Glencoe native Rich Cohen, a New Trier graduate, was motivated by his own infatuation with the 1985 Bears in writing the definitive book on the team. | Mike Thomas/Sun-Times
Updated: December 4, 2013 6:24AM
Dick Schaap was a prolific author, an engaging broadcaster and an undisputed heavyweight journalist, as well as a quintessential New Yorker. He was asked once why he had never undertaken a biography of Mickey Mantle, the quintessential New York hero.
Not much ground left to plow, Schaap explained, noting that more books had been written about the Mick than were contained in the Bible.
That’s probably true. And there probably won’t be any more, and not because Mantle died in 1997. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, written by Jane Leavy in 2010, is too definitive a dissection of a fascinating, flawed life to be anything but the last word on the Mick.
The 1985 Bears (hold your applause, please) aren’t quite in Mantle’s league as source material for the literati, although entire forests have given their lives to the pursuit of the truth about Mongo, the Fridge, Danimal and other larger-than-life characters on Da Coach’s rambunctious squad. The search ends with Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, out this week.
Author Rich Cohen was a 17-year-old New Trier High School senior as the Bears were laying waste to the NFL in 1985, capping the most dominant season in league history with a 43-point pillaging of the hapless New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. Cohen finagled his way to New Orleans and bore witness. Those Bears were his team and Jim McMahon was his guy, and his quest to understand the attraction 28 years later makes for a story that reflects Chicago — rough, tough and defiant to a man, the ’85 Bears are the embodiment of this city’s self-image.
‘‘In a selfish way, I’m trying to relive what was a really good time in my life,’’ Cohen told me last week. ‘‘I also wanted to find out what’s become of those guys. Some of them are still pretty visible, but not all of them. What happens after you’re on top of the world as a young man?’’
Cohen, now 45, knows and loves sports — the Cubs occupy a place in his heart right next to the Bears. He considers himself a generalist as a writer and is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. Before Monsters, his best-known work was The Fish That Ate the Whale, an absorbing account of how a New Orleans businessman named Sam Zemurray became a dominant figure in 1950s Central America through brazen manipulation of the banana trade.
Revisiting the team and reliving a time that defined his teenage years is a labor of love for Cohen. The intractable Mike Ditka-Buddy Ryan relationship, McMahon’s Svengali-like command of the locker room, George Halas’ spectral presence over all things Bears . . . some of the book’s strongest material won’t come as news to most Bears fans. It is Cohen’s skillful compilation and shrewd interpretation of the total package that make the book work. He combines intelligence and insight with a reporter’s eye for detail and a novelist’s writing chops.
Then as now, Ditka’s sneering, snarling persona touches everything, but Cohen was surprised to discover that one common perception of Da Coach is a false one.
‘‘He has this reputation as a hard-ass disciplinarian, but he really wasn’t,’’ Cohen says. ‘‘He’d been an outspoken guy who said and did some controversial things as a player, so he let his players do their thing, and these amazing characters emerged.
‘‘They were all over New Orleans the week of the game, drinking, socializing, mingling with fans. You never saw the Patriots, who were sequestered with a curfew. How’d that work out?’’
Doug Plank had given his body to the cause and was gone from the roster by 1985 but hardly forgotten. The ferocious ‘‘46’’ defense that drove the Bears’ success and fueled their swagger owed its name to Plank’s number and its quarterback-defiling attitude to his spirit. Cohen considers Plank one of the smartest men he has encountered, thankfully free of the pervasive head trauma that is gradually rendering his notoriously reckless style obsolete.
‘‘Attack, attack, attack — that was the mentality,’’ Plank says. ‘‘Football is chess. You can capture all my pawns, but if I tip over that king, I win.’’
What Cohen’s book does better than its predecessors is transform its subjects from cartoon characters — think Mongo McMichael’s boozy gentlemen’s club commercials — into real people with talents, flaws, loves, hates, fears, pleasures, anxieties, joys . . . human beings, just like the rest of us, only bigger, faster, stronger, tougher, braver, etc.
And winners of one in a row. Still hard to figure.