When he returned to Chicago as the coach, Mike Ditka said he wanted the Bears to be like the Bears he played for in 1963, the last year they won the National Football League championship. He has succeeded, perhaps too well.
The Bears again are contenders, playing the 49ers today in San Francisco for the National Conference title. They again have a fearsome, fearless defense and an offense that is barely adequate. But the similarities, unfortunately for God-fearing citizens and practically everyone else, do not end there. Like the 1963 Bears, this is a team of character and characters.
One of the characters is defensive tackle Steve McMichael, who has a girlfriend called Snake Woman. McMichael’s idea of a good time is to visit a bikers’ bar with another defensive lineman, All-Pro Dan Hampton, and challenge the patrons to a fight. Hampton’s nickname is Danimal. Almost never is their challenge accepted.
Bear safety Gary Fencik, a Yalie who should know better, remembers going to a bar once this season with McMichael and Hampton. Fencik doesn’t remember leaving, but he does remember going.
When Fencik woke up the next morning, somehow having landed safely in his own bed, his clothes were tattered, and his hands were cut and scratched. At practice that afternoon, he asked McMichael and Hampton what he had done to himself.
Their response is not fit for publication, but you can be assured it was not something Fencik learned in the Ivy League.
These stories were repeated last week over the telephone to Fred Williams, a defensive tackle for the 1963 Bears. He is now a liquor salesman in Little Rock, Ark.
“Sounds like those boys would have fit in with us,” Williams said, matter-of-factly.
Warning: If you put sports figures on a pedestal as examples for your children, do not allow them to read further.
The old Bears have some stories to tell.
Williams played in the Pro Bowl four times, but he is best remembered as the man Coach George Halas assigned to make sure 6-foot 7-inch, 290-pound defensive end Doug Atkins stayed out of harm’s way when he was off the field.
The problem, Halas recalled later, was that Atkins could drink 12 martinis without feeling the effects. Williams usually was out after two drinks as if he had been hit in the head by Big Daddy Lipscomb’s forearm shiver. If Atkins got into trouble, Williams didn’t know about it until the next day, Halas said.
Williams doesn’t recall it exactly like that. He said Atkins once challenged him to a martini-drinking contest. Even though they tied at 21, Williams claims he should have been declared the winner because he had to drive Atkins home. But even Williams admits there should be an asterisk by his name because of what happened afterward.
Upon arriving home, he took a bath. Then, he couldn’t get out of the bathtub.
Williams’ wife didn’t think it was enough of an emergency to summon the police or the fire department. Still, she needed help to get her husband out of the bathtub. She called Atkins.
Ever since, Atkins has claimed he was the winner of the martini-drinking contest.
Then there was the time Atkins assaulted a man with a $20 bill. He and Williams were in a bar one Sunday night when another customer began complaining because the Bears hadn’t beaten the point spread in the game that afternoon. The man said he had lost a $20 bet.
Atkins listened for a while, then pulled a $20 bill out of his pocket and rubbed it in the man’s face until his nose began bleeding.
Then there was Atkins and the pigeons. During one workout at Wrigley Field, all the Bears were accounted for except Atkins.
“Where’s Atkins?” Halas screamed.
Finally, one of the Bears spotted Atkins in the upper deck behind homeplate.
“Atkins,” Halas yelled. “What in the hell are you doing up there?”
“Talking to the pigeons,” Atkins said.
Halas once complained to Atkins about his poor practice habits.
“You don’t pay me enough to play and practice,” said Atkins, the only player on the team Halas allowed to talk back to him. That, Halas once explained, was because Atkins was the only player who knew almost as many curse words as he did.
While the other players sweated through two-a-day drills during training camp, Atkins often could be found on the sidelines, playing with his dog, a Rottweiler named Rebel.
Of course, Atkins’ idea of playing with his 100-pound dog wasn’t telling him to roll over. His idea of playing with the dog was to twirl him around at the end of a rope. If you can picture the hammer throw, you’ve got the idea.
Rebel took orders well. So did Atkins’ teammates.
After workouts at the Bears’ training camp in Rensselaer, Ind., Atkins invited other players, usually rookies, to his room to drink and listen to him tell stories. The word invited is used loosely. No one can remember anyone being man enough to turn him down. Only when Atkins gave his approval could the players leave these sessions, some of which lasted until dawn.
Just to make sure no one sneaked out, Atkins stationed Rebel at the door.
“Rebel,” Atkins would say when one of the players began inching toward the door.
Rebel would growl.
As Richie Petitbon, a Washington Redskins’ assistant coach who was a defensive back with the 1963 Bears, recalls, this often caused great discomfort to players who had been drinking for several hours and needed to relieve themselves.
“Open the window,” Atkins would tell them.
Atkins is now a beer distributor in Knoxville, Tenn. One of his first jobs after retiring from pro football was as a casket salesman.
When he’s remembered these days, it’s usually for his off-the-field adventures. But those did not earn him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982. His tenacity on the field did. He played in the Pro Bowl seven times.
