On Sunday, Dec. 20, in Soldier Field, Chicago, a player who has meant a great deal to the Chicago Bears and their gaudy history played his last league home game.
The CBS cameras were not on him, no banners hung from the quaint columns of that ancient arena, no farewell speeches were uttered and his number was not taken out of the lineup and retired with honor until such time as it will hang in the Canton Hall of Fame.
Walter Payton was the one given the sendoff of a Caesar. Gary Fencik was probably just asked to remember to turn in his playbook. And, maybe, turn out the lights.
But Gary Fencik was a Chicago Bear of an old familiar mold for 12 years--the tough, aggressive guy with the tough, aggressive style of play and the nose to prove it, broken.
Guys with names like Fencik have been dotting Chicago Bear lineups for half a century. You can always tell a Chicago Bear name. They have a ring all their own--Lujack, Maniaci, Nagurski, Halas, Casares, Feathers, Butkus, Marconi, Buffone, Manders, Masterson, Osmanski, Nolting, Ronzani, Singletary and BillGeorge, pronounced as one word. And Gary Fencik. A sound like a train hitting a produce truck at a crossing.
What set Gary Fencik apart was he was probably the only Chicago Bear in history who had his nose broken by Harvard. Yale players go into bonds, not Bears. Not too many guys whose school fight song is “Boola, Boola” and was written by Cole Porter get to join an NFL secondary.
Nor was Gary Fencik drafted by the Bears. The pros don’t like to waste draft choices on Ivy Leaguers unless they are specialists, like place-kickers or punters. The Fight Fiercelies don’t make the transition well to milieus where people don’t speak in whole sentences.
Gary came highly recommended. He had torn Harvard and Princeton apart. But the pros weren’t impressed.
The Ivy League thought Fencik was a wide receiver. The pros knew better. In the pros, wide receivers come out of obscure colleges in West Texas--and off the Olympic relay team. They weren’t impressed by Fencik’s derring-do for old Eli. The NFL wasn’t the tables down at Mory’s.
The pros couldn’t understand why he didn’t just go into the State Department, like George Bush. “This ain’t Columbia, kid,” was their attitude.
Well, Gary Fencik caught 82 passes for 1,435 yards and 7 touchdowns in his career at Yale. He caught 40 for 487 yards and 1 touchdown in his career at Chicago.
The difference was, at Yale, they were aiming for him. At Chicago, the last guy in the world the passer wanted to see with the ball was Fencik.
When Gary wasn’t catching footballs for the Chicago Bears, he was catching the guys with them. He made more tackles, more than 1,100, than any other Bear in history.
The Bears made a defensive back, a free safety, out of him. At first, they put him out there and tried not to look--and hoped they wouldn’t get nasty letters from the Yale Corporation.
But they soon found out that this refugee from the bond market was not just another Wall Street Bear but a Monster of the Midway in his own right. If it moved, Gary hit it.
The Bears of those days were something less than Super Bowl status. But they did have two quality attractions. Walter Payton scored touchdowns, and Gary Fencik stopped them. Payton made more yards than any other back in Bear history. Fencik made more tackles. Payton became a media darling, Fencik became No. 45.
Their careers not only coincided, they complemented. Payton got the yards, Fencik got the ball. In addition to his 1,100 tackles and 40 interceptions, he recovered 12 fumbles and was credited with batting down 95 passes.
Walter Payton is retiring this year in a sentimental binge of farewells. No. 34 will hang in the rafters someplace, never to be worn by another Bear. His biography will hit the bookstalls next spring.
No. 45 will be worn by whatever guy comes along with a slip for a uniform and a locker next season. He won’t be from Yale. He’ll never have beaten Harvard.
Yale hopes to get its first President since William Howard Taft next year. Fencik hopes it gets its first player to play in two Super Bowls since Calvin Hill.
Game balls are awarded in football to guys without whom that game would not have been won. Gary Fencik has eight of them.
But no one stops the game to salute the end of his 12 years of impeccable service as a defensive back. There are no pregame ceremonies or civic parades for Gary Fencik. He confidently expects some day, when he lets drop the information that he played for more than a decade with the Chicago Bears, to be asked, “Oh? Did you by any chance know Walter Payton?”
At the Coliseum Sunday, the message board was lit up with goodbys to Payton, highlight films of his longest runs, head shots of him tearfully waving farewells to his fans.
On the wall to the tunnel was a huge sign. It read “Thank You, Walter!” And below that “Thank You, Gary!”
A police officer stopped, studied it for a moment. “Who’s Gary?” he asked.
Back at the Yale Club, that wouldn’t be the problem. “Who’s Walter?” they’d want to know.