First, Some Background
I come from a family of non-athletes. In high school, my interest in sports mostly involved cute boys playing them. I had to learn about basketball in gym class, but watching my tiny high school football team taught me little about the game.
I then left for Kansas City. As part of the University of Missouri system, my boyfriend, an actual athlete, took me to football games at Mizzou. I began to appreciate the strategy of the game. The Chiefs were pretty bad in the early 1980s, so tickets could be bought at reasonable prices. I loved sitting in that bowl at Arrowhead as part of the crowd in red and gold, even if victory often fell out of reach.
In 1984, that same boyfriend (now my spouse) moved to Chicago to start his residency. The Bears were coming of age that year, especially dominating with their 46 defense. I moved to the Windy City in the summer of 1985, ready to cheer on a new team.
Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football occupied two evenings of my vacation. I could not put this book down, although I do not know if someone without the type of background above would love it as much. The author, Rich Cohen, grew up in Chicago and during his senior year in high school managed to get SuperBowl XX tickets and make his way to New Orleans for this big game. He captures the mood of the city at that time perfectly, and provides great background for those of us (like President Obama) who were new to the way of "Da Bears."
Yes, there is a component of memoir to this text, but also of history. I knew Papa Bear Halas, thanks to his obituaries, had been instrumental in founding the National Football League, but I never realized how much the game owed him. He was the first coach to use the "eye in the sky." One game an assistant took a message to his wife in the stands. He came back to the sidelines in awe of what that view afforded him. What looked like guys grinding it out in the mud took on patterns and logic when seen on high. The next year Halas stationed an assistant at press box level and installed a phone from there to the sideline.
Even after he "retired" from coaching, he often hung around the facilities. One day in the locker room, some players recall him beginning to lecture them on varying strategies depending on where the ball was being played. He divided the field into blue, white, and - wait for it - red zones, the first time anyone can recall the term "red zone" being used.
We learn a lot more about Iron Mike Ditka (other members of the family had simplified the Polish surname to Disco, if you can imagine that) and Buddy Ryan. The latter, of course, brought us that amazing defense that never quit. At the time, I knew these men did not like each other; I never realized how much they disliked each other until reading the book. The details also seal my everlasting admiration of Samurai Mike Singletary, a guy tough enough and smart enough to run that defense.
Cohen does not shy away from the aftermath of the game, either. He discusses the difficulties with injuries many of the players continue to have, including Dave Duerson's suicide in 2011 while suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy and Jim McMahon's ongoing issues with mental function. As he finished his interview with the forgetful but still punky QB, he asked the money question: Was it worth it? McMahon said, "I'd do it all again in a heartbeat."
I still remember that Sunday morning. I took call overnight in a now gone Chicago hospital that Saturday, caring for sick infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I was anxious to get home because we had friends coming over for the game. All that stood between me and departure were handoff rounds. As we entered the NICU, we were delighted by every infant having a piece of tape (paper or adhesive, as tolerated) with "Rozelle" or a player's name or just "Bears" written across it in marker. Just remembering it brings a smile to my face and makes me want to dance the SuperBowl Shuffle.