Rich Cohen looks at the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears team as well as the history of the Bears and of Chicago itself.
Reviewed for The Barnes & Noble Review by Peter LewisSkip to next paragraph
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What's to be done with football? Surely as it knocks you down, it lifts you up – hurts, elates, offers artistry, offers ferocity, both the spirited and malign varieties. Broken fingers, broken noses? The game was always a school of hard knocks, a brutal metaphor for the price of doing business in America: few who participate emerge unscathed. But ruptured organs and brain damage enough to fill Bedlam? A football team can be the saving grace of a city on its knees, but is there hope for football?
This question – which has gained urgency over the last year – is at the heart of Rich Cohen's deep-running, soulful Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, his discerning probe into the mysteries of a great team – his team, when he was a seventeen-year-old Chicagoan and nothing mattered more. Football is violent – the Bears of Cohen's chosen season were the embodiment of crazy abandon – and it casts a shadow over the book's landscape as inevitably as smokestacks darkened the skies over the mill towns where so many memorable players were raised.
Cohen visits those towns, the hard-bitten industrial burgs where football first put down roots, for as much as "Monsters" is a search to understand the hows and whys of the '85 Bears, it is also a snappy, vest-pocket history of professional football, Chicago as a city – its quilt of immigrant neighborhoods, its communities of outcasts – and the Bears as an institution. These histories and backgrounds have exceptional color, and Cohen writes with as much jump as he does heart – you're listening very closely when he speaks of the quarterback's existential aloneness – which makes for a pretty unbeatable combination. He keeps sneaking into the story, not demanding much attention but spreading the kind of sympathy that draws you near. It is for the young Cohen that you become invested in the '85 Bears; he sparks that initial iota of caring that blossoms into pulling for the team, and worrying for them.
Another simple truth is that the '85 Bears were a great team because, as happens, the stars aligned into a cockamamie arrangement that worked beyond anyone's ability to predict. Mike Ditka, the incandescent head coach (ready, fire, aim!), hated the defensive coach, Buddy Ryan, who gave as good as he got – let's just say that their communication was confined to invectives – but they both knew their stuff, one brimming with passion and the other a brilliant strategist when he wasn't telling Ditka off. (Ryan also had the players' respect and the owner's ear.) Both gathered around themselves great talent full of "the old zipperoo," owner and early coach George Halas's term for the transcendence of pain, and both were innovators, because that is how Ryan saw the game and because Ditka had Jim McMahon for quarterback, whose unbridled antiauthoritarianism – which infuriated his boss – was matched only by his canny field sense, audible after audible.