In telling the story of the 1985 Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears in Monsters, Chicago native and passionate Bears fan Rich Cohen has written a book about life: its triumphs, sadnesses, separations, and endings. Here he talks to Phil Hanrahan, author of Life After Favre, a book about the Bears’ great historic rival, the Green Bay Packers.
Zola: As a lifelong Bears fan and longtime author, you must have considered a book about the ’85 Bears more than once over the years. What made it finally happen? Why now?
Rich Cohen: While working on a magazine story, I happened to speak to Bears safety Doug Plank. Plank was off the roster in ’85, but he was really the heart and soul of the great Bears defenses of the ‘80s. It’s his number, 46, that gave the 46 Defense its name. Plank, who had played like such a wildman, was one of the most thoughtful, decent, reflective people I had ever spoken to. Not just about the game, but about life—how you should behave, how you should play. And, I realized, suddenly, that enough time had gone by, enough life had been lived for these guys to tell the story honestly and with perspective. I suddenly had this wild idea that the ‘85 Bears—to me the greatest team to ever play in the NFL—could be what Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer had been to my father’s generation. A book not just about a game, but about life: what it’s like to be young, what it’s like to get old, what it’s like to succeed, what it’s like to fail.
Zola: 25 years had passed since their dominating Super Bowl XX win. How did this passage of time impact the book—the creation of it; the feel? Were there advantages? Any disadvantages?
RC: Well, the most obvious disadvantages are the casualties. In other words, some of the guys were gone, sadly. Walter Payton died when he was 45 years old. Dave Duerson, fearing he suffered from CTE, the brain disease caused by repetitive blows to the head, shot himself in the chest just a few years ago. This hung over every interview. The sadness, the melancholy, the fear. Of course, time also has a way of eroding the superficial and making the really important things stand out. This was a really great advantage. After 25 or 30 years, you can finally understand what an experience meant. These guys experienced something so intense when they were young. The rest of their lives have been spent, to some degree, processing it.
Zola: The book’s structure is a compelling blend. Along with chronicling the ’85 Bears season, you weave together early NFL and Bears team history, some of your own story, the story of Chicago, and what came after the dream season for those Bears players and coaches. Did you always know the book would work this way, or did you discover this effective form as you went along?
RC: As I reported the book and saw the way each player’s story was interlinked with the stories of those players who came before, I realized that this could be more than a story of a season—it could be the story of a team, the city, the league and crazily the story of America itself in the 20th century. The story of the ’85 Bears begins when George Halas brings Mike Ditka back from Dallas to run the team. Ditka and Halas were like Don Corleone and Sonny Corleone. Halas himself had been a great player on the Bears and before that at the University of Illinois. He founded the team and founded the NFL, starting in its early days when most franchises came out of factory leagues, and he continued into the 1980s. He played with Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, and even Jim Thorpe. If told properly, the story of the ’85 Bears is really the story of professional football. To my mind, the history of the league culminates in that team.
Zola: The book ends with Ditka. A road-trip to his hardscrabble western Pennsylvania hometown, followed by what sounds like an amazing conversation (“I asked him everything I had ever wanted to ask…”) with Ditka in his Chicago restaurant. The book’s final image is you sitting on a curb in midtown NYC, crying at the news of Ditka’s firing. Did you experiment with other endings, or was Ditka always going to be the way the book’s curtain closed?
RC: For a time, I thought the book might end with that road trip to western Pennsylvania and Ohio, the little towns where pro football was born. But in the end, I realized that this book is in some ways a series of interlinked biographies of great players and coaches—heroes of mine. And the figure at the center of it all, the hero of heroes is the great Iron Mike. Once I realized that, it seemed obvious to me that the book should end the moment his era ended; that is, when he was fired. For me, it was almost like the end of childhood. I am still getting over it.
Zola: Your passion for this team—your love—the tears you shed: the book’s strong emotion is part of its power. At one point you say, of this ’85 Bears team, “They had saved my life.” And you mean it…Did you have any concerns about approaching this material with such honesty?
RC: No, I think if you are going to commit yourself to write about something, you go all out, which for me, means you say not only what happened, but how it felt. This season, 1985, was one of the happiest times in my life. And leaving that joy out of the book would just be a shame. The main concern of course is not to make a fool out of yourself and cry all over everybody, but if you want to do something great, you have to risk looking like a complete idiot. I’m a big believer in Gonzo journalism which Hunter Thompson defined as learning to fly by falling out of a plane.
Zola: In the book’s Notes, right at the end, you speak of “how greatly [your] own views on football and its future have evolved in the past year.” Could you outline this change for readers?
