A SUPER BOWL featuring the Bears and the Patriots, two teams unacquainted with excellence for more than two decades, sounds more than a little off to me. It has the ring of an exhibition game, or a scheduling mistake. It has the improbable air of a computer sports match-up.
As someone who spent the first half of his life in Chicago and the second half in Boston, I am unaccustomed to gridiron winners. That the two teams I care most about should make the Super Bowl together is a luxury almost too rich to appreciate. And in the case of the Bears -- a childhood fixation I find virtually unmitigated by adulthood -- this development requires me to readjust my fundamental relationship to the born-again Monsters of the Midway.
The Bears have always expressed the character of the city they play in -- muscular, direct, defensive, contemptuous of the ornate and sophisticated. Even their uniforms -- helmets and jerseys the color of a smoky sunset over the steel mills of Gary, Indiana -- tell you what to expect. Theirs has always been a low-tech, Rust Belt ethos. Other teams may be susceptible to the meretricious glamor of The Big Pass Play, but the archetypal Bear moment has always involved a Chicago linebacker humiliating an opposing running back behind the line of scrimmage.
In 1963, the last year they won the championship, the key game late in the season came against the powerhouse Green Bay Packers at Wrigley Field. On their first offensive series, the Packers ran fullback Jim Taylor on their then-patented sweep right. Bear linebacker Bill George stopped Taylor after a short gain. Taylor, as was his custom, tried to wriggle forward for an extra yard. Bill George was not impressed; he sat on Taylor's head. Bear fans had no trouble understanding the full significance of the moment. Welcome to Chicago. Bears 26, Packers 7.
Then there was Dick Butkus, who took the opponent's mere intention of gaining yards as a grievous personal insult. And a week ago, there was Mike Singletary stopping the Rams' Eric Dickerson on third-down-and-a-foot-to-go early in the game. One immediately understood the implications of Singletary's gesture. Other teams may define progress in terms of spectacular advances down the field; for the Bears, success has always been measured in terms of blood and inches.
However, for most of the years between 1963 and 1984, the Bears' ethos yielded only a kind of ineffable mediocrity. The offense, infected by the team's general disdain for grandiosity (and perhaps George Halas' general disdain for high salaries, as well), played as if it were on defense.
In the mid-'60s, the team's attitude toward scoring was symbolized for me by fullback Joe Marconi's trademark play. Taking a hand-off from Rudy Bukich or Billy Wade, he would plow off-tackle for two yards and promptly fall down, whether he had been touched or not. A typical Bears offensive series during much of the '60s and '70s featured three lame running plays followed by a punt. It was as if the offensive unit, conceding the superiority of the defensive one, could not wait to get off the field and watch some real football.
Until recently, there was something profoundly disturbed about the psychology of Bear offenses. When behind late in the game, other teams resorted to a two-minute offense, lining up without a huddle, throwing passes, getting out of bounds. The elements of the two-minute offense -- indeed, its sheer necessity -- seemed to elude Chicago teams. They behaved late in a losing game as though they were ahead by two touchdowns.
Where other teams conserved their time-outs, the Bears would squander theirs in the third-quarter. One of their favorite offensive maneuvers in the '70s was being penalized five yards in critical situations for delay-of-game. They seemed not to respect, or even acknowledge, the clock. One felt the team was reality-testing very poorly.
The team was defined by brute, but ultimately ineffectual, force, like a large American car with a defective transmission. Those of us addicted to the team, even from a geographically distant adulthood, learned to accept the Bears' frustrating mentality by rearranging our expectations, and even our perceptions.
Fans like myself and my childhood friend Jim Friedman, now a law professor in Portland, Maine, began to accept what we saw as the team's willful inferiority. We rationalized it as a symptom of the mythology of Chicago as the Second City. We came to believe that the Bears were actually engaged in a vaguely different sport from the other teams in the league; that the Bears' real struggle was never against their opponent, but against their own self-destructiveness.
During the course of this past regular season, when the Bears won 15 of 16 games, Jim and I conferred periodically about the Chicago victories. But despite the evidence of the team's week-after-week superiority, which non-Chicagoans and the press found incontrovertible, we -- crippled by habitual disappointment -- regarded each triumph as a fluke, each touchdown as a sort of optical illusion.
