America At Large: sad Chicago Bears story shows how risk can outstrip reward

Over 20 players who won Super Bowl XX are now in various states of incapacitation

Chicago Bears defensive tackle William Perry,  aka ‘The Refrigerator’, is now battling Guillain–Barré syndrome. Photograph: Bill Smith/Getty Images

Chicago Bears defensive tackle William Perry, aka ‘The Refrigerator’, is now battling Guillain–Barré syndrome. Photograph: Bill Smith/Getty Images

 

A gap-toothed, 25-stone Chicago Bear was the first NFL superstar to truly capture Irish imaginations. This genial behemoth wore number 72 across his sprawling chest, sometimes barrelled spectacularly into the end zone from one yard out, and with cameos on The A-Team and WrestleMania, he was as much an eighties’ pop cultural icon as he was an athlete. Christened William Perry, we knew him first and best as ‘The Refrigerator’ or ‘The Fridge’.

Perry’s celebrity was amplified by the enormity of his girth and by his presence on a Bears’ outfit that won Super Bowl XX in such impressive style that it still features prominently in any attempt to identify the best team of all time. He wasn’t the best player on the roster. That was the late running back Walter ‘Sweetness’ Payton. He wasn’t the flashiest. That was loudmouth quarterback Jim McMahon.

A defensive lineman pressed into service on offense to confuse opponents, Perry’s attacking gambits were actually gimmick plays for the Bears. But Irish fans discovering the game for the first time during that 1985 campaign fell for him and for a team that seemed like a splash of gaudy technicolour across our monochromatic lives.

Last week, HBO’s excellent magazine show Real Sports caught up with some of those greats and the news was not good. Twenty-three of the players who won that Super Bowl exist in various states of incapacitation and are now suing the league for the physical and mental damage they suffered during their careers. They came, they entertained hugely, they conquered. And, ever since, in one way or another, they appear to have been paying for it.

Dave Duerson was a safety on that side. Four years ago, he lay down on his bed in a condo in Florida, put a gun to his chest and shot himself through the heart. In his suicide note, he requested his family donate his brain to the Boston University facility investigating the impact of concussions on NFL players. Neurologists there found Duerson had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) from taking too many heavy hits to the head in games.

“When I first heard about these guys killing themselves, I couldn’t figure out how they could do that,” said McMahon. “But I was having those thoughts myself. Feelings of inadequacy. And just like you’re a dumbass. Once the pain starts getting that bad, you figure you’ll take the only way out. If I would’ve had a gun, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Second Captains

Over-medicated culture

“I think it’s safe to say that this is the only team in NFL history with a gold record and a Grammy nomination,” said President Barack Obama referencing the supremely over-confident Bears recording The Super Bowl Shuffle before they’d even qualified for the game.

“So this team changed everything for every team that came after, on and off the field. They changed the laws of football. They were gritty; they were gutsy; they were hardworking; they were fun-loving.”

For too many of the beloved Bears, the fun stopped long ago. The brash McMahon, notorious for wearing shades and a headband on the sidelines, cuts a rather pathetic figure these times. Recently diagnosed with early onset dementia at the age of just 55, he often has to call his girlfriend from the supermarket because he can’t remember why he went there in the first place.

Struggled with alcoholism

Mike Ditka

Indeed, Ditka made the most headlines last week when he confessed that if he had an eight-year-old son today, he wouldn’t let him play the game to which he has devoted his own life.

“I think the risk is worse than the reward,” said the 75-year-old Hall of Famer.

Just as the Bears’ travails were being catalogued onscreen, Newsday published a survey of 763 former NFL players, the disturbing results of which ran along expected lines. Aside from nearly all admitting to struggling with life after grid-iron, almost half still battle the consequences of head injuries incurred during their careers. One in four take prescription painkillers today to cope with ailments suffered when they were in their pomp.

A pair of stories that offer a troubling glimpse of the fate that may await the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks who meet in Sunday night’s Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona, this year’s participants may not actually be bothered by that vista.

After all, 89 per cent of retired players also say that if they had their time over, despite everything, they’d put their bodies through it all again just for the chance to play in the NFL. Risks and rewards, they do strange things to people.

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