenon. Like I said, pick one.

What you are struck by in the case of the Bears is more than just the football. It has been the ways in which the team—or rather, the teams—have flowed outward into the culture and societies beyond Wrigley and Soldier Fields. Few if any American cities have taken such a part of their identities the way Chicago defined elements of its civic pride through the toughness of the Bears.

And that transcended generations. The Monsters of the Midway belonged to the 1940s. By the time that started to flag after barren years, the 1963 champions came along with a huge booster shot. Almost as if on a 20-year cycle, the 1985 champions happened along.

What isn’t always remembered was that The Super Fans, created from the experiences of Robert Smigel, Bob Odenkirk, and Conan O’Brien, didn’t appear during the Super Bowl year. The sketch didn’t appear on Saturday Night Live until January 12, 1991—five years after that Super Bowl.

And when Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was placed in an airplane middle seat for his Discount Daa-ble Check commercials, he was flanked by: The Super Fans, 20 years after that first skit was done on Saturday Night Live. The original cast included Mantegna, Smigel, Chris Farley, and Mike Myers, all of it tracing back to Da Bears.

Bears history has always been about more than just the Bears, or even Chicago, for that matter. George Halas started NFL history sitting on a running board in Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio, then took it national by landing Red Grange in 1925.

In keeping with their own times—the Bonfire of the Vanities and excesses of 1980s—the Super Bowl Bears were far more than just local. They made the Bears a national story, then an international one. When the Bears traveled to London to play the Dallas Cowboys, the self-proclaimed America’s Team, in the 1986 preseason, Phil Collins was asking for their autographs, not vice versa. A bunch of players went to a London club where Chaka Khan was performing, only to have the crowd of Brits and Chaka get them up on stage, demanding, Sing the ‘Supuh Bowl Shuffle!’

* * *

What Dick Whittingham’s collection shows is that history is rarely static. Dan Hampton admitted he didn’t have the time of day for William Perry when the Bears brought in The Fridge with their No. 1 pick in 1985. He wasn’t any bigger on Fridge when Ditka decreed that Perry would start at defensive tackle and Hampton would shift to left end, sending Mike Hartenstine to the bench.

Then, by ’88, ’89, I had really gotten closer to Fridge, Dan told me. And now, of all the guys I played with, he was one of my favorites.

Pieces of the history, the memories, lie in snapshots, or sound bytes. Hearing Mike Ditka for the last time at the old Halas Hall was one of those special snapshots: It is hard to erase 17 years [with the Bears], Mike said on that day in 1993. Nothing much else to say, but ‘Thank you, I appreciate it.’

He choked up momentarily, then finished: But this, too, shall pass.

The moments in time do pass. But not the history.

—John Moon Mullin

1. Joining the Bears

MIKE DITKA, Tight End, 1961–1966; Head Coach, 1982–1992

I was tremendously proud to put on the Bear uniform, and I say that in all honesty. I knew very little about the Bears until I was drafted by them in 1961 because I, of course, was from Pennsylvania and mostly followed the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles. But the more I found out about the Bears, the more I liked them; they played the kind of football that I believed in, and Coach Halas taught the kind of football I believed in. The Bears were the Monsters of the Midway, or the bullies, or whatever you want to call them, and that’s the way I thought the game was supposed to be played.

It was intriguing too when you look back and realize that I was a 21-year-old kid coming into the National Football League, and the head coach was 65 years old. Nobody ever assumed anything about his age, however; it did not matter, because we all knew he was the boss. To see him in action you would have thought George Halas was maybe in his 50s, but certainly not 65.

I was with the College All-Stars in 1961, and we scrimmaged the Bears. I did not make any friends with them. I ran over a couple of guys, which did not sit well. We played the Philadelphia Eagles, who had won the NFL title the year before. We had some very good ballplayers.

I think the first friend I made later was Bill George. Bill was a Pennsylvania kid from the coal mine area of western Pennsylvania. He kind of took me under his wing and helped me a little bit. And I remember Larry Morris and some of the guys. Harlon Hill was a lot of help to me. Harlon was a great guy. It was toward the end of his career, and he took a good amount of time to work with me. He was also playing, and I think they were planning on converting him to tight end. I think they even tried him on defense because his days as a wide receiver were over, but in his day he was one of the great wide receivers.

I didn’t have an agent when I came to Chicago. I don’t believe in agents. I know what I’m worth and what I’m not worth, and I wouldn’t fool anybody about that. My agent was my dad and myself. You know, it was kind of interesting, though, because you knew you were being taken, but you didn’t really mind it. I guess that’s the best way to put it. I was very flattered at the time to be drafted into the NFL when I was coming out of college. I didn’t know if I would play in the National Football League. It was actually George Allen who signed me—he was the assistant defensive coach for them at the time. He said, You know, I’m paying you more money than the Bears have paid any rookie since Red Grange, or something like that, and you knew he was lying, but still you had to laugh. It was terrible, but that’s the way it went.

I came to our first training camp pretty well ready. At Pitt we worked as hard as anybody. We had John Michelosen as our coach, and John was a stickler for hard work and tough training. So we were used to working hard, and therefore training camp was not that difficult for me.

