When Cohen met with Ditka, the coach, as only he can, gruffly said, “Do you know how many people have written about this team?”
Cohen was up to the challenge. “I told him, ‘Why did you run the same offense all those years? Because you believed you could win with it and do it better than anyone else.”
“Good answer,” Ditka said.
I covered the ’85 Bears as a young, somewhat naive reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I always say if I could go back to one year in my life, it probably would be 1985. It was a 24/7 thrill ride from the first day of training camp through the Super Bowl.
Yet even I had some ’85 Bears overdose in recent years. When I heard there was another book coming out on the team, I can’t say I was overly excited.
Well, Cohen’s Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and The Wild Heart of Football isn’t just another book on the fabled team. It is a skillfully written portrait of not only that group of highly compelling and wacky players and coaches, but also of the Bears as a franchise and the impact that team had and still has on Chicago. Cohen devotes many pages on George Halas, who laid the foundation for ’85 by hiring Ditka as his last act.
Cohen, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, weaves in his perspective as a 17-year old fan who somehow managed to snag a ticket to the big game in New Orleans. Then more than 25 years later, he connects with the players he worshiped, including a memorable encounter with his hero, Jim McMahon.
I recently met with Cohen. Not sure it was my best interview, as I tended to dominate the conversation with my stories about that year. Guess being around the ’85 Bears will do that to you. Thankfully, Cohen didn’t seem to mind.
How did this book come about?
It happened in a roundabout way. I owed Harper’s a story about my father. I realized I can’t write about my father. The editor said, ‘Why don’t you write about the Knicks?’ I hate the Knicks. She said, ‘Has there ever been a team you really loved?’ I said, ‘The ’85 Bears.’
I talked to Doug Plank, who wasn’t even on that team but was the spirit for 46 defense. He had been coaching with the Jets. We talked for four hours. He was so smart and funny. I thought maybe enough time had gone by, where they might be reflective and tell you what really went on.
Were you concerned that the ’85 Bears already had been covered extensively in books and documentaries?
I spent a lot of my life trying to find stories nobody had written about. I realized it was a mistake. You should write about stories you care about. There’s a reason why these stories keep getting written.
I’m a different kind of writer. I would give it a different kind of treatment. If you do it well, it wouldn’t matter how many books had been written, because this would be unlike any other book.
What was your approach?
I just don’t think the big book of the ’85 Bears had been written. It almost took someone a little younger from a different generation who was a little bit removed. I didn’t have experiences with McMahon or Ditka. I came in clean.
It’s a coming of age story about me, but it’s really not about me. It’s about the role a great team plays in your life as you get older. These guys get older too.
I love writing sports. I love all the Shakespearean stuff. The patriarch angle in this story. Halas and Ditka. Halas and his grandsons. Ditka and McMahon. I mean that stuff is out of The Godfather.
My father’s favorite book was The Boys of Summer. I thought maybe I could do the same kind of book where you try to capture the team and the era.
What stood out for you?
It’s an intellectual history of the game, and the Bears were at the center of it. You see this big arc of the 46 defense. Halas was Bill Walsh. He created the modern NFL offense. With the T-Formation, Halas made the quarterback the coach on the field. Then Buddy Ryan, a defensive coach, realizes the importance of the quarterback. He believes, rather than cover 10 guys, let’s just kill one. Plank said, ‘Our game plan was, we’re going to get to know your second-string quarterback today.’
It’s ideological look at Bears history. I didn’t know anything about that as a kid.
He was my favorite athlete. It was unreal to meet him.
Brian McCaskey helped me get an interview. McMahon emailed me and said, ‘Sure, c’mon out (to Arizona).’ He wrote me a lot of funny emails.
I spent a bunch of time with him. I heard what kind of a mess he was. When I saw him, he was all there. He recalled things from specific games. We sat in his office. He chewed tobacco, spit in a cup and answered questions. It was great.
What was it like meeting Ditka?
The day before I met him, I had lunch with (former Bears linebacker Jim Morrissey). He said, ‘Ditka is going to give you a hard time.’
I said, ‘Yeah, he’s tough guy, but with a heart of gold.’
Morrissey said, ‘No heart of gold.’
He’s intimidating, intentionally intimidating.
I talked to him a lot about the ’63 team. He wanted to talk about ’63. He said, ‘Why does everyone always want to talk about the ’85 Bears?’
What about the rest of the Bears?
Plank was a great guy. I kept going back to him to check stuff. He drew me the 46 defense. I’ve got the 46 defense drawn by 46.
Brian Baschnagel was great. Emery Moorehead was terrific. Otis Wilson was very forthcoming. Kurt Becker. There were a lot of great guys to talk to.
I also talked to guys on other teams: Danny White, Joe Theismann, Cris Collinsworth. They all said the ’85 defense was the best they’ve ever seen.
Was there anybody you wanted who you didn’t get?
I couldn’t get Dan Hampton. Jeff Pearlman’s (biography on Walter Payton) made it hard for me. Hampton was upset with the way it came out.
Steve McMichael also was upset about the (Payton) book. He wouldn’t sit down with me, but I talked to him a lot.
What is the legacy of that team?
Think about the league now and there’s no defense anymore. You used to want the defense to come on first. The defense scored. The defense did crazy things. Every play, you didn’t know what was going to happen.
That excitement when you saw Joe Theismann look up and it seemed like the Bears had 40 guys in his face.
They transcended the sport. I tried to capture that in the book, but even still I don’t understand it exactly…There are great teams, but they don’t exactly go with the city. That team somehow expressed something about Chicago. The way people think about themselves in Chicago.The music, the people, and the comedy. It doesn’t happen very often.
Also, it always seemed like they were having so much fun.