Chicago safety Gary Fencik is the yuppie from Yale who is known as a late-hit artist in some parts. Some call him Clean Dirt.
Fencik, for all his intellect and all his 10 years with the Bears, says he has no clue how he earned this reputation. He plays on a defense with ruffians known as Danimal Hampton and Samurai Singletary, but the rugged defensive tackle, Steve (Mongo) McMichael, said of Fencik: "He doesn't have a nickname. Who can give a yuppie a nickname besides Biff? Gary is not a Biff."
Fencik said he was shocked when Redskins players voted him the league's second-dirtiest player in a survey conducted by The Washington Post two years ago. The entire Raiders team was first.
"I couldn't believe it," Fencik said. "I had never had any kind of incident with the Redskins."
Worse yet, during a Raiders-Bears game last year, both teams lost quarterbacks because of injuries. During one timeout, Fencik said Raiders defensive end Howie Long motioned him over to the Raiders' sideline just to howl at him, "I deserve to be rated ahead of you!" in the poll of dirty players.
It seems that Fencik first put himself on the "hard hit" map in 1977. That's when he put the shoulder-to-chest whammy on a Giants receiver named Jimmy Robinson, who dared to cross the middle. It took Robinson about three TV commercial breaks before he could get up.
"I don't know that I've ever had a more perfect hit," Fencik said.
Former Bears safety Doug Plank recalled, "Robinson's feet left the ground, and he was instantly placed in the twilight zone. His head was out of tune. The TV camera zoomed in on his face, and his eyes were rolling. The kid was lost. It was the first time I realized Gary had impact power."
Fencik said it is possible that his reputation for hitting players either after the whistle had sounded or when they weren't looking (or both) was started because people confused him with Plank, a self-avowed head-hunter. Plank wore No. 46, Fencik No. 45.
Fencik said that in 1983, the year after Plank left the Bears, a referee once cautioned him during a game, "Watch the late hitting, Plank."
Plank is the first to concede that carrying an outlaw's reputation can help a safety plenty. Receivers will cross the middle with trepidation.
"I went into a game with two goals," Plank said today from his home in Columbus, Ohio. "One, just try to knock somebody into next week, and two, just make sure they weren't looking when I did it."
However, Plank added: "From what I have seen from the games since I left, Gary certainly takes advantage of every opportunity he gets to hit somebody."
Safety Dave Duerson, in his third year with the Bears, said of Fencik's late-hit rap: "That may have been true in years past, but that was when the Bears' season was over after the eighth game and all that was left was to play for yourself.
"If (Fencik) was a cheap-shot guy, he wouldn't have lasted this long. Offenses would have taken him out long ago."
Fencik said he has been called for only one unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty in two years and about five in his entire career.
"I don't really perceive myself on the field as a late hitter," Fencik said. "I've yet to hear anybody point out any specific plays where I've been guilty."
Fencik is 31 years, 6 feet 1 and 197 pounds of good looks and mean hits.
He said he hoped to play "two or three years" when he first entered the league after having set school records as a receiver at Yale.
Fencik's career seemed to have reached an abrupt end when, as a 10th-round draft pick in his rookie camp at Miami, he suffered a punctured lung and was waived.
He was claimed by the Bears, and this is what has followed:
Fencik has been to two Pro Bowls and has intercepted 35 passes, two short of Richie Petitbon's team record. Fencik's first interception came against Joe Namath in 1977.
Fencik is unique. He has run with the bulls in Pamplona in one of the few games in which spearing is allowed ("the fastest 40 yards I ever ran"). He has vacationed in Tahiti, New Zealand, Bangkok and the Philippines (all during the last offseason). He has studied in London and is working toward his master's degree in finance at Northwestern University.
In answering one question this week, Fencik casually mentioned that he had been watching a PBS documentary on television. How many of your teammates watch PBS documentaries, do you suppose, Gary?
"Well, they do watch TV," Fencik said, smiling. "Mostly MTV."
Once upon a time, Fencik even took a class on sports, law and society at Yale from an instructor named Howard Cosell.
Cosell says of his former A student: "Gary is one member of the jockacracy who is deserving and can do whatever he wants in the world. He's got far more speaking presence and personality even than a man like Pete Dawkins (a former West Point football star who is now a general partner at Lehman Bros. on Wall Street).
"I believe Gary can go far in politics. I don't believe a man like Jackie Kemp can speak like Gary, not with the same appeal. Gary is of the same intellectual cut with Bill Bradley, who is a positively brilliant man. I think Gary can become one of the important people in the world of finance in the United States of America."
Said Fencik, "I think maybe the first few years (after graduation from Yale), when I saw all of my friends going to law school or med school, I thought about what contributions I was making as a Yale man. But I got over that.
"I guess my aspiration is not to run some Fortune 500 company. No, I have no political aspirations."
Here, John Gary Fencik, son of the high school assistant principal, smiled and looked into the teeth of Super Bowl week hype and tension and made a statement that certainly would make the hearts of all Yalies sing: "I just want to go to La-La land and have fun," Fencik said.