Halas’s Bears were among the first to unleash their quarterback as a mobile field commander, rather than just another player pushing on the line, transforming football from an approximation of rugby’s shoving match, into something more fluid, airborne and dynamic. Over the decades since he first fielded his team (Halas died in 1983), his Bears had their ups and downs, but in 1985 everything came together under the iron fist of coach (and former player) Mike Ditka, whom Cohen describes as a man with the face of a bear. Ditka, an absolute dictator, coached in bitter competition with the Bears’ defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, but the oil-and-vinegar dynamic produced the fiercest team in NFL history. Ditka was a relentless taskmaster who motivated his offense with fear, while Ryan crafted his seemingly unstoppable “46” defensive formation into a single muscle that pulverized opposing quarterbacks with unrelenting blitzes. Play after play after play the Bears surged at their opponents’ quarterbacks, until the league’s best players were quaking in their cleats before games with Chicago. This wasn’t pretty football. This was rough, bloody, dirty football. But it worked. The 1985 Bears dominated with brute force in a way that no other team has done before or since.
There’s no great buildup to the championship game in Monsters. Cohen lets you know from the beginning that the Bears win the Superbowl, but what draws you along throughout the book is his portrait of a pack of men, and a game, that was cobbled together, tuned to perfection and unleashed to win. Cohen writes best when he takes off as the all-seeing narrator, describing with breathless emotion the magic of a victorious Sunday (or the stink of a defeated one). He also crafts an ongoing oral history of the team, quoting at great length from personalities like Ditka or the rebellious punk quarterback Jim McMahon, to describe how an era of football came together, and then, just as quickly, fell apart.
The team’s demise might just be the best part of Monsters. Long after the Superbowl trophy had been hoisted and its champagne lapped dry, Cohen stays with the players and chronicles the consequences of their glory years. These gladiators, the grand heroes of the author’s youth, often fell hard. They were human missiles whose bodies were unleashed and broken against the wall of this great, savage game. Some succumb to booze and pills, some go bankrupt and a few die inglorious deaths after decades of brain trauma and depression. As victory fades, the pain is often all that’s left. A short passage about two veterans of the game meeting decades after their retirement in a Chicago supermarket is arresting. The last time these connected was on the field, against each other, in a vicious tackle. The tackler, whose body is now held together by surgeries and painkillers, breaks out in tears when he lays eyes on the now sobbing receiver whose career he ended with that savage hit. Two aging monsters, crying like babies in the cereal aisle.
Cohen acknowledges that the injuries, lawsuits and deaths will slowly chip away at football as we know it, and the high water mark of Halas’s bloody, violent game has already passed. Perhaps it has, and perhaps, as Cohen implies at the end of the book, that could be for the best. Perhaps a kinder, gentler football will emerge, with fans and the game’s inherent charm intact. The sport’s beauty – the thing that draws me back whenever the flicker of a game catches my eye in a bar, or when I surrender my body to a giant platter of nachos at a friend’s Superbowl party – is its unpredictability. It is a sport like no other. Where each play is pregnant with infinite promise and possibility, a game where even the mildest of fans, like me, holds their breath with each snap.
David Sax’s new book, The Tastemakers: Why Some Food Trends Catch On and Others Don’t, will be published this spring.