Rich Cohen’s new book, Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, is a keeper. I’ve been a fan of Cohen’s writing ever since my pal Steinski hipped me to Tough Jews. A few weeks ago I talked to Rich about his career and the new book.
Alex Belth: Not counting the book you wrote with Jerry Weintraub or the children’s book, this is your eighth book. Let’s start with your family memoir, Sweet and Low. Was that the book you always wanted to write?
Rich Cohen: It’s hard to say exactly because usually when I’m doing a book I feel like that’s the book I always wanted to write and I genuinely feel that way, it’s not just something I’m saying. I think maybe you have to get yourself into that state of mind to do it. Sweet and Low was kind of the thing that I look back at and I say, “I can’t believe I did that, that was an insane thing to do.”
Alex: You mean just to be so candid about your family history?
Rich: Yeah, and about my uncle. I could have got sued in a million ways, horrible things could’ve happened. It was just crazy.
Alex: But you were driven a little bit by your mom being screwed out of her inheritance.
Rich: Definitely, but it’s like when you get older and you have kids, you just play a little more safe, I think. Sweet and Low really worked well. Everything went really well with it and I’m really glad I did it, but if it went wrong, it could have gone really wrong.
You always take that risk with a book, but usually you’re talking like it could go artistically wrong, you could not sell any copies, but it’s not like you could, like, never-talk-to-your-parents-again kind of wrong.
Alex: Right, or have these horrible lawsuits from family.
Rich: Or worse, completely wrecking your family relationships. The most important relationships.
Alex: Did you show your parents portions of the book before you finished it?
Alex: Really? So you really were taking a risk.
Rich: I couldn’t show it to them, especially my father, who would’ve attempted to rewrite it. It’s like his story, too. I knew I had to finish it and, not only finish it, kind of get it almost perfect into my mind at that time and be so it was like unassailable in my mind. I felt really strongly about it.
Alex: That’s one thing I always get from reading it. You have a very strong and sure voice narration. Sometimes that can even be when you’re being funny—you’re confident. There’s an authorial confidence that I always get reading your stuff. Did that grow after you did Sweet and Low?
Rich: I think the big breakthrough book for me was The Record Men, the book right before Sweet and Low. Something in my head changed, I realized something.
Alex: I haven’t read all of your books, but in those two everything just seems so sound. The tone is really fluid throughout.
RC: Something just happened.
Alex: Is writing hard for you?
Rich: Of course, it’s impossible for me. Hardest fucking thing in the world.
Alex: Good. I know that that’s the case for pretty much every writer that I’ve ever admired. Yet there are some writers that you read and love so much that it is easy to buy into the fantasy that they just wake up and do it with ease. That’s sort of the effect that your books have, there’s an ease to the way that everything flows.
Rich: I don’t think it’s true for anybody. It feels that way, maybe when you’re writing it, but then you go back and read it again and realize it’s a piece of shit basically. I start with what I call the vomit draft. You sort of put every single thing into it the first time, but I never believe when I’m writing that I’m writing a finished book.
Alex: One thing that you say in this book which I thought was great, you said that as you’ve gotten older you’ve said that one thing you’ve really come to believe is true is that—I don’t remember exactly how you phrased it, but something like hard work and determination is a talent.
Rich: And it’s connected to my own thing because sometimes those qualities of persistence and trying again and again, they’re dismissed because they’re not genius. Then there’s this idea that there’s genius and then there’s the other stuff, but the other stuff—it’s just that the hard work is its own kind of genius.
That was my point about Walter Payton. You write a book like this and you think about yourself and the people you know in the best possible way. When I came out of college, I was suddenly in an environment where everybody went to a much, much better school.
Alex: When you were aware of wanting to become a writer, did you say, “Yeah, I want to write books one day?” Was that your ambition?
Rich: When I was a little kid, my dad wrote a book, sold a lot of copies. Not really a writer, but he wrote a really big-deal book. It was exciting, I was around for it and we’ve always, in my family, held books in the highest esteem. We had a library in our house—that you could actually add to that library something with your name on it that you wrote was the greatest kind of achievement. It was just held as the greatest achievement to actually write a book, so I had in my head that it was almost impossible to do.
My father was, in his way for a guy that had to work all the time, he really liked good writers and he really liked good writing. I always had this idea of really excellent writing and wanting to do that. What happened was I came out of college and I got a job at the New Yorker, and I always said I wanted to be a fiction writer. Then I realized that the stuff I liked at the New Yorker, not just when I was there, but the old stuff was nonfiction. The stuff I didn’t like about fiction—the whole idea about plot—I found maddening and boring.
Alex: You were a pop-culture junkie as a kid. You’re a huge music fan, you’re into movies, so were you naturally drawn to nonfiction just as a way of acquiring information about things?
Rich: I really was a big fiction reader, but I think what happened was, in high school and in college, and I don’t know if it’s different if you go to a different kind of college, but I would take English classes and you’d read great writers and you’d take history classes and you’d read bad books. I never read the great nonfiction books. So there was this idea that real writing was fiction and the history was writing like the history teachers.
Alex: Did you read Pauline Kael and movie criticism or Hunter Thompson or Rolling Stone and Creem, or any of that kind of stuff?
Rich: I definitely read Rolling Stone and I read Hunter Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke and I didn’t really get into Pauline Kael until I go out of college, which is too bad because I love Pauline Kael so much.
