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Monsters : The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football

By Rich Cohen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

300 pages, $26

By Budd Bailey

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Those who make up a list of the greatest pro football teams in history probably have the 1985 Chicago Bears near the top. They simply dominated the league that year, led by a defensive unit that beat, and beat up, opposing offenses. You could see the fear in other team’s quarterbacks on television, even in those pre-high definition days.

The team went 15-1 in the regular season, and then took three playoff games by the scores of 21-0, 24-0 and 46-10. That’s one late-game touchdown in a blowout against the so-called best competition in the league.

The ’85 Bears season led to a variety of books, as you might expect. What’s more, such books are still coming, almost 30 years later.

Author Rich Cohen, who has written eight other books as well as many major articles for magazines, adds his name to the list with “Monsters.” He has plenty of material.

Those Bears were not only good, but they were characters. The head coach was Mike Ditka, who is still leveraging his public image as a tough guy into commercial success. The defensive coordinator was Buddy Ryan, who believed intimidation was the best weapon a defense could have. Ditka and Ryan couldn’t stand each other.

The quarterback was Jim McMahon, a character with a capital C. It’s fair to say that one of sport’s greatest upsets was that he made it through four years at Brigham Young University before coming to the Bears. Walter Payton, one of the all-time greats, was the featured running back.

On defense, there were such greats as Dan Hampton and Mike Singletary mixed in with people such as future pro wrestler Steve McMichael and defensive tackle/part-time fullback William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Some of the other defenders, like Otis Wilson, Wilber Marshall and Gary Fencik, were memorable for their aggressive style.

Writing a book about that group sounds as if it is more or less fool-proof. Go find members of the ’85 Bears, turn on the tape recorder, ask them questions about the era, and let the guys talk. When that happens, this book is quite enjoyable.

By the way, there’s even a very short chapter with a Buffalo connection. Late in the ’85 season, the Bears played the Lions. Detroit’s quarterback was Joe Ferguson, who spent most of his career as a Buffalo Bill. Apparently early in the game, Marshall hit Ferguson so hard that the quarterback was probably out cold before landing on the ground. He once told Fencik that he didn’t remember anything about the day before the game and for the two days after the game.

There’s more to the narrative here, though. Cohen opted to write something of a history of the Bears before 1985. That means much of the first third of the book is devoted to tales of George Halas, the longtime owner and coach of the team, and of Ditka in his playing days.

Throughout the book, Cohen brings a couple of personal traits to the writing. The first is that he is a Big Fan of the Bears, words capitalized for good reason. This was the team of Cohen’s youth, something like a first love. The first chapter, in fact, deals with how he flew down on a charter to New Orleans as a senior in high school, and went to the game. There is a certain amount of hero worship present, as in “Gee whiz, I’m really talking to Jim McMahon,” and he offers his own recollections of specific plays, games and players.

Experiences of a fan usually are much more interesting to the speaker than to the listener, and there’s a little too much of the author here. In other words, it’s hard to care that Cohen made out with a high school friend on the grass behind North School in 1983.

In addition, Cohen seems quite anxious to put his own personal writing touches on the story. That can work in isolation, such as this description of Dick Butkus’ knees in 1973 – “He was like a jellyfish in a puddle: dangerous but only if you step on it.” But that technique tends to call attention to itself. Sometimes Cohen should be called for piling on, with such techniques as quotes that were never actually said but are implied by the story.

The Bears never repeated as champions, which hurt their reputation a bit in hindsight. The obvious comparison is to a comet, which blinded everyone for a short time with its brilliance but then dimmed. “Monsters” catches some of that light, and veteran Bears fans no doubt will like it.

The reaction of others no doubt will depend on the response to the writing approach.

Budd Bailey is a Buffalo News sports writer and copy editor. He is the author of the recently published “Today in Buffalo Sports History.”