It was my first road trip as a reporter. Bearing down on 23 years old.
Whenever I'm ready to complain about the occasional, overblown inconveniences of a career that's been blessed to get this far, I have to reset and remember two things: The special people I've had the chance to work with and the special moments I was fortunate enough to witness.
Covering the 1983 White Sox and the 1984 Cubs while still a radio student at Columbia College showed me Chicago teams could, after all, help erase some of the youthful nightmares of my local fandom, while trying no longer to be a fan, but build professionalism for the career I was pursuing.
In 1985, there was no internet, OnDemand, DVDs, Blu-ray, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or SnapChat. The media was limited to newspaper, television and radio. And, in those pre-Internet days, something called SportsPhone. Out of college, despite my belief I was already better than a lot of sportscasters on radio at the time (and, yes, a lot of stations had their very own sportscasters), I cut my teeth on a dial-up, recorded phone version of one-minute sportscasts.
Gamblers couldn't check for scores online. They - and fanatics simply curious about what was going on out of town or away from their living rooms to follow their favorite teams - would be billed a fee for every call made. We'd update scores, received from stringers that would be paid throughout the country covering games, every 10 minutes. You may have heard of some of the other folks who got their post-collegiate professional starts there: Jeff Joniak, David Schuster, Les Grobstein, Lou Canellis, Fred Huebner, Brian Wheeler.
But we'd also have specific team "hotlines." I was that guy fortunate to be assigned the 1985 Bears.
There were offices here in Chicago, New York and Detroit. We'd conference up, exchange scores, determine which offices pursued which scores every 10 minutes when games were going on, and each office had reporters ("stringers") covering each team. But when the Bears reached the Super Bowl, I was the pool guy that the company resourced to cover the game and file reports throughout the week, tailored for each city.
So many personal and professional moments and challenges have clouded some of the memories over the past three decades. But except for family vacations, there was hardly any solo out-of-town exposure for me before given this opportunity. I'd covered every Bears home game that season, as it unfolded in mind-blowing fashion for a kid who grew up here so foreign to sports dominance. The lone regular season loss in Miami was proof they could be susceptible. The lack of being exposed to local sports dominance kept a Patriots upset very real in this brain.
More than the day-to-day Super Bowl week particulars, I more clearly remember a completely different vibe to New Orleans than this Chicago Boy had ever been previously exposed. The music. The cab drivers. The food. The January weather.
Thirty years ago, the NFL wasn't nearly as organized (er, "controlled") as it is now. Super Bowl Media Day and the other player availabilities during the week were held on the Superdome playing field. Players would just stroll out wherever they'd want to and much smaller clusters of media would hustle up to wherever certain players they wanted to talk to were standing. No individual podiums, nameplates or speakers. There's a picture inside the modern Halas Hall Press Room of Walter Payton and Matt Suhey sitting on the AstroTurf, with reporters gathered around them. That's how things rolled back then.
But pool reporters covering practices had already been instituted back then, so not everyone got to see Jim McMahon mooning a helicopter trying to find out if he was practicing with his sore gluteus maximus. But for this Kid on the Road, making sure he got his job done right, there wasn't much of a desire to see if I could track down and hang out with a team built to pound (its chest, among other things) and party. Lord knows there were enough places Bears worshipers who made the trip from Chicago and other parts could run into the biggest rock stars in sports, buy some rounds and probably have a few purchased in return. After all, the public wasn't part of the "media" back then, as it is now.
Once we finally got to Sunday, the spectacle was bigger than I ever experienced, but a fraction of what it is now. New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis performed the National Anthem. Then the Bears turned the ball over, leading to a Patriots field goal to open the scoring. Here we go again. Chicago heartbreak.
But the Bears became the '85 Bears again, scoring the game's next 44 points with a very non-controversial halftime performance by "Up With People" thrown in the middle. A Henry Waechter safety and a "who cares" Pats touchdown later, Mike Ditka and the Bears were world champions for the first time since I was nine months old, 22 years earlier, since Ditka was a part of that one back then, too. The Bears had seven sacks. They held New England to seven yards rushing on 11 attempts, 123 total yards and controlled the clock for more than 39 minutes.