Alex: I sent her a postcard once when I was in high school, actually, and she wrote back to me.
Rich: I knew her when I was a kid briefly because I was a messenger at the New Yorker and she was still there. She was like the kind of person that if you’re a messenger she still treated you like you actually might be a person.
Alex: Nice. Well, so Monsters. The Bears. How did this book come up? Was this something you wanted to do for a while?
Rich: The really good stories to me are like Sweet and Low. They’re so close to you and important to you. You don’t even recognize them as stories, you don’t even think about it. It doesn’t occur to you, and that’s how this was to me because this team was completely essential growing up. You completely thought about this team all day for many years and these guys.
Alex: Is this just the ’85 Bears or is this the ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86 Bears that culminate with ’85?
Rich: Absolutely, I would say probably like really ’79 to ’89, or maybe even ’79 to ’90 or ’91. I was supposed to write a story for Harper’s about my father, but I just couldn’t do it. I was talking to an editor there and she said, “Okay, well, what else do you want to write about, why don’t you write about sports?” Because I’ve written a bunch of sports stories for them, as you know, because you’ve excerpted that one thing and I said, “I don’t know.” And she said, “Do you want to write about the Knicks?” I said, “Why the fuck do I want to write about the Knicks? I hate the Knicks.” And she goes, “Well, I like the Knicks,” so I said, “Then you write about the Knicks.” She said, “Do you have any sports team that you really love?” I said, “The ’85 bears.” I thought maybe I’d write about the ’85 Bears.
One of the problems you run into with sports stories is the guys aren’t that interesting when you talk to them. I’ve written a lot of stories about guys playing now. I decided the first person I’d talk to would be Doug Plank. You’d think he’d be this because he was such a ferocious player and kind of a borderline player, and I called him up and it was like, it was the greatest interview I’d ever done. He had been so thoughtful about his career, what it meant, that time in his life, the game, what the game meant, what it means to succeed, what it means to fail, what it’s like to have to leave the game and your friends continue on without you, what’s it like to barely not win the Super Bowl because he retired too early. All these things about fame—and what’s the Gay Talese book, Fame and Obscurity? All the big things, not just about football but about like being a human being and being alive and getting old.
Alex: And how reflective the guy is. He talks about—who is the guy, you end that one chapter with him talking about a guy who tore his cartilage?
Rich: He never told me the player’s name. He’s obviously protecting the guy and he’s talking about hitting a guy low.
Alex: Yeah, and he just says that you live with these things for a long time and you kind of—it’s real powerful stuff there.
Rich: I thought so, and his whole thing about Roger Goodell coming up to him and saying, “You’re a great player.” It’s sort of like that’s what everybody wants—to just really be great at one thing, I think.
Alex: What’s interesting to me about that quote is the idea than an authority figure’s compliment would validate him so much, there’s still that adolescent need in Plank.
Rich: It’s interesting too because Goodell didn’t play.
Alex: That took me back, actually, because of all the things he said, and this guy’s pretty deep, yet he still craves that dad kind of approval.
Rich: But there’s another way to look at it, too. That’s definitely true, but there’s also the idea of how you’re remembered. It’s like what Ditka said. I mean, I read it, I still sort of break up and cry over Ditka’s eulogy of Payton about how he played. It’s like how did they play, that’s just like life. How did you play the game? Did you play hard? Did you play clean? Did you obey the rules of the game you were playing?
And all these things and there’s that too in Plank. I mean, yeah, it’s Goodell, so that’s totally true what you’re saying, but it’s also, here’s somebody remembering so many years later, you were a great player. It’s so long ago and he wasn’t on the ’85 Bears.
Alex: And talk about fame and obscurity—say, for instance, they didn’t win in ’85 then, really, who would have remembered him? What I remember most about the Bears that year was that they were like the bad guys in The Road Warrior. They were just terrorists. They’d knock guys out, they didn’t just beat guys, it was ridiculous and they reveled in it, too. That was the thing.
Rich: Absolutely, man. I tried to put that in the book because I was a Joe Ferguson fan for whatever reason, because I used to love to watch him run all around. Remember how great he was? I remember him on the Bills. He was also the subject of the greatest, funniest referee’s call ever. Remember that? The guy giving him the business. That was Ferguson, “giving him the business.” Which shows people like to pound on Ferguson for some reason, he’s always getting “giving him the business.” It’s one of those guys who you associate him with one team. Always with the Bills.
When Wilber Marshall just laid him out and it was the most vicious hit that I’ve ever seen, and they say that the game has gotten so much quicker and so much more violent, I don’t believe it when I see that hit. That’s as violent as any hit you’ll ever see ever. You look at even the size of a guy like Ditka. Ditka could still be a great tight end now, he’s the same size as those guys.
When he was playing, if you look at how big he was, now they work out more, but they were big fucking guys. Just to see him like—to watch him kill Joe Ferguson—I just suddenly got, “Oh, this is what it must be like for every other team in the league.” To understand the greater context of it, the Cowboys have been beating the shit out of the Bears my entire life. Every now and then we’d get a Cowboys player and he wouldn’t be good anymore. Like Golden Richards came to the Bears. I was like, “Oh we got one of these guys!”