Mike Ditka on the receiving end of a touchdown pass from Bill Wade in a 1962 game against the Vikings. Other Bears pictured include Herman Lee (No. 70), Bob Wetoska (No. 63), Mike Pyle (No. 50), Ted Karras (No. 67), and Rick Casares (No. 35). The Bears won that day, 31–30.

There was, of course, a difference from college football. At Pitt I’d played a lot of defense and blocked a lot. Catching passes was rarely on the agenda. With the Bears my job was to catch balls and block, and that was a big change for me. So, when I got with the Bears in 1961, I went to Chicago early and worked out. That was the year the Bears traded for Bill Wade. Sid Luckman was there as an assistant coach, and Sid really helped me tremendously in becoming a receiver. He took the time to work with me and teach me how to catch a ball. Not that I couldn’t catch the ball—I led the team at Pitt in receiving my senior year with 14 catches or so, which tells you pretty much what our passing game was like. Sid guided me, and Bill Wade worked with me, throwing the ball to me; we just did it over and over. We worked with some of the defensive backs—I can remember Richie Petibon coming in at that time and some other guys, and we really had a good group. We worked out down at Soldier Field in those days even though we played at Wrigley Field. We’d work about three, four weeks in the summer, and it really helped me for training camp.

It was a different game then too. We were all part of football as a sport, and it’s not that anymore; it’s big business. We were part of pro football when it was played more for the love of the game, and we played hard together on the field and off the field, and we had fun.

We were much more together as a group in those days—even guys who didn’t ordinarily associate with other guys that much. It was nothing for all of us to meet at a place and have a beer together or a sandwich. I think we did much more of that than the players do today.

There was also a strong camaraderie. Maybe there wasn’t a great love, but there was always a great respect between our offense and defense. I always felt that. We knew that we were a team that won because of our defense, yet offensively we tried to do the things we had to do.

GEORGE CONNOR, Tackle, Linebacker, 1948–1955

Johnny Lujack and I came to the Bears together in 1948. We got a mixed reaction because we were out of Notre Dame and had gotten an awful lot of publicity in 1946 and 1947. I was one of the higher-paid linemen to come along in those years, and I cashed the $6,000 bonus check I got as a rookie for signing out at a certain bank on the South Side. Ray Bray and Chuck Drulis, two guards with the Bears who were in the automobile business, knew somebody at the bank, and that somebody did not have very good ethics. He told them the amount of the check from the Bears. The word spread among the players, and there was a lot of conjecture that maybe I was making more money than Bulldog Turner and Bray and a lot of other well-established Bear linemen.

When I went to my first training camp, I found out just how poorly that sat with the other players. They really gave me a bad time. We scrimmaged a lot, we had intrasquad games, and they were really after me. Most of the scars I have on my face are from my teammates that year [1948]. But I was able to ward them off and got through the camp scrimmages with a variety of bruises, scabs, and pains.

At the end of the training camp, when the squad was set, Bulldog Turner, our All-Pro center, came up to me and said, Kid, you’re all right. You took everything we gave you. Welcome to the team.

It was a kind of strange set of circumstances that brought me to the Bears that year. I had been the No. 1 draft choice of the New York Giants my junior year at Notre Dame in 1946. Wellington Mara [son of Tim Mara, founder and owner of the Giants] contacted me. I had played out east for two years [1942–1943] at Holy Cross in Massachusetts before coming to Notre Dame after the service, and that’s where they had first seen me play.

Linebacker George Connor dispenses one mean stiffarm after intercepting a pass in a game against the Rams at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Connor, a tackle on offense, was named All-Pro eight times as both an offensive and defensive player and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975.

I did not want to play in New York. I wanted to play in my hometown, which was Chicago— I’d grown up on the South Side, played football for De LaSalle out there. So I went to the Chicago Cardinals first, the South Side team that played in Comiskey Park then, and told them I didn’t want to play for the Giants. But the Cardinals, who had just won the NFL championship the year before—they beat the Eagles that year—didn’t show any interest in me.

So I went over on Wabash Avenue to the Bears’ office and saw George Halas. He said, Kid, stick to your guns, and you’ll wind up a Bear.

I went back and played my senior year at Notre Dame, and Wellington Mara came out and visited with my family and me in Chicago after the season. I convinced him, however, that I did not want to play pro ball in New York, so he traded the rights to me to Ted Collins, the owner of the Boston Yanks, who was also the manager of the singer Kate Smith. Ted Collins kept calling me, and eventually he threatened that if I didn’t sign with him he’d tell the president of Notre Dame, Fr. John Cavanaugh, who was a good friend of his.

I said, Well you just go ahead and do that, because I don’t want to play in Boston any more than I wanted to play in New York. Finally he got frustrated, and he traded me to the Bears for Mike Jarmoluk, a tackle from Temple.

RED GRANGE, Halfback, 1925, 1929–1934

It was Charlie Pyle who got me to join the pros. His initials were C.C., which some writer later said stood for Cash and Carry. But Charlie was the most impressive man I ever met in my life, and I’ve met millions of people, presidents and everything

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