Even Jim's father, calling his son from Chicago after a convincing Bear win, could manage no more than, "Gee, that was a strange game," implying that a Bear victory always has a suspicious quality. Morever, each week we believed that the Bears' upcoming opponent possessed just that combination of strengths needed to humiliate the Bears, even when those presumed strengths bore no relationship to the opponent's actual qualities. That after 22 years a Chicago team is in danger of being the best is . . . well, unaccountable. If no man is a hero to his own valet, no successful, let alone Super Bowl-bound, Bear team is anything but a curiosity to its most discerning fans.
I am looking at the huge headline on the back page of The New York Daily News. It reads, "BEARS WILL NOT BE BEATEN." It disorients me. Is this, perhaps, an obscure reference to the Chicago Bears, the same professional team that has obsessed my friend, Jim, and me since the 1950s? So obsesses Jim, in fact, that when he invents cases for his law students, he names the parties after Bear linebackers?
We cannot let the Bears, even in triumph, escape one of their crucial roles in our lives: to symbolize, enhance and ennoble the whole idea of not being quite good enough. In this, the team reflects Chicago's larger feeling of potent inadequacy -- that although the city may be the only thing of consequence between the coasts, it still will always be the second city. As another expatriate Chicagoan, who lives in Washington, remarked, "Even if the Bears beat the Patriots, there'll be no release."
The Steelers, Cowboys, Raiders, Dolphins -- these are bona fide teams, entitled to appear from time to time in the Super Bowl. But the Bears? Yet, this year the Bears are a great football team, and in the great, physical Bear tradition. They have a defense so overwhelming, so capable of totally determining a game's outcome, so similar in its actions to a trash compactor, that it not only frequently makes its opponent's offense academic, but renders its own -- McMahon and Payton notwithstanding -- more trivial than an offense might like to be.
Yes, the Bears are able to shut out the Rams, 24-0, with Payton gaining only 32 yards on 18 carries. Ironically, even though the Bears have a better offense than they've had in years, it is still overshadowed, sometimes obscured by the defense.
Although it may be difficult for some of us to truly accept the team's success on the field, what is more difficult to absorb is the team's quite sudden, and garish visibility. They played on national television four times during the regular season, when only recently Monday Night Football wouldn't condescend to schedule them. They have a gargantuan rookie defense lineman named after a common kitchen appliance who is America's biggest gap-toothed star since Alfred E. Newman.
They have a group of proportionately plump cheerleaders called The Refrigerettes who make the national news. They have a bright quarterback who poses as Rambo on the cover of a national sports magazine and looks like a refugee from an MTV video. Several Bears, including McMahon, have made a video, "Super Bowl Shuffle," that violates the spirit of Bear tradition with its immodesty (even though Bear wide receiver Willie Gault, one of the video's featured singers, tried valiantly to disclaim the team's hubris by saying, "But if you listen to the words, we don't really talk about being there. We were doing a dance. The name just happens to be the 'Super Bowl Shuffle.'"). Show business does not become a Bear team; watching the video is like suddenly looking up and seeing your grandfather hanging ten on a surfboard.
The truth is that the Bears are in danger of becoming . . . I can barely allow myself to say it . . . of becoming America's Team. In the streets of New York City, where I now live, youths who have never been west of West End Avenue are wearing Bears satin jackets and hats, proudly sporting Chicago's deep navy blue and burnt orange -- as if they could comprehend the haunting import of the colors.
No, by all rights the Bears should not belong to New York City teenagers or MTV or McDonald's (one of Refrigerator Perry's endorsement contracts), or David Letterman and Mr. T., both of whom have appeared on TV wearing Walter Payton jerseys.
They should belong to those of us who know not just the Walter Paytons and Refrigerator Perrys, but the Joe Marconis and Bob Wetoskas. They should belong to those of us in whose brains is burned the image of a lyrical Bobby Joe Green punt nosing up against the bright starched November sky over Wrigley Field -- Wrigley Field, which was not quite big enough to accommodate a football field so that a corner of the south end zone was cropped at the corner by the brick wall along the first base line. That imperfection always captured for me, as a teenager, the team's flawed beauty. I loved them all the more because they were missing something.