“The thing I remember most about Doug as a football player was that he was totally unsophisticated,” Williams said. “George Allen was one of our defensive coaches then. He would tell Doug to go one way if the back did this, or go that way if the tackle did that, or do this if the wide receiver went this way.
“Doug would tell him, ‘George, cut the crap. Just tell me if you want me to get the runner or the passer. Whichever one you want, I’ll get.”
The center for the 1963 Bears, Mike Pyle, now a Chicago radio broadcaster, said: “Doug wasn’t one of those players who gave 110% in every game. But when he wanted to play, he was unstoppable. He scared me, and I was on his team.”
Atkins wasn’t the only intimidating player on that defense, which also included defensive tackle Stan Jones, linebackers Joe Fortunato, Bill George and Larry Morris, and defensive backs Roosevelt Taylor, Bennie McRae and Petitbon.
Morris once hit Pyle’s brother, Baltimore Colt guard Palmer Pyle, so hard, that he broke Pyle’s facemask.
“Palmer was out for five plays, two to replace his facemask and three to come to,” Mike Pyle said.
The Bears finished 12-1-2 that season. Only twice in 15 games did the Bears’ defense allow more than two touchdowns. But only in six games did the Bears’ offense score more than two touchdowns.
They scored exactly two in the 14-10 championship victory over the New York Giants.
The touchdowns were scored on short runs by quarterback Bill Wade after drives of five and 14 yards, both set up by interceptions. Morris returned the first interception 60 yards before collapsing from exhaustion within the shadow of the goal post.
“For the first 30 yards, I was afraid they were going to catch me,” Morris said later. “For the last 30 yards, I was afraid they weren’t.” The Bears intercepted five of Giant quarterback Y.A. Tittle’s passes that day.
Each time the offensive players went onto the field after one of the interceptions, they crossed paths with the defensive players on the way to the bench.
Each time, defensive end Ed O’Bradovich told the offensive players, “Hold ‘em.”
More than 20 years later, Bear defenders are still grumbling about the offense.
“After the championship game, all these reporters stuck their microphones in Bill Wade’s face,” Williams said. “I don’t know why they wanted to talk to him. He threw such bad passes, they couldn’t even be intercepted.
“I don’t know why we put up with that offense. They couldn’t make a first down against a strong wind. We should have voted those offensive boys half shares of the championship money.”
The rivalry was such between the offense and the defense that when guard Stan Jones, now a Denver Bronco assistant coach, was switched to defensive tackle before the 1963 season, the defensive players wouldn’t allow him in their team meetings until they were convinced the move was permanent.
“We didn’t want him spying on us,” Williams said.
The only offensive player who commanded respect from the defense was Ditka.
“We had a lot of defensive intimidators,” said Johnny Morris, a wide receiver for the 1963 Bears who is now a sportscaster for the CBS affiliate in Chicago. “Mike was an offensive intimidator.”
Ditka left the Bears before the 1967 season in a dispute with Halas over money.
“Halas throws around nickels like manhole covers,” the All-Pro tight end said at the time.
Anyone who had ever played for Halas was aware of that.
“I asked him once for a $5,000 raise,” Williams said. “Halas offered $500. I said, ‘I guess you’ll just have to trade me.’ Halas said, ‘I’ve been trying, but nobody wants you.’
“Halas always got the last word. Just when you thought you had him, he’d get a phone call. That would give him time to think. Turns out he had a button under his desk that he could push to make the phone ring.”
As much as anything else, it was Halas’ thriftiness that led to the Bears’ decline following the 1963 season.
“There were a lot of dissatisfied guys,” Johnny Morris said. “We probably had the lowest salaries in the league, but Mr. Halas had implied that if we won the championship, ‘I’ll take care of you.’ When a lot of players felt they hadn’t been taken care of, they were bitter.”
Besides, the Bears already were disgruntled because they felt they had to work harder than other teams.
Some of the players once designated wide receiver Harlon Hill to ask Halas why the Bears had to practice on Sundays during training camp when the Colts, who were a more successful team, had Sundays off.
“Because we’re not as good as the Colts,” Halas said.
“What does that have to do with it?” Hill asked him. “I could work my mule for 24 hours, and he still wouldn’t win the Kentucky Derby.”
Also, there was an automobile accident before the 1964 season in Rensselaer that took the lives of wide receivers Willie Galimore and Bo Farrington.
“That took a lot of the spirit out of us,” Pyle said.
The Bears finished 5-9 in 1964. Halas retired after three more seasons. It was 11 more seasons before the Bears made the playoffs again.
In the third regular-season game after the Bears won the championship, they lost to Baltimore, 52-0.
Halas went to each player’s locker after that game and told him in no uncertain terms how that player had personally contributed to the loss.
When Halas finished, Atkins said, “Now, I’ve got something to say.”
“What?” Halas said, impatiently.
“This was a great day for our team,” Atkins said.
“How do you figure that?” Halas said.
“Today, the defense was as bad as the offense,” Atkins said. “We’ve found togetherness.”