Alex: It’s like you said, it’s like who cares what happened with the rest of the season, win this game. At the time of that game, it’s like a poor man’s version of when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the ’04 American League Championship Series.
Rich: It’s how I used to feel when I was a kid. I was a big Michigan fan and watched Michigan play Ohio State. It didn’t really matter what happened in the Rose Bowl, the main thing was that Michigan beat Ohio State. Woody Hays went psychotic, punched out a cameraman.
Alex: I remember the Monday night game vividly. What I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t just Dan Marino, it was Don Shula, and it was maybe the fact that the Bears were a little cocky and that that loss proved to actually be a really good thing for them.
Rich: Yeah, like if the Patriots maybe a couple years ago had not had a perfect record. Maybe it would have been good for them. Sometimes you go in kind of arrogant and it’s like the Bears were rigid. They were rigid because Buddy Ryan had this idea, which was right that year, but look at what happened to him later. He was a rigid guy. He would draw up his plan and he wasn’t a pragmatic person, he was an ideologue. Rex is a little bit like that. Ditka—that’s why they were really complimentary—Ditka is the ultimate pragmatist, he doesn’t give a shit: If he goes to a team that has a great running back, he’ll run the ball every play. If he goes to a team that’s got a great receiver, he’ll throw, whatever he can do to win, he’ll do it.
The 46 [defensive scheme], Shula figured out how to beat the 46 for one half, that’s all he had to do because the Bears didn’t score a lot of points and McMahon was hurt and the Bears had this idea that Marino was immobile and he just couldn’t move and they designed roll-outs and they suddenly had Wilber Marshall having to cover Nat Moore down the field and he just couldn’t do it, and Marino was one of the best quarterbacks ever and that was it. If Buddy Ryan had switched to the nickel, which he finally did in the second half, they could’ve probably stopped him because not only did he have 46, but they also had great players, four hall of famers, three on defense, I guess. Some of those guys could have been like Wilber Marshall.
Alex: It’s like the Big Red Machine. It’s like the guys who aren’t in the Hall of Fame are still pretty fucking awesome.
Rich: Right, and they’re not in the Hall of Fame and they’re the reason why the other guys are in the Hall of Fame.
Alex: They can’t put the whole damn squad in the Hall of Fame.
Rich: Exactly, so you have McMichael, who is borderline, and even a guy like Gary Fencik, who I guess is nowhere close, but if you look at the amount of interceptions he had and the amount of tackles he had.
Alex: Now Fencik sounds like a great interview, too.
Rich: Well, Fencik is a really smart, regular kind of guy. Plank would always joke and Fencik would say the same thing and say, “Hey, it’s Gary Plank.” They played side by side for a whole bunch of years. They were kind of like mirror images of each other. They’re both these little, not-very-fast, hard-hitting white guys who would run around and completely crush people.
I was watching a game the other night and they were trying to use the safety like that. It just wasn’t good enough. They would pick him up and he would suddenly be trying to get by a guy who was 100 pounds heavier than him, and they just didn’t and as a result there was somebody open down field. It was a disaster. But just to see when you’d see Fencik come creeping up just before the snap and suddenly he’s the extra guy coming through on the safety. In that game against the Rams, the first tackle is made by Fencik of Dickerson in the Rams backfield. That’s crazy.
Alex: Absolutely. The only drag to me about the way that that season ended—well, there’s two drags and you go into it in the book. I was pissed they didn’t give the ball to Walter Payton to score a touchdown, but I actually understood it a little bit more, reading your book that he was a perfect decoy.
Rich: When you go back and watch the game—I didn’t really write about this too much because I didn’t want to and I basically agree with you—but he did get the ball a lot by the goal and he didn’t score. He didn’t have a good game. He just didn’t have a good game and, if you look at it—I counted at one point—there were five or six times he was given the ball inside the three. You know what I mean? Even one time when he was throwing the ball and he, like, dropped it in the end zone. Basically, he was pissed at himself, I think because he knew he had a shitty game and one of the reasons he had a shitty game was because he was triple-teamed every time he touched the ball.
Alex: That’s the one thing they could do.
Rich: Right, the one thing they said, “Okay, we’re going to stop Payton, we’re not going to let Payton beat us. We’re going to make McMahon beat us,” or whatever.
Alex: What’s interesting was the way that Payton handled it, which wasn’t graceful. Finally, he won the Super Bowl and he was kind of pissed in the aftermath but also that Ditka was so swept up in the moment that it didn’t even occur to him to let Payton score a touchdown.
Rich: Here’s the thing for me. I was at the game and I was a kid, so I didn’t even notice any of that. It’s amazing when you’re at the game—I mean, I noticed that Payton didn’t score, I noticed that bothered me, but I didn’t notice that Payton wasn’t handling it well because I couldn’t see his face. I realized it later, and then I read the Jeff Pearlman book [Sweetness, a biography of Payton] a couple years ago and he really went into it.
But the thing is when I interviewed McMahon—McMahon, who remembered every single tiny detail—McMahon like Ditka said, “I didn’t even realize until after the game. I didn’t even get it.” He was so focused on winning the Super Bowl and he said that on the play that he scored his first touchdown was designed for Payton. He looked up and Payton was completely covered and there was a big hole so he just ran into the end zone and that’s the football play.
