Watching the Super Bowl last weekend, there was unmistakable irony in light of a recent HBO Real Sports story highlighting the suffering of many of the Chicago Bears players from the historic “Super Bowl Shuffle” team of 1985. For those of us who were football fans at the time, the ’85 Bears, with wonderful personalities such as William “The Refrigerator” Perry (who was so athletic that despite weighing well over 300 pounds, he was utilized by Coach Mike Ditka as a receiver and running back as well as a stellar defensive lineman), and quarterback Jim McMahon, who wore a headband taunting then Commissioner Pete Rozelle, mooned the cameras, and was a certified flake, but also a tremendous competitor and tough as they come, were a joy to behold, even for New York football fans. Further, the talent level of the team was overwhelming, with Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, and great defensive stalwarts such as middle linebacker Mike Singletary and defensive end Richard Dent, to name just a few.
The Real Sports story focuses on the devastating injuries that have been befallen many players on that glorious team, thirty years later, and whether the cost to them was worth their athletic achievements. By now, many know of the tragedy of Dave Duerson, a terrific defensive back on that team (and later the New York Giants) who suffered severe undiagnosed brain injuries during his career. After years of memory loss, depression and loss of cognitive functioning, Duerson ended his life by shooting himself in the chest, so that his brain could be analyzed. As he had anticipated, an autopsy determined that Duerson suffered from significant chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease caused by repeated insults or trauma to the brain, which results in deposits of a sticky substance called “tau”, which interfere with mental function.
Jim McMahon, who is only in his early fifties, describes how he will intend to go to the store from his home, and five minutes later, he is standing in the kitchen having forgotten that he intended to leave or where he was going until his girlfriend reminds him. If he does leave the house, often he can’t remember how to get home. McMahon was asked by Bryant Gumbel if, in light of his present condition, playing football was worth the risks involved, which were never disclosed to the players at that time. McMahon answered with a joking: “people always thought I was crazy anyway”, but it is clear that he was thinking that he might have chosen a different path if he had he been well informed. William Perry, still young, can barely walk anymore, and Richard Dent notes that he is very fearful of losing his memory as his teammates have. Mike Ditka, the hard as nails head coach of the Bears and former tight end for the Dallas Cowboys, stated bluntly that the NFL owes the players who they profited from so mightily to take care of them now, and was definitive in saying he would never want his grandchildren playing football, a startling statement from one of the legends of the game as player, coach and television announcer.