Doc of the Week: The ’85 Bears Doc of the Week

Doc of the Week: The ’85 Bears

The Chicago Bears were touted to become the greatest team of the era, full of quality and with a fair helping of larger-than-life characters too. They took all before them in 1985, including the Super Bowl by a record margin, but failed to win anything ever again. BT Sport 1, Wed, Feb 22nd 19.00.

There was a time there when the Chicago Bears looked set to inherit the earth, or the NFL at least. To ardent football fan and casual observer alike, it appeared no more than they deserved. They were the best team in the land, full of big personalities from the coaching staff on down. They were an advertiser’s dream. So where did it all wrong?

Directed by Emmy Award winner Jason Hehir, The ’85 Bears is part of ESPN's award-winning 30 for 30 series tells the whole story from its rather unusual origins back in 1981 to the present day. The story begins when, reacting to some grapevine mutterings, defensive captains Gary Fencik and Alan Page sent a pleading missive to 86-year-old Bears owner and founder Georg Halas begging him not to sack defence coach Buddy Ryan.


The rest, as they say, is history. Halas decided to keep Ryan on as a result of that letter, but it was a different letter that was to have an even more dramatic effect on what would come next. It was from one Mike Ditka, then special coach with the Dallas Cowboys, requesting that Halas keep him in mind if the head coach position ever became vacant. It did and Ditka got the call. He led the squad to glory, but Ryan remained their true confidant and mentor-in-chief. Ditka was not popular with the team and himself and Ryan rarely spoke. It seems almost incredible that they managed to achieve so much.

Using archive footage mixed with interviews with many of those involved at the time, we see them reach their peak in 1985 with a record 46-10 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. It turned out to be their first and, to this day, their only Super Bowl win, but you never would have guessed it at the time. The all-conquering Bears looked set to dominate for years to come, but events conspired against them and they were unable to recapture the magic the following year. They quickly fell into decline and we are left with some heart-rending images of Ryan and a number of his charges who have either died since or suffered severe physical and mental health issues as a result of their efforts on the field of play.

Line-up

The Bears line-up included Jim McMahon, the beer-drinking quarterback from Brigham Young, the sublime running back Walter Payton and the big game nous of line-backer Mike Singletary. And, of course, who can forget ‘The Refrigerator’, the human bulldozer that was William Perry who swatted the opposition like flies and scored a memorable touchdown to put the seal on their Super Bowl victory?


Hehir also treats us to a detailed breakdown of the Bear’s innovative ’46 Defence’ system which baffled the opposition and nullified their attacking threat, particularly in that 1985 season when they suffered just a single defeat all campaign. Indeed, such was their confidence in their own ability that they recorded their rap-influenced ‘Super Bowl Shuffle’ anthem a couple of months in advance of the main event. It earned them a Grammy nomination, the first and only time a sports team has even been nominated for the award.

Great days

Those were great days for the Bears, but it was not without some sadness even then. One of the interviewees opines that it was a pity that Halas wasn’t around to see his dream come to fruition - ‘Papa Bear’, as he was known, had died a couple of years earlier. But the saddest scenes come at the end as the various former squad members talk about the two team-mates that they have lost in the intervening years. Running backer Walter Payton, one of the all-time greats of the game, died in 1999 from chronic liver disease at the age of 45, while Dave Duerson committed suicide in 2011 following a prolonged battle with mental illness. Star quarter-back Jim McMahon, meanwhile, relates how he does jigsaw puzzles on a daily basis to keep his mind as sharp as possible as he battles the effects of early-onset dementia. They are tragic footnotes to what were glorious careers and a candid commentary on the dangers of concussive injuries in sport.


We also hear from Ryan who was in very poor health when his segments were filmed (he died last year at the age of 85). The former defence coach is obviously still held in the highest esteem by his former charges. This is patently evident as they take turns reading out a letter that he had written to them as they prepared for the Super Bowl all those years before. In it he tells them all how proud he is of them all. "I told you a long time ago, and it's true. You'll always be my heroes,” the letter says as one by one the readers start to well up.

Images: Getty

There are plenty of great documentaries to watch out for on the eir Sport pack every week. From football to golf, GAA, rugby, athletics and beyond, we’ve got something for everyone. Watch out next week for another fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the sporting world or go to eirsport.ie for more sports news and stories or eir.ie to find out more about how we're setting sport free.

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