Mike Ditka wants me to get a flu shot.
I learned this while sitting in traffic the other day. A CTA bus glided up alongside my car, its long banner billboard filling the passenger-side window. Its message: "Don't let the flu beat you. Get a flu shot." At the end of those words, hovering like enormous mustached punctuation, was Mike Ditka's thick, drill-sergeant head, his hair swept back, mouth held in a perfectly straight rail, revealing neither smile nor frown, which, in Ditka-ese, can only be interpreted as an ecstatic endorsement: Mike Ditka is going to say this real nice …
Get a flu shot, jerk.
What's remarkable about that public-service announcement, however, is not that Mike Ditka is promoting public health in the same city where he endorses Dikta-brand Polish sausages. It's that, in the lower right corner of the ad, there is only his name, nothing else. Nothing to identify him as coach of the 1985 Chicago Bears, or as owner of four Ditka's restaurants, or as spokesperson for any number of sweater vests, cigars and whatnot, locally and nationally. As Ditka himself might put it: Why would ya waste ya breath?
Almost 30 years on, the cultural legacy of the last Bears team to win a Super Bowl remains so ingrained in Chicago, "we debated whether or not we needed to put Ditka's name on the banner at all," said Dr. Bechara Choucair, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, which launched the ads this month.
"I moved here from Lebanon," he added, "and probably the first thing that I learned about Chicago is how important its sports are, how trusted and understood its sports figures are. His name was all we needed."
When I told Rich Cohen about this last week, he nodded and laughed, unsurprised though delighted. Cohen grew up in Glencoe and now lives in Connecticut, "but when I was growing up here, Ditka became the hard-ass high school gym teacher telling you to do 10 extra push-ups. He's become that for the entire city."
Cohen, a well-regarded, longtime magazine writer and author of several widely varying social and cultural histories, has a fun new book, "Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football." Which in itself should not sound like news: "Even Ditka asked me why I would bother writing another book about the '85 Bears when there were already so many of them," Cohen said. "But I felt it had never been gotten, you know? It had been done, but some point was always missed, sort of the way Elvis bios were written a million times but not until Peter Guralnick's (landmark, two-part biography in the 1990s) had anyone captured him.
"Besides," Cohen said, "nobody had taken the cultural perspective you need to understand the '85 Bears."
Cohen — whose work includes a memoir of growing up on the North Shore ("Lake Effect"), a biography of a banana mogul ("The Fish That Ate the Whale"), a profile of Israel ("Israel is Real"), and histories of a sugar dynasty ("Sweet and Low: A Family Story") and Chess Records ("Machers and Rockers") — is not a sportswriter. For Harpers, he once spent weeks on the road with the Chicago Cubs (attempting to understand why they stink); for the Wall Street Journal, he wrote a piece last year about why Wrigley Field should be razed.
But "Monsters" is not exactly a sports book. It's more of a cultural-legacy sort of book: somewhat of a history of the team, somewhat of a history of football itself, but primarily a history of the way that a single team, at a certain moment in time, with the right personalities, can culturally transcend sports. It's about the way that memories lodged in the heart of a fan (Cohen), the city of Chicago, the team itself.
He compares the Bears not to other teams but the Beatles, offering "a Bear for every fan: Jim McMahon, the Punky QB, for cocky daredevils. Walter Payton, Sweetness, the great running back, for aficionados. William Perry, the Fridge, the gap-toothed 325-pounder, for big tall men. Dan Hampton, Danimal, the ferocious defensive tackle, for band geeks filled with secret violence. Mike Ditka, the coach who actually looked like a bear …" He describes how they played "with a gleeful excess that seemed a perfect expression of the city …" He name-checks John Belushi, Buddy Guy, Second City, the Pump Room, Harry Caray, Mike Royko, "Bill Murray playing golf on the par three in Winnetka …," explaining "it was all captured in the style of that team."
Alongside Thomas Dyja's "The Third Coast" from earlier this year, a deep history of how Chicago became culturally provincial, "Monsters" reads as a thoughtful, more narrowly focused bookend. Here is a consideration of why one team — which resulted in Saturday Night Live's "Da Bears" skits, images of burly, lunch-bucket fans and a coach so iconic he appears on his restaurant menus as a few broad "Peanuts"-like scribbles — so completely defined Chicago's image for the rest of world, for decades.