Alex: Absolutely. The other part that I remember about that season being disappointed with was that the Dolphins didn’t make it to the Super Bowl.
Rich: I didn’t really write about that in the book because it was a shame. The Dolphins were probably going to lose, but you had a sense that—
Alex: Right. The Dolphins, I just remember when they lost in the playoffs it was like, the season’s over. They were the best chance to put up a fight against the Bears. That would have been a sort of worthy—
Rich: Not only that. As a Bears fan, there was a blemish on the season and there is a blemish and the blemish could have been removed. That’s why it was a bummer. The Bears had a chance—that would have been the perfect Hollywood ending, if the Bears beat the Dolphins.
Even looking back on it, though, it was so thrilling and it was so fitting that they completely trounced New England. If it had been a close game against the Dolphins…
I was listening to The FAN in New York around Super Bowl time and they were just talking about the greatest Super Bowl teams and they didn’t even bring up the Bears. How could that be? Then I realized, “Oh, because all the teams they’re talking about are teams that won in great games, that’s why they remember them.” The Catch, the Ice Bowl, the Steelers and Cowboys going back and forth, your team, your era, my era, too, Bradshaw, Staubach, and all that great stuff, and the Bears game was never close.
Alex: If I had to name one of the best teams of all time, I would certainly think of the ’85 Bears. Their offense I think is kind of underrated, but forget their offense. Their defense was an offense.
Rich: Absolutely, the defense scored more points than the offense. It was Mike Francesa—I think it was his show. It was just an oversight. I know if you were to talk to him because he was just naming—when you started listening to the teams he was naming, they were all teams involved in great games. He was remembering great games.
I heard him recently, somebody was saying the Jets have a great defense right now. This was a couple days ago, somebody was saying that, and he was saying, “Oh, they’re not a great defense, a great defense is the ’85 Bears, a great defense is the ’77 Steelers.” He clearly, on his ranking, has the Bears at the top of all-time best defenses, as they should be. I think they’re the best ever.
I was thinking about the fact that if it had been the Dolphins and the Bears in the Super Bowl, and not a team that seemed like they just got hot for a couple of games, under weird conditions, and if they had an actual game, then it just would have been the perfect ending.
It’s sort of like when you get something you wanted to happen very easily and at first you’re really happy that it wasn’t as much work and then later you’re like you wish it was a little more of a struggle. That’s a little bit what it was like.
Alex: After they won it’s almost like, what now? Okay, you’ve climbed a mountain. Now what?
Rich: Right. It’s really especially cute, I think, and maybe I’m wrong. For Chicago, there had never been a winning team in Chicago my whole life. In my entire life.
Alex: That’s another thing. This is all before the run of Michael and the Bulls.
Rich: You had to go back to the ’63 Bears, which was five years before I was born, and at that point football was much less of a big deal than it became. One team did win and the media tried to blow it up into a big deal, but nobody cared, and it was the Chicago Kings in the indoor soccer championship, and they tried to make it a big deal and the press went to the airport and there was nobody waiting for the team. There was like one guy waiting for the players, like, “Hey, you’re the soccer guys man, you won something, congratulations, good job!”
It always seems like it’s going to happen and it doesn’t. Just the year before that, in ’84, the Cubs were 2–0, one game away from the World Series, then they lost three games in a row. That was just crushing; and the year before that, even though I wasn’t a White Sox fan, I sort of rooted for the Chicago teams, but I got kind of into it when the White Sox won their division by like 20 games. Then they maybe won one game against the Orioles.
Alex: I got WGN, so when I was in middle school I watched the Cubs all the time just because they were on after school, so I was kind of familiar with those Cubs teams in a way that I wouldn’t have been with a lot of other teams.
Rich: They’re real fun. There’s that Steve Goodman song, “The Cubs Fan’s Request.” First of all, Chicago has variations, just like every city of accents, so the one they do on Saturday Night Live, like the Super Fans, that’s a real accent, it’s like a South Side accent.
Where I grew up is sort of like the North Shore, and it’s like heading toward Wisconsin and then ultimately to Minnesota, and it starts to be almost like a Minnesota accent, but it’s very particular to like a few towns and Steve Goodman has that accent, so it always makes me feel very warm to hear it. He’s talking about his funeral, what he wants for his funeral, it’s just really great. But he’s listing the things that he wants it to be—Wrigley Field, day, no lights, and he wants, of all things, he wants Keith Moreland to drop a routine fly. He just dates it exactly. I think Keith Moreland has a son now and he plays baseball.
Alex: So when you said that this started with something at Harper’s. Did it start as a magazine piece or did you think this could actually be a book?
Rich: It started as me saying I was going to write a magazine piece about the ’85 Bears and then calling Doug Plank and then talking to him for three hours and Brian Baschnagel, too—Baschnagel was another great guy. Then deciding, this a book, this is a book I’ve always wanted to write. Then I just talked to my editor and told him I want to write this book, and he basically said go do it.
Alex: How long did it take you to do it?
Rich: I have to think about exactly when I started. I probably spent about six months or a little more just going around and tracking down and interviewing players and hanging out with Brian McCaskey, who is one of Halas’s grandsons. Then I probably spent like another year or whatever writing it, or something like that. Then it’s actually been published, from when I turned it in to when I published it, it was a really short period of time. I just turned it in in the spring, I never had that experience. That’s because if we didn’t make this spring, I would’ve had to wait until next football season, which I really didn’t want to do. Plus, it’s not really, but things happen, things become dated really, really quickly.