RC: As a viewer or spectator, I believe that you are responsible in some degree for everything you see. If you find out the game you love is actually damaging its players, how do you justify that? After the death of Dave Duerson, I realized that as a fan, I might love the brutality of the 46 Defense, but as a human being, I love Dave Duerson more. That’s left me hoping that the league finds a way to preserve the things we love about it—the excitement and speed of the game, the intelligence of it—while also protecting the players from their own energy and enthusiasm.
Zola: You write of a certain surprise at finding that a number of these football players, not least Doug Plank, turned out to be some “of the smartest, most reflective people” you’ve ever interviewed. Are there things about pro football, and in particular, these ’80s Bears teams, that lend themselves to this kind of reflectiveness?
RC: It’s the fascinating thing about pro football: it’s at once the most brutal and the most brainy game we have. To be a captain, to be a coach, to be a play caller, you have to be smart. What’s more, the Bears in those years always made a point of drafting for character. They did not always take the greatest physical specimen, they took guys like McMahon and Plank, smart guys who had what George Halas called the old “zipperoo.” Evidence of this fact is the number of people and players associated with that team who are now coaches in the NFL. Jeff Fisher who coaches the Rams; Ron Rivera who coaches the Panthers; Lesley Frazier who coaches the Vikings; Mike Singletary who had coached the 49ers—a team now coached by Jim Harbaugh, a former Bears quarterback. Here’s what one-time Bears General Manager Bill Tobin told me: When your best people are your best players, you are in good shape.
Zola: The 1981 Bears defensive players writing a letter to 86-year-old Bears owner George Halas is one of my favorite moments in the book. Could you share this story? I also like the detail of Ditka always drinking champagne after a game, win or loss. Do you have a favorite moment or two of your own?
RC: When the Bears defense had a breakthrough under Buddy Ryan in 1981, that’s when the 46 Defense emerged—they knew it was something special. There had been rumors that Halas would fire his coach at the end of the season. The defensive captains of the Bears were exceptional: Gary Fencik, a Chicago kid and graduate of Yale, who went on to become a hugely successful businessman, and Allan Page, a Hall of Famer who now sits on the Minnesota State Supreme Court. They wrote a letter to Halas explaining their love and loyalty for their coach and their belief that they were on the verge of doing something truly remarkable in the league. They wanted Buddy Ryan to stay. Halas said it was the greatest letter he had ever received. As a result, when Ditka came to the Bears as a coach, he controlled only the offense. The effect was a rivalry between offense and defense that drove the team to the heights of excellence.
As for a favorite moment, I guess it would be the way each player so vividly remembered his last moment on the football field. If you want to get an interesting answer from a former professional athlete, just say: Tell me how it ended.
Zola: We learn that your first NYC job was interning at The New Yorker. The book begins with an Iliad quote, you devote half a page to a Carl Sandburg poem, you liken the NFL to a central aspect of the novel Don Quixote. There’s a literary element to Monsters. And this is a literary website. Could you explain the Quixote comparison and then talk a little bit about your literary background? Who are your favorite writers?
RC: Don Quixote was itself a parody of a whole genre of literature that long ago ceased to exist—tales of chivalry, damsels, knights. In other words, the object is gone, but the joke itself remains. It’s the same thing with the modern NFL. The league started in grim little mill towns all around the Midwest. Its first players were factory workers on break from the assembly lines. That’s where the desperation and violence of the game comes from. Now, those towns and those teams are gone and only the violence remains.
I’m a huge fan of narrative nonfiction. I’m always trying to learn new tricks. My favorite writers in no particular order would probably be: Ian Frazier, Mark Singer, Alec Wilkinson, Joseph Mitchell, Tom Wolfe, James McManus, David Lipsky. Well, that’s some of them.
Zola: With the cast of incredible characters, starting with headband-wearing quarterback Jim McMahon, the story of these Bears seems to cry our for movie treatment. Do you agree? Even the ‘80s Chicago background is cinematic: The Blues Brothers. John Hughes movies. Has Hollywood shown any interest in Monsters? Any dream casting or director thoughts?
RC: I think it could make a great mini-series: two seasons, 20 episodes. Each episode is a game, with flashbacks for the lead-up. I haven’t thought much about casting, but I guess Ditka could play himself, Owen Wilson could play Doug Plank, Vince Vaughn could play Dan Hampton, Bill Murray could play George Halas, and Jim Belushi could play Sid Luckman. Or maybe, Ditka could play Butkus and Butkus could play Ditka. That’s got Emmy written all over it.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.