Which is how Cohen and I ended up at Park West, standing in the dark Lincoln Park music venue, regarding its empty stage. Many suburban kids, and more suburban parents, were introduced to rap because of what happened here in 1986. "The Bears shot 'The Super Bowl Shuffle' here on a Tuesday," Cohen said. "They shot without McMahon and Payton (who filmed their parts later). They had lost to Miami — their only loss all season — the night before, so it takes incredible gall to show up the next morning to make a rap video that boasts about yourselves. Though this was before gangster rap. It was more the 'You Be Illin'-Run DMC era. I connect ('Super Bowl Shuffle') to a tradition of trash talk, Muhammad Ali … It made every guy on that team a bigger personality. It was like the theme to 'Gilligan's Island,' which tells you everything that's happened. I think it was the moment when football became culturally bigger than baseball."
Agree or not, it's hard to argue with the wry, generous eye Cohen casts on that novelty hit: "James Joyce never won a Nobel Prize. 'Taxi Driver' lost the Oscar to 'Rocky.' Jim Thorpe had all his gold medals stripped. But 'The Super Bowl Shuffle' was nominated for a Grammy. Whatever else you might say, it's catchy …"
Indeed, Cohen's "Monsters" opens with a vividly cinematic moment that cements the image of mid-'80s Chicago as culturally backward, through lovably so — defiantly crass and Belushi-esque: Cohen and a friend from high school are on a chartered flight to the 1986 Super Bowl, where the Bears would murder the New England Patriots. Cohen's father, Herb, who wrote a best-selling business book ("You Can Negotiate Anything") and served as a White House consultant during the '79-'80 Iran hostage crisis, had landed two tickets. Cohen writes: "I'm not sure what I expected: A Learjet with a dozen North Side business types …" What he got instead was: "Huge beer swilling South Siders with the sort of mustaches that suggest virility … Footballs were taken out of bags and spirals went zipping across the cabin. Several people were hit in the head midsentence or midbeer. A punt banged off an emergency-door handle … The pilot issued a warning. When this was ignored, he came out of his cockpit in the stern way of a parent but was driven back by a shower of empties …"
"It's a different world," I said to Cohen, who is 45 now.
He nodded: "I'm writing about the '85 Bears at a time when everything is cut into such small audiences and demographics, the Super Bowl, even now, is one of the few things culturally that still draws an old-fashioned, everyone-paying-attention-to-the same-thing audience — the kind Johnny Carson got." Consider that many of the '85 Bears who talked to Cohen (and most of them did) told him they formed their first image of the Bears from the 1971 TV movie "Brian's Song," about the friendship between Bears Brian Piccolo (who died of cancer in 1970) and Gale Sayers, and you're reminded again of how fragmented we have become. (What's the last TV movie everyone you know has watched?)
In fact, comparing the cultural reach of the '85 Bears to either current World Series team, the Boston Red Sox or St. Louis Cardinals — sports organizations that have dominated baseball's postseason for the past decade — is a reminder of just how long the '85 Bears' shadow remains. The Cardinals are white and red and largely free of personality. Even the heavily-bearded Red Sox, said Glenn Stout, longtime editor of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's "Best American Sports Writing" series, "carry nowhere near the symbolic, iconic importance of any number of Sox teams since the '67 Sox."
Even the Blackhawks, despite two Stanley Cups in five years, are nowhere near as culturally ubiquitous as the '85 Bears. Said Tom O'Grady, founder of Gameplan Creative, the Chicago-based sports marketing firm that created the Ditka-flu-shot ads: "Teams tend to play down individual players now. They rarely put a sub-brand (a player) in front of a larger brand (a team)." Said Ron Rapoport, former Sun-Times sports columnist (with a new history of Chicago sportswriting, "From Black Socks to Three-Peats"): "The transparency of the '85 Bears doesn't exist (anymore). Culturally, it would be harder for any team to equal their reach. There is so much more money at stake, so many more agents and lawyers. You might get teams with cultural relevance, but it all seems much more staged now."
I asked Cohen: What about the Bulls? The Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls? Does he think they have been as culturally ingrained as the '85 Bears? Jordan, he said, but not the team. "Players leave the clubhouse and they're tweeting now," he said. "They're looking at their cellphones. They try not to do anything stupid."
Or as charming and stupid as the "Super Bowl Shuffle."
"I always thought (Bears quarterback) Jay Cutler would make a better tennis player," Cohen said. "He has a great personality for a one-man sport. He pushes, then gets mad at people around him if they (expletive) up. But back then, McMahon, he would throw an interception, then treat it like, 'At least I'm trying.' You had Brian McCaskey doing Bill Murray impressions, a guy from the North Shore (Gary Fencik) who went to Yale, Steve McMichael's car being repossessed from the parking lot of the practice field in Lake Forest … It felt as though Chicago itself was on that field, kicking the (expletive) out of everybody."
I'd buy a ticket to that movie.