Alex: Did the McMahon story in Sports Illustrated—that had come out but before you finished it?
Rich: The weird thing about McMahon is he’s alright. When you talk and when you hang out with him.
Alex: I was a little surprised, actually, because having read that piece I was expecting it to be worse. I didn’t know what your approach was going to be, but you ended up handling that subject dead on. That was like the subject you couldn’t avoid, right?
Rich: As a fan, you can’t avoid it either, the more stuff you read about it. You think about it, you have kids, you think about it, but when you go deal with McMahon, you’re dealing with McMahon and how he is and he seemed like he always seemed. He remembers everything, that’s a short-term memory thing, the fact is every now and then I get in touch with him and he always emails me right back and seems to know who I am.
Alex: The other interesting thing about McMahon is that he plays the part of such a hick but actually did well with his money.
Rich: He did a really smart thing, which is, all these guys were getting sports agents, and he met Steve Zucker, who just lived where I grew up basically, and he said, “Well, you represent me.” He’s not an agent, he’s a really smart guy. The guy said I’m not an agent. He ended up being an agent because he did so well from McMahon and he ended up representing a bunch of Bears, but he said, “I’m not an agent,” and he said, “I don’t care, it’s just that you’re smart and you know the people in Chicago.” He said okay because he thought his kids would think it was really cool that he represented Jim McMahon.
Steve Zucker was such a smart guy and McMahon told him what he wanted, which was when he stopped playing, he didn’t want to have to work ever again. He invested his money, took care of his money, told him what to do in such a way that—it wasn’t just that McMahon was pulling an investor, but he found a guy he could trust and trusted him. That’s like the same kind of thing we’re talking about, about like hard work. Don’t discount how rare that is. That he knew not to go with the biggest deal, biggest name agent. That didn’t mean shit to him. He just wanted somebody who was local in Chicago and somebody who was smart and seemed to have his shit together.
Alex: How did you decide how to weave in the memoir stuff with the interviewing of the players and then include a general history of the Bears?
Rich: I think that the structure, I hate to give it away because hopefully people can’t even see it, but underneath it all, all the structure is super, super simple, which is what I always like to have: a really simple structure. The structure is just—it’s almost like the history of the Bears from the time they were started until they won the ’85 Super Bowl. That’s really the underlying structure of the book. Then it’s really in thirds. The first third of it is the history of the Bears, then the history of the league, because the history of the Bears and the history of the league are intertwined. So it’s the history of the Bears and it’s also a biography of Halas because it’s all intertwined. That’s the first third. Then the second third is the ’85 season and the last third is what happened after.
Alex: How did you have to condense the team’s rich history to fit this story?
Rich: That’s like the vomit draft. I don’t know how many words the book is. I knew at one point, it’s probably about 85,000 words or something, and the first draft was probably 200,000 words. I completely freak out, lose my mind, think it’s a piece of you know—go through everything and then you keep cutting and cutting and the first cutting is easy because it’s obvious, but then it gets harder and harder.
So like I said, I had this whole chunk on Red Grange. It was just—Red Grange’s story was so much like Sid Luckman’s story I thought you only get one of those, and Sid Luckman was more interesting because he was so important to the history of the way the modern offense evolved and Grange wasn’t. Also, Luckman was still around in ’85, he was still there and those guys knew him, and he taught Ditka how to catch. He’s completely intertwined. He’s still in a conversation in a way that Grange is almost like Babe Ruth. He’s so distant from such a different era.
Then you look at it, and I wrote the Butkus and I wrote the Sayers and you sort of say, “This book isn’t the whole encyclopedic history like you said, but at the same point it is a history of the Bears and can you really have a history of the Bears without Butkus and Sayers?” I kind of thought—I always need a title, I always want a title to be Monsters—and you sort of thought as long as they’re one of the monsters, they belong in the book. That was true about Sayers and that was true about Butkus, they both belonged in the book.
Also, they were the guys, the Bears from before I was born until they started getting good in the early ’80s, who went through this long, fallow period. That was my entire childhood, and the last two great Bears who never won because they played in that period were Butkus and Sayers. I’m just justifying this in my head, but it all fits within and I wanted it to be—the memoir stuff was sort of like it just fits where it fits, the beginning scene with the Super Bowl and the end story, that’s like a bookend, it’s outside the structure, but it’s like a bookend and it’s a really funny way. It’s what really happened, but I thought it was a really funny story about getting on that crazy plane.
Alex: I loved that. It begins the story in such high spirits. That’s the thing for me that ends up being interesting about the story. I learned about a city that I don’t know a lot about. Great story when, after a loss, the cop yells at you guys and he says, “Pick your fucking head up, it’s another fucking day.” That was like, okay, that’s the city’s ethos or whatever it is.
Rich: Absolutely and, also, I didn’t want it to be like, it’s not like even though I love these books, it’s not like David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 or whatever—
Alex: Well you wanted it to be—In your previous books, your sense of human, you definitely descend from Buddy Hackett’s blue shows. I always get the sense that you like some good vulgarity in your humor.
Rich: Yeah, I know and I constantly—you should see how many—those are the letters I get from people I sent the book to, “You probably want to take this out.”
