We tend to look at our greatest football teams as the ones that kept winning. We will always talk about the great dynasties and their big names: Green Bay had Lombardi, the Steelers had the Iron Curtain, and the 49ers went from Joe Montana throwing to Jerry Rice to Steve Young taking over and tossing the game's greatest wide receiver touchdown passes for close to 20 years. Yet there's one team you always throw into the conversation that stands out from all the others.
"I think they were the greatest football team of all-time," Jason Hehir tells me. Of course, since he's a few hours from the premier of his latest 30 for 30 documentary for ESPN, The '85 Bears, which takes a look at that one magical season where Chicago's defense left a trail of broken quarterbacks in its wake, Jim McMahon mooned a helicopter, and Walter Payton finally got the big one after a decade of hard work along Lake Michigan, Hehir kinda has to say that sort of thing. Right? Obviously he's biased.
"I was definitely rooting for the Pats that day, so that was rough," Hehir, a Boston native tells me. "That Bears team was so transcendent that they were famous in all cities," he concedes. "McMahon, to me was like, you know, the headband, the sunglasses, diving for fist-downs, not being afraid of hits, slipping on the field. He was like a rockstar turned quarterback."
If you grew up around 1985, and were in what Hehir calls the "sweet spot" of childhood football fandom, around the ages of 5–13, you probably had your favorite Bear as well. And that's why The '85 Bears is such a fun watch: It makes you like them all as individuals, but as a team as well. You see McMahon is still the wiseass, Mike Ditka is past three quarters on of life but could probably still whoop your ass, William "The Refrigerator" Perry seems like the happiest guy on the planet despite health problems, and Steve "Mongo" McMichael still sounds like he's missing a few screws — and also happens to be a 6"2, 269 pound linebacker from Texas.
And then there's Buddy Ryan. While Ditka will forever be known as the figurehead, Ryan, who at 81 is really the star of the whole film, was the reason the Chicago Bears were truly the Monsters of the Midway. He was the genius who molded the players into the perfect defense using his system known as the 46. Because of Ryan's brilliance, as well as the undying loyalty of his players, the Bears went 15–1 in the regular season, and cruised through the postseason with an ease not seen before or since. More than anything, The '85 Bears is a tribute to Ryan, and the on-screen moments between him and Hall of Famer Mike Singletary are some of the most tender you will ever see in anything else dealing with the sport of football.
What The '85 Bears ultimately accomplishes is showing that what made the team so unique wasn't just the men who put on the uniforms, but the fact that they were so great for just one season. 1985 was it. The team would dominate the NFC Central for the rest of the '80s, but that was about it. They wouldn't get back to the championship game for another 20 years, and after losing Super Bowl XLI, that great team still stands as the only Bears squad to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
As the film shows, there's the swift rise, and then, of course, there's the fall. For all the celebrating that still goes on for the team that did "The Super Bowl Shuffle," the tragedies and realities of the sport they play have caught up with them. There was the 1999 passing of seemingly indestructible Walter Payton from a liver disease, the 2011 suicide of safety Dave Duerson, with a note left that he wanted his brain to be studied. And then there's McMahon. While the 56-year-old is still pretty much his same old self throughout the documentary, a smart ass who you either totally love or hate with all your being, in 2012 it was revealed he was in the early stages of dementia, something, along with Duerson's suicide, that might have been avoided had the NFL been more honest about the impact concussions have on players.
Thirty years later, after the great Dallas teams of the 1990s and the last 15 years of being able to count on seeing the Patriots in the playoffs and probably the Super Bowl, the 1985 Chicago Bears still retain their mystique. What The '85 Bears does, much like Rich Cohen's 2013 book on the team, Monsters, is it tells the entire story — it puts it all into perspective. It encapsulates what made that team so great beyond the numbers, and shows the many faces that made the team the best ever.