CHICAGO BEARS vs. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS : Bears’ Two Holdouts Are Also Missing Out : Bell, Harris Won’t Be in New Orleans This Week For Super Moments
If things had been a little different for Todd Bell or Al Harris, if the money had been there or the negotiations had gone better, they would have been with the rest of the Chicago Bears Monday, meeting the bands and cheerleaders and photographers in New Orleans for the start of Super Bowl week.
Instead, they have other plans.
Bell, a Pro Bowl safety last season, will study in his apartment at Ohio State, trying to complete a physical education degree he began eight years ago.
Harris, who used to start at outside linebacker, will keep trying to rent his condominium in Wheeling, Ill. As soon as he finds someone to stay there, he is going to Colorado, he hopes in time to watch the Super Bowl at his parents’ house.
Although Bell has played for Chicago four seasons, and Harris six, and although both are still very much the property of the Bears, neither is getting anywhere near New Orleans this week.
“No, not me,” Harris said by phone. “There’s so much hype, and TV has better coverage, anyway.”
Bell and Harris are not the first professional athletes to sit out a season in a contract holdout, but of all the pros who have done so, they might be the unluckiest.
Because they couldn’t agree on a salary, Bell and Harris, both starters in 1984, have not played a single down during the Bears’ dreamy 17-1 season.
They have hardly been missed. In their places, the Bears inserted safety Dave Duerson and linebacker Wilber Marshall. The league’s No. 1 defense in 1984 remained its No. 1 defense in 1985. Duerson made the Pro Bowl. Marshall probably came close.
“They come out looking as sweet as a rose,” Harris said of the Bears.
Bell and Harris say they don’t second-guess their decisions to sit out. Honest. But at least Harris says he thinks about it.
“I’d like to play in a Super Bowl, but I’m not consumed by it,” he said. “If all I lived for was football, I’d be crushed. But it’s not all I live for.
“Even if I say I’ve totally blown it, there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. It’s not like I can say, ‘OK, sign me up, and I’ll be at the Super Bowl.’ That would kill me emotionally. Why sit there and torture yourself? That would be foolish.
“I made my decision, and I knew the consequences when I made it.”
Harris and his agent, Ethan Locke, asked for the same amount second-year man Marshall received, which was a reported $493,000 per year. They dropped to $482,000. They figured that was a fair price for the man defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan said was the “most underrated linebacker in the league last year.”
The Bears offered $825,000 over three years, or $275,000 a year.
Harris, whose job already was in jeopardy because of Marshall’s bone-crunching emergence, said thanks, but no thanks.
Bell, who made $77,000 in 1984, first asked for $950,000 a year, then, finally, $600,000 a year. The Bears’ final offer was a reported $1.6 million over four years.
Bell and his agent, Howard Slusher, decided that wasn’t good enough.
Bell, too, said thanks, but no thanks.
“I feel sorry for the two of them,” said Bears’ General Manager Jerry Vainisi. “They are great people, excellent players. But both were victims of some bad advice and couldn’t sort it out.”
Vainisi has been reported as saying he believes the entrance of Harris’ father into his son’s negotiations created problems. He does not blame Locke. Nor does Harris, who says only “there were other circumstances” in his dealings with the Bears.
Although Bell and Slusher did not return phone calls, Bell has been quoted as saying that he, too, has no hard feelings toward his agent.
Bell is 27, Harris is 29. Neither has been to a Super Bowl. Both have been playing the sport for 13 or 14 years, from junior high on up.
The way parity has struck the NFL, there’s no reason to believe there will be many more Super Bowls in their future. “I know what people think,” Harris said. “They put in the paper I’m a greedy guy, like I’m asking for $5 million or something. I knew there was a chance they could go to the Super Bowl. People were predicting it. I knew that before I made my decision.”
At the beginning of the holdouts last summer, neither player expected the decision to be final. Maybe a month or six weeks, then things would get worked out. But a whole season? Never.
There were meetings between the agents and Bears’ brass off and on, and finally word of trades. Even now, Vainisi says he intends to continue to negotiate with both players.
Bell asked to be traded at one point, then turned down a deal with Detroit. San Diego, then Miami, killed trades for Harris.
Through it all, they continued to work out, figuring their fall without football would soon end. Then, when Nov. 23, the day you have to sign or sit, came and went, they knew.
“I told myself to relax,” Harris said. “You can only work out so long. I said, ‘Wait till next year.’ ”
Harris stayed in the Chicago area, but Bell went back to Columbus, Ohio, to finish the 30 credit hours he needs for a degree. They stayed in touch with each other and a few close friends on the team.
But even that was hard, Harris admitted. He didn’t go to any games and missed several on TV.
“The natural tendency is to want people to miss you,” he said. “You want to feel as if you’ll do as well as the guy who’s in there.”
He noticed himself feeling that way until the Miami game Dec. 2, the only game the Bears lost all season.
“We got behind so fast, I found myself cheering,” Harris said. “I forgot about me, and I started thinking about them.
“You’d like to be in there, but when push comes to shove, you want them to win.
“Hey, that’s still my team.”