Alex: I’m glad you didn’t because that’s the fun part.
Rich: I know, it’s just getting back to what it really is and what really makes it great, which isn’t—that’s how I felt about it—which isn’t just the statistics and the numbers and the fantasy football and all that shit and all the graphics, it’s a guy running for his life. It’s such a crazy game. This guy trying to throw the ball 30 yards down the field as five guys are coming to kill him. What it takes to stand up in the middle of that and know you’re going to get completely flattened and still do it.
Alex: The Bears are a great team because, again, there was something so primal and awful and they were almost like a comic book. But there are two cases in your book, Tony Eason and Ferguson… These are guys that you want to talk to who had particularly embarrassing incidents with the Bears. The Ferguson hit and Eason’s poor performance in the Super Bowl.
You even mention Joe Morris, too, who got the mystery migraine in the playoff game, but you couldn’t find these fucking guys, and I wonder, do you think that there is something about football defeat that’s worse than being a goat in a different sport? Bill Buckner comes to mind.
Rich: It’s public humiliation for anybody and if you’ve ever had it at all, it’s an awful thing. You never, ever get over it. It’s like getting burned. For these guys who are masters, I mean, every one of them is an unbelievable athlete, the greatest athlete at every level just about.
That’s what is interesting about Plank and Fencik—they were not. They were never. Like Tom Brady, they just were not and then they kept getting better, but most of these guys like Buckner, he was an incredible player from the moment he came into the league and to sort of have this act of being—and he’s a graceful guy and to be in public in the biggest moment in his life and it’s a clumsy thing. I don’t think it’s just football, I think it’s everything and I think sports is just a magnet.
That’s why good sports completely resonate, because it should be what you live in a confined area in a really heightened way. You do mention Saul Bellow—I’m a big Saul Bellow fan. He had a line about explaining his books, and he said it’s just heightened autobiography. It’s kind of like sports are when they’re working. There was a great hockey player even before my time but a legendary guy, Eric Nesterenko.
He was in the movie Young Blood, he actually teaches Rob Lowe how to fight in that movie, and when I was at the New Yorker, somebody there, Adam Gopnik—he’s from Canada—he gave me this story which I’ve never heard of, called “The Drubbing of Nesterenko.” It was about how at the end of his career, Nesterenko got in a fight with, now I’m spacing out on his name but sort of the enforcer of the Canadiens who later became a coach for the Devils. Nesterenko got the shit beat out of him and it was on national hockey night in Canada and Nesterenko was, like, 42. The guy he was fighting was like 24.
The story is all about—the writer’s a big Blackhawks fan—the guy who beats Nesterenko up is on the Canadiens, and it’s like he feels as if his own father is beating him up and he has this realization about his dad and his feelings about his dad and his life gets better at this point because he realizes all this stuff.
A friend and I went skiing in Vail in 1993, and we’d heard that Eric Nesterenko was a ski instructor in Vail and we hired him for a lesson, and we spent the whole day skiing with him, talking to him about the NHL. We invited him out to dinner and we went out to dinner with him and at the end of dinner, we’d all been drinking a little bit, I asked him if he’d ever heard of the story called “The Drubbing of Nesterenko” and he went fucking berserk. He’s like, “I fucking heard of it, some fucking candy-ass writer, some fucking asshole, I get my ass beat up, I get humiliated on TV, my kids watch that, my family watches that, and this guy has an epiphany about how he doesn’t like his dad? Fuck him.”
Alex: You can’t undo that. What happened to him was a big deal for him, but you take that and you put Tony Eason in the Super Bowl—
Rich: And for Nesterenko, even though it was a nationally televised game, it wasn’t the biggest game in the world.
Alex: You’re not surprised that a guy like Eason would just say, “Screw it?”
Rich: Right, I don’t want to talk about it again, you know? Same with Ferguson. And I tried to phrase it as somewhat—probably—dishonestly, which is, “I want to talk about your entire career and then maybe we could talk about the ’85 Bears.”
And by the way, I really was a Joe Ferguson fan, so I probably would want to talk about him in Buffalo and if he had talked to me, maybe that would have been part of the book, more about Ferguson. At first, he called back and he said he would talk to me, and then he just blew me off, then I told Fencik about it and he said, “He’s never talking to ya.”
Alex: Fencik and Plank are great because they are like anchors for the book.
Rich: I felt like, especially Plank, because Fencik—I went and I interviewed and I talked to him and stuff, but Plank I spent a lot of time with. He’s the first guy I talked to and he’s the guy I still talk to. I really felt like he became the moral voice of the book, because he’s the underachiever who becomes the most ferocious Bear, who creates this spirit of the defense, who makes the team what it is. He wears the number, he gives it a name, he doesn’t get to the big game himself, but he doesn’t hold any—there’s no pity.
Alex: That’s genuine, that’s not an act, right?
Rich: No, that’s completely genuine, that’s who he is. He’s like one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met. He’s truly a great guy, just like you’d want him to be. In an early version of the book, I drew the diagrams of the single wing, the T-formations, sort of the kind of alignment the Bears had when I was a kid, and a spread, and then most importantly the 46 for the book. I’m like, “Shit, man, I’m a fan, I’ve read everything, I’ve really thought a lot about it, but I’m not a football coach and this is the kind of thing I could’ve had these things wrong. I’m just going to get a lot of grief over it even if it’s a tiny bit wrong and I can have all these people check it. But who can I have check it?” I’m like, “Fuck, I’ll have Plank check it. What better source to check that shit than Plank, who is not only a great player, but who is a coach? And was a coach on the Jets and all this stuff.”