One could understand the logic behind America's Erstwhile Team, the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys were the first professional football team to computerize. Their quarterbacks always seem very Christian. Their uniforms are a spacious silver blue. They have stars on their helmets. Their offense is always sophisticated, high-tech. But the Bears by their very nature are incompatible with hype. Yet there it is: The Bears have gone public. And because they are the youngest club in the NFL and therefore likely to remain a popular contender for the next few years, some of us are going to have to make a serious emotional adjustment.
If the Bears were facing the Miami Dolphins, who have already made it to five Super Bowls, we would have to fully accept the Bears' ascension to the ranks of the real. But the Bears are facing the New England Patriots, a team with whom there is no natural rivalry, no mutual history from which to draw in order to lend depth to next Sunday's battle. Here is another team of somewhat dowdy destiny, a team that in many ways mirrors the Bears' unlikelihood. This softens the blow.
The Pats have their own unique problems, beginning with a nickname conducive to variations on the themes of ineptitude and victimization. Their uniforms, as my friend Jim remarked, look like the complete Rawlings uniforms sets we used to buy as kids for $14.95. Since the early '70s, they've played in a suburban wasteland called Foxboro, which is closer to Providence, R.I., than to Boston.
If the Bears have to struggle with being from the Second City, the Patriots must reckon with hailing from the 2,349th. The location muddles the team's geographic identity, and is an aesthetic disaster as well. The stadium, a model of cheap and hasty construction, and its barren surroundings resemble the set for a bad movie about post-nuclear America that Spielberg didn't make.
As Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle put it recently: "This team plays somewhere near East Overshoe, R.I., flies out of a rinky-dink airport located in a different area code, and plays in a stadium best reached by dog sled."
The only traditions they have going for them are public drunkenness and stepping on high-tension wires. This last is a reference to the Patriot fans' habitual lack of decorum and prudence, conduct once again in display last Monday when the Pats' charter flight from Miami touched down at Green Airport at 2:30 in the morning. Some of the crowd of 18,000 "well-wishers" broke through the police line and tried to storm the plane. There were five arrests, one of them for assaulting a police officer and his dog.
However, the fact is that the Patriots, too, belong in this Super Bowl. Under their wise, idiosyncratic and humble coach, Raymond Berry, this year the Pats have inspired in their best and most attentive fans something approaching religious zeal. One of those fans, Frank Paul Solman, a Boston business journalist and television producer, told me, "This is the first team since the Brooklyn Dodgers where there's a moral basis for rooting for them." For this, he mostly credits Berry's humane, un-macho philosophy. "I love the fact that after Mosi Tatupu fumbled against the Raiders, Berry went up to him and said, 'I'll give you the ball the next chance I get. I love you.' With the Patriots, it's not us-against-the-world, but us as an affirmation of the human spirit."
I had this thought. Given the Patriots' and the Bears' affirmation of the human spirit (okay, Mike Ditka was arrested for drunk driving in October, but did you happen to see Walter Payton kiss Eric Dickerson during a press conference before the Bears-Rams NFC Championship game?), wouldn't it be something if they didn't play a football game at all in New Orleans, but just suited up, went out on the field, and all hugged each other in front of 100 million people?
My suspicion, however, is that they will play a game. And I'll tell you why the Bears will win it. I've given it a lot of rational thought. You know that end zone in Wrigley Field with the corner missing? Well, in the mid-60's I watched from an upper deck seat as Raymond Berry, then the Hall of Fame-bound Baltimore Colt receiver, ran a post-flag pass pattern to that corner late in the fourth quarter and caught a touchdown pass from Unitas to beat the Bears 24-20.
But I must tell you something: Everyone at the game, with the exception of the officials, could plainly see that Berry never had control of the ball before he went out of bounds in the end zone. He never had possession! It was a totally bum call! We were robbed! Even Ray Berry himself knew he didn't have possession, that the Bears should've won. And he's thinking about that play right now. I'm sure of it. And he's always wondered when he would have to pay the price. And now he knows.
Bears 27, Patriots 13.