In the waning winter daylight of January 30, 1994, along a snow-blown highway north of Toronto, a Volvo station wagon raced toward the city. Behind the wheel was my mother, driving faster than she should have, an act of lawlessness that would soon earn her a ticket. I was seated beside her, all of fourteen years old, my wrist freshly fractured from snowboarding, pleading with her to drive faster. We weren’t speeding to the hospital, despite my mother’s pleas. We were racing home to watch the Superbowl. “We can go after the game!” I told her. “I can’t miss kickoff.” Here I was, pushing aside the pain for the game, just like Emmitt Smith would do that fateful evening, running over 130 yards despite the agony of a busted shoulder.
Oddly enough, I was not a real football fan by even the loosest definition of the term. The Superbowl was the only NFL game I watched each season, and I mainly did so for the commercials and the junk food. Sure, I once felt a kinship with the Buffalo Bills, that always-a-bridesmaid team from the hardscrabble, half-abandoned city across the border. I had grown fond of the Bills over their past three consecutive Superbowl losses, and I hoped that this game would be different. But I bore the pain of my broken wrist and my mother’s speeding ticket because I wanted to eat a small bucket of KFC popcorn chicken while watching an advertisement for it at halftime.
Even though I’m no more of a true fan today, NFL football (which I’m just going to call “football” from here on in, despite the protests of CFL and soccer fans) is a sport that both confuses and entrances me. Its rules are arcane, its combination of formations and plays almost incomprehensible, and there is far more pageantry than actual play. I have only been to a handful of games over my lifetime, from the searing metal bleachers of Tampa Bay to the frozen metal bleachers of Buffalo, and I have never followed a team for more than a single Sunday. My scattered knowledge of the game comes from a combination of movies like Rudy and The Program, a losing season as a 138 lb linebacker in my summer camp’s league (where placid Jewish counselors transformed into raging, clipboard tossing coaches), and two years playing Madden NFL ‘94 on the Super Nintendo system, the video game where the only play I called was the Hail Mary, time and again.
And yet I love football, in the same way I love classical music: with blind, opportunistic glee the few times a year I indulge in it. I love the built-in tension of the format, and the possibility for mania each play holds. I live for fumbles, turnovers and crazy runs, but root for no one in particular, except whatever team’s behind. I love the NFL’s sheer bigness. I love the ritual of tailgating, the very idea that wings and pulled pork and beer are linked to athletics. No game is more deliciously American. If the Denny’s menu were a sport, it would be football.
I now understand that mad, beautiful sport just a bit more, after reading Rich Cohen’s recently published book Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, a fan’s exploratory memoir of the season that he loved most. Monsters was the first football book I have ever picked up, and I read it largely because Cohen, with his flourishes of Rothian humour and Wolfeian bravado, is the type of writer who would make the paint drying business an exciting read. Cohen is not a former player, coach or hardcore fan. He is the suburban everyman who tacked the posters of players above his bed in high school. But he understands his love of a sport that seems irrational, even to some fans. Football is about unpredictable results, two armies locked in trench warfare, scrapping for victory. “What makes a game exciting?” Cohen asks, “The tension of anticipating the play that will bust open the piñata.”
Cohen serves up the 1985 Bears as football’s pinnacle, opening the book as he boards a chartered flight from Chicago to the 1986 Superbowl in New Orleans. The plane is filled with “huge beer-swilling South Siders with the sort of mustaches that suggest virility,” barely containing their superfan bravado and bratwurst as they roll around the fuselage like drunken bowling balls. But as Cohen pulls back from the game (which the Bears won in a massive blowout), he shows how the Chicago Bears are the core team at the heart of the NFL’s story. Though American football began on Ivy League college campuses in the 19th century, the NFL started in the 1920’s and was rooted in the factory teams of the Midwest: thrown together packs of WWI veterans and manual labourers playing under the banner of the steelworks, mines, manufacturers and meat packers who were their patrons. The Bears began as the Decatur Staleys, the team at a starch factory, but soon relocated to Chicago under their current name. They were led by coach and owner George Halas, a player from the rough and tumble helmetless old school of men who chewed glass for fun. Halas looked for hungry, working class players who exhibited “that old zipperoo,” and he quickly became the NFL’s founding prophet, setting the tone of the league in a way that’s endured to this day.
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.