I sent it to him and he was really, really great, and then he actually drew the 46 for me and that’s what’s in the book. Plank’s rendering of the 46 and a long description, which I ran. I don’t know if it’s in what you saw, but the caption is Plank’s description of the 46. It’s just so great that I have that, it’s almost like a historical document.
Alex: Were there any Bears that were either difficult to deal with?
Rich: Well, a bunch of guys just didn’t want to talk to me, they don’t give a shit, they don’t want to talk about it anymore. One of the guys who was sort of difficult, although he was okay, was McMichael, who I talked to on the phone. But he wouldn’t sit down for an interview because he was so pissed off about the Jeff Pearlman book. He’s like, “Look, all we have is our reputations basically, and that’s it because we don’t play football anymore, and I don’t trust you fucking guys anymore.” They were really hurt, so everybody I talked to was sort of—and I’m like, “Hey man, I’m a Bears fan.” I was there in ’85.
Alex: And that didn’t matter?
Rich: It mattered to some of them. I’ll tell you what: What’s cool about the Bears is that they are a bunch of guys from Chicago and they completely get who I am. So Kurt Becker, who was McMahon’s roommate and the right tackle, I think—right guard—he’s from the West Side of Chicago, he’s knows who I am, he knows where I’m from. He knows I’m a Bears fan. Same with Fencik, who grew up in Barrington.
Alex: You pull off kind of a neat trick in that it’s not a puff piece because you have to be. There’s unsavory things about some of the guys—Ditka, Buddy Ryan, whatever. I always though that Buddy Ryan was an asshole without knowing anything about him, but the way you describe him is kind of sympathetic but not soft.
Rich: He is what he is, which is a product of an older America that really doesn’t exist much anymore.
Alex: When you talk about how he would check out guys to see who was wasting water when they were shaving, that tells me what kind of guy this guy is, or calling Singletary names.
Rich: “Fat Jap.”
Alex: “Fat Jap,” right. So just that.
Rich: And by the way, Singletary is not in any part Japanese, which I sort of assumed he was. I think he’s part Cherokee, I think that’s what it is.
Alex: Was he interesting at all?
Rich: I didn’t talk to Singletary. Here’s the other problem: A bunch of the guys are coaches, like full-time head coaches, so you could get to them in a press conference about you know, so that’s in a testament to the team. So Singletary was coaching San Francisco, then in Minnesota, and Ron Rivera is head coach, and Jeff Fisher is a head coach, and Leslie Frazier is a head coach, and then those other guys I spoke to, like Dent I spoke to, and Otis Wilson was really great actually. He was a great one.
Alex: He was from Brooklyn right?
Rich: Brownsville. He’s one of my favorite players. Very charismatic guy when he was a player. Some guys are just great talkers, even a guy like Jim Morrissey, who is really from Michigan, but half of his grandparents lived basically where I lived, where I grew up, and he used to spend every summer where I grew up, so he kind of was a Chicago guy in a lot of ways.
It’s just like a guy working for some brokerage firm making trades on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange now, and he played like 11 years in the NFL as a linebacker, as a starting linebacker, which is a big deal. He was just a rookie on that team, and he was just one of those guys who was really observant, watching everything, and could explain it really well.
So you had the guys who were the great players, but they might not be a good interview. Like Dent, who was a hall of fame player, but he’s not going to remember exactly—you know what I mean? Whereas Otis Wilson did, and Otis Wilson has a big complaint against Ditka, he was kind of angry. Morrissey did, and Brian Baschnagel, who was really one of the great players on the team when they were bad and was still with them in ’86, and he was just really interested in what was going on.
Alex: And Ditka was pretty good with you, too, wasn’t he?
Rich: Yeah, Ditka’s great. I mean, Ditka’s Ditka, though. He’s like, “Why do you want to talk about ’85, why not about ’63? We had a pretty good team in ’63, why doesn’t anybody want to talk about the ’63 team?” Just stuff like that.
Alex: I won’t keep you too much longer Rich, but there are two other things I wanted to touch on. Was Kahn’s The Boys of Summer a template?
Rich: Yeah, Boys of Summer. As far as football books—and I’m not a completist, you know what I mean—I thought Paper Lion was a great book and one of the things that’s great about it is that Plimpton was a really excellent writer. He got this firsthand experience of catching a punt kicked by an NFL punter, and especially before ESPN and Hard Knocks and all that stuff, he went inside a place no one could go. I think it’s a great book and I think, though it’s a novel, North Dallas Forty, is a really great book. Funny book. As far as football goes, I think the Michael Lewis book is really good about describing the offensive line.
Alex: The one football book that I really was moved by was by John Ed Bradley, who played at LSU and then was a writer for the Washington Post and then for Esquire and GQ for a bunch of years and SI, but he dropped out and became a novelist. It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium is a memoir about John Ed growing up in Louisiana, his daddy was a high school football coach, and playing at LSU. He could have played in the NFL but decided he wanted to be a writer.
