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Where to start with the Bears? Where to start the first chapter of "Being A Fan Of The Monsters Of The Midway For The Last 45 Years?"
I think I should go ahead and note that in the year of my birth (1966), the Bears quickly realized they had enjoyed what had the potential to be the greatest-ever first round of an NFL draft the off-season before. I would like to see any single round in any single team's draft history in which it selected more fundamentally diverse talent than the Monsters taking Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus Nos. 3 and 4 respectively in the '65 draft. That was especially the case during pre-Bill Walsh professional football, where year after year the most important capability of successful NFL teams was running the ball and stopping the run.
Two Hall of Famers. Two guys who should have anchored their respective successful sides of the ball for the Bears for a decade or so. Of course, also two guys who weren't a quarterback, but this is the Bears we're talking about. For some reason this franchise has been cursed to wander in the desert for 70-plus years (since Sid Luckman hung up his cleats) in search of a quarterback (Happy Seder Nights on Wednesday and Thursday everybody!) who can give them even three years of greatness. The latest, ever-so-delightful chapter of that story has been the great Mitch Trubisky over-value and flameout of 2017-20.
Now that I think about it, maybe the key for the Bears is to draft another Jewish quarterback out of Columbia, Luckman's alma mater. They haven't tried that since 1940, have they?
Anyway, that thing about the first round of the 1966 draft being the best single round in NFL draft history is probably trumped by the fact that any team taking any future great pro quarterback in whatever round probably beats it. Like, say the Patriots' sixth round in 2000 (again, if you are reading this I'm guessing you know that New England took Tom Brady in that round, but I'm putting this in here just to be sure).
But the Bears took Sayers and Butkus before I was a fan. I wonder if the Mel Kipers of the world would have had a feel for how great that draft potentially was for the Bears, who had plummeted from the heights of a rare NFL championship in 1963 to being one of the worst teams in the league (5-9) in 1964.
Then again, they were decent in '65 (9-5) and respectable with their awesome rookies in '66 (6-7-2) and decent again in '67 (7-6-1) and '68 (7-7). After that, the deluge: the Bears went 1-13 in 1969 and were off and running on a streak of seven straight seasons with a losing record. And that, of course, was the time in which I became aware of the team I quickly became fanatic about.
Any gushing about the Bears' first round picks in 1966 would have very much needed to start with the standard condition that a draft really can't be evaluated until three or even four years down the line. For the Bears, Sayers was magnificent for a season but suffered the first in a series of knee injuries that cut his professional career criminally short. And while Butkus was one of the greatest middle linebackers of all time for a half dozen seasons, he couldn't make up for the team's shortcomings elsewhere. And in that time he was permanently hobbled by knee injuries as well. Butkus was also hobbled by what he believed to be sub-par care from Bears doctors.
My first memory of Bear fandom was from a game I attended with my dad in what, 1973 or '74? It was a game late in another losing season for the Monsters and I have no memory of what happened on the field.
What I do remember was that a crew of fans took it upon themselves late in the game to unfurl a huge sheet/banner that said something along the lines of "Fire Abe Gibron," who was the head coach at the time. I'm sure the language on the banner was more colorful than that but I don't remember it exactly.
The fans then started to parade their banner down a horizontal aisle in the middle of old Soldier Field's lower bowl. But they didn't make it very far before another fan or three grabbed the sheet and pulled it away. A big, honking melee ensued. I feel like in the '70s there were more fights in the stands and on the field, floor or ice than in other decades. It was certainly the height of the "If you don't have enough talent, fight your way to the top" era in hockey, capped off by the Broad Street Bullies aka Philadelphia Flyers winning the Stanley Cup in 1974 and '75.
The fight was far more entertaining than anything the Bears did on the field that year. And it was an exciting time for my brother (Nat, born in 1968) and I to be sports fans because it was the only time our family had season tickets to anything.
Unfortunately, we only had two of those tickets so our memories of going to Bears games are bifurcated. My brother's happiest memory of those days was of attending the game in 1977 (a 10-7 win over the Vikings) in which Walter Payton set the single-game NFL rushing record with 275 yards. He squeaked past the previous record of 273 that had been set by O.J. Simpson a few seasons prior.
My best memory of the Bears also happened that season. The Chiefs had come to town and ended up taking a 27-21 lead in the final minute. The Bears got the ball with less than 30 seconds remaining needing a touchdown. In what has to go down as the greatest game in his career, quarterback Bob Avellini first found running back Robin Earl in the flat and Earl gained more than 20 yards to put the Bears in range for a Hail Mary.
Then, with the clock ticking under 10 seconds remaining, the Bears clustered their wide receivers on one side and sent tight end Greg Latta deep on the other. Latta got some separation and Avellini threw the bomb. The pass was a little outside of perfect but Latta somehow managed to keep his eye on it as it drifted over his head and came down with the ball in stride. The touchdown tied the game and Bob Thomas's extra point gave the Bears the win.
Perhaps the best part of it all was that at least 80 percent of the crowd had fled Soldier Field by the time Avellini threw that first pass to Earl. But we stuck around 'til the end and were rewarded with the win - the most exciting one in any sport that I have ever seen in person. Oh, and that touchdown happened right in front of us (our seats were back in a corner of Soldier Field, which was so well designed (not!) that only 20 percent of its seats were located between the goal lines.
Even though it happened in 1974, I am going to call the hiring of Jim Finks as the Bears' general manager and executive vice president the end of my first chapter. Finks was the first guy in franchise history not named Halas to have final say over Bears personnel. He had built a dynasty in Minnesota in the mid '60s (the Vikings won 11 of 14 Central Division titles starting in 1968 and four NFC championships. They lost all four Super Bowls but still . . . ) and he proceeded to meticulously build the Bears into the glorious teams of the 1980s. Finks started that process by drafting Payton with the Bears' first pick in 1975.
Finks was just like former Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon in that he was gone from his team-building job before his team won the championship. With the Bears it happened in 1986, of course. The Hawks first won in 2010.
Finks resigned in 1983 when George Halas didn't consult him before hiring Mike Ditka as head coach. I'm not sure but I think my dad may have given up the season tickets in disgust when that happened. And while my dad was never much of a sports fan, he was right on the money with that one, even if it did mean we missed out on so much winning starting in 1984.
Ditka was larger than life in Chicago but he should have won more than one championship with the talent Finks provided. And he only won that championship with defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who Halas forced him to keep, in absolute control of that side of the team. Ryan left to head coach the Eagles after that and the Bears haven't won another title since.
Not quite Monsters, eh?
Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.
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Posted on May 13, 2021