When I just realized Monday we were a day away from the 30th anniversary of Super Bowl XX, I couldn't find enough time to find out which box in which corner of my house has the media credential, the game program and other interesting souvenirs you guys might like seeing. But it didn't take long to find my postgame audio cassettes, as well as a couple of those from interviews earlier in the week. I'll let all you youngsters guess exactly what cassettes were and how they worked. Look it up on that internet.
Now, the question was whether they'd play in my old Yamaha stereo system and said system wouldn't chew up those 30-year-old artifacts. It was double-decked!
First deck? Nothing. It was quickly popped out in fear of being munched-up into history. I popped the second deck. Inserted the cassette and closed. Hit "play." And now I remembered how it seemed like the Bears thought the real Super Bowl happened two weeks earlier, in the snow, at home, in their NFC Championship win over the Rams.
Jim McMahon: "It's kinda anti-climactic. It's not the kind of feeling I thought I'd have after we won the Super Bowl.
"It's supposed to be 'we're on top of the World,' and I just feel it's just another ballgame. Maybe it'll hit me later on tonight or something."
He went on to explain the headbands he was offered from fans around the country and how he focused on publicizing charitable causes from United Way to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation to POWs/MIAs.
Mike Ditka on whether he was surprised at the final score: "No."
If it bothered him the score was so one-sided: "Not at all. This is the game of football."
Other postgame Ditka-isms: "The game was never in question." "We made history today and that's beautiful."
The late Dave Duerson on defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's speech to his players: "Buddy's a very tough guy. Of course he plays that role. We all know because we've been working with him so long he's a very loving, caring person and his statement was very simply, 'win or lose, next week, you guys are my heroes.'
"By the time he was able to finish his statement, his eyes were filled with tears. They were running down his chin. His entire face was quivering. We gave him a standing ovation, then Steve (McMichael) proceeded to destroy a chalkboard. Then we had a few seconds of film. We said, 'The hell with this, we don't need it,' and went to our rooms."
Walter Payton was nowhere to be found amidst the celebration and locker room after the game. Despite the blowout win, the Patriots had keyed on him to make sure he didn't beat them, holding him to 61 yards on 22 carries (with a longest run of seven yards), while being held out of the end zone. A touchdown would have been an exclamation point to 11 years of toil for too many bad teams. Ditka was criticized, with a 37-7 lead, for giving the ball to William Perry for a one-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, rather than giving Payton another opportunity to score on the game's biggest stage. McMahon even took a veiled shot at the playcall after the game (though he probably easily could've changed the call himself).
I walked out of the locker room, towards the field to make my way up to the press box. There was Walter, with his family and friends, starting to walk across the field. I ran up to him, catching up with the guy who'd eluded the NFL's best defenders for 11 seasons and the media that night. A couple of other reporters were there, too, though I can't remember who.
Though I never specifically asked him about not being "allowed" the opportunity to score, his comments really answered that question after giving blood, sweat and tears to the organization since 1975. It wasn't okay that I didn't ask the exact question, but his answer almost came in the responses to being a Super Bowl champion, similar to McMahon's.
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"It's not like I expected," he said. "Believe me. The mind is unbelievable the way it can paint pictures of things, and when you think about things in your mind, you can do anything with it. But when it actually happens, you know the way you picture it in your mind, it seems a little bit inferior.
"It wasn't easy," Payton continued while briskly walking the length of the Superdome field as I and a few others tried to keep up. "The defense played unbelievable. We had everybody doing their jobs - Jim McMahon, Willie Gault, Ken Margerum, Matt Suhey, Emery Moorehead. They knew what it was going to take to win. They knew what they had to do, and they did it."
Then, when I asked whether he talked to Ditka afterward:
"I didn't talk to him. I didn't get a chance to."
Ditka has since repeatedly, publicly regretted not making a more concerted effort to get Payton a touchdown.
What seemed like the start of a run of Super Bowls actually ended that day. This piece has gone too long and there were multiple reasons that've already been assessed why the Bears were a comet that streaked brightly across the sky, then faded away.
But for a kid reporter who didn't know he'd get the chance to cover Michael Jordan and six Bulls championships and three Blackhawks Stanley Cups in six years, those 1985 Bears were absolutely the most dominant team this town has ever seen. I'm pretty confident about that since not being around or have much to remember prior to 1970.
That Bears team over Blackhawks and Bulls in one game. Best of-seven? Maybe not.