The book is about how for 20-some-odd years, he couldn’t go back to LSU. He couldn’t talk to the people he played with because it was such a good time, it was such an elevated time, that he would never be able to get there again, and it’s really a melancholy book, but I thought of that. His whole book is summed up into one sentence by Plank when he says, “If you’re lucky enough to experience something that intense when you’re young, you pay for it with the rest of your life.” That’s John Ed’s book. That’s fascinating to me that for some guys they can’t—and Plank seems to have gone on with his life and he was able to see that and articulate that was really powerful.
Rich: Well, that’s why he was so great as a resource, because he was both. He wasn’t a guy on the sideline, a guy on the periphery. He wasn’t a mediocre player, he was a great player. He really was. He was a heartbeat of the defense before he got hurt and he thought a lot about it. It’s just his description to me of when he got cut or basically got cut because he’s never going to be the same, and he’s leaving the locker room and he sees Jeff Fisher and he tells Jeff Fisher and the whole look on Jeff Fisher face just changes like, “Alright.”
Alex: You’re a civilian now.
Rich: Yeah, we’re not teammates and it’s over and how that registers is so sad for Plank, he just registers it.
Alex: There’s a lot of sadness in sort of the idea, it’s not depressing really—
Rich: It’s melancholy, man, it’s melancholy.
Alex: It really is, it’s sort of like, life moves on and you did this 25 years ago and sometimes even the idea of—I could almost imagine myself being a player and being like—
Rich: Well, that’s the thing, like the shit about Walter Payton and what a hard time he had retiring, like it’s a surprise—how could you not? You put any human being in that situation where you give him that much adulation and control your life to that extent and it just ends and the fact that so many of these guys do so well is amazing. It just shows how strong they are. The fact that Doug Plank then while the Bears are in the Super Bowl, he’s running a Burger King, and he’s not screaming his head off. You know what I mean? And everyone’s talking about the 46 defense on TV and they don’t know it’s Doug Plank in the Burger King.
Alex: That’s one thing I think you do successfully in your book, I didn’t know what to expect. You touch on the big Vikings game in the ’85 season, the Cowboys game, you talk about games, but it’s like “and then in week two”—
Rich: That’s what I’m saying, if people are expecting that, they’re going to be disappointed.
Alex: To me that’s what’s so horrible even about baseball writing. “And then he hit the 2-2 pitch and laced it for a double,” even the language is horrible. How do you write interesting and lively prose about stuff that has been so clichéd over time?
Rich: It’s really been a challenge, and that’s what I mean when I say that there’s been books—every book I’ve read about a football season, they’re all like that. It’s like a blow-by-blow-by-blow of something that happened long ago that only means something and is only interesting if you’re a complete fanatic or it resonates in some bigger cultural way. That’s why Boys of Summer still resonates to people. Even if they haven’t read it, they know about it. Have you read it?
Alex: I have, but to me it’s—I have mixed feelings about it, but I’m still taken by Kahn’s ambition to write a great book. It’s melodramatic in parts but still powerful.
Rich: That’s what’s good about it, for me. It’s an imperfect book with a lot of flaws. You know what it’s like? When you read certain magazine writing and it’s so slick, you’re like, “I could never write that,” but then you read something like Ian Frazier, who’s like a—I love him, you could tell a person made it, it’s made by hand.
Alex: What’s amazing reading it now is that Kahn had access to his subject that doesn’t exist anymore. The relationships that he had with these guys and the fact that he’s writing about the ’50s just as the whole ’50s craze, the whole Brooklyn thing was starting and it’s the last major thing ever written about Jackie Robinson before he dies. It set a standard that kind of book.
Rich: You can’t sell what he’s selling anymore because, for all the reasons you say, no one has that kind of access and, what’s more, cameras are everywhere so people have seen. And also the fact that the guy made no money and you didn’t know what happened to them after they retired, they vanished. A guy working in the World Trade Center and putting in the elevators.
The reason why—I agree with everything you’re saying, that’s why it was helpful for me, because, first of all, it was totally imperfect and all kind of fucked up, yet so great. So you could sort of see how he put it together so obviously. Underneath, it’s an incredibly simple structure, when you’re reading it you kind of forget that. For him, you’re always aware. It’s divided into thirds, it’s the history of the Dodgers up until when he was kid, then it’s his own memoir, then it’s his season, culminating in his season with the team, which is not the season they want. So his season with the team, where the manager was Charlie Dressen—who was the first quarterback of the Bears, technically. Then the ’55 season, like you expected, and then the last third—it’s not even integrated, it’s like separate chapters, separate essays about where are they now, about whatever it is, five or six guys, culminating with Robinson, and that’s it, and it’s so simple, and it completely works.
So that’s why it was—it’s not that it was the great be-all and end-all; it’s that he did something really, really interesting, really, really great, and it’s very simple to see. To me, the structure of it is very plain. It’s like seeing a building and being able to see how it was put together. If you look at the sports books that had bigger culture resonance, Friday Night Lights does, too. I thought that was actually a great book, there’s another book that’s sort of, like, not perfect, but it’s like Dreiser or something; it’s like the whole magnitude of it and the ambition is really interesting.
Alex: Lastly, you write about the mixed emotions about the violence in the game. You love big hits, but you love Dave Duerson more. Do you find that you don’t like football as much as you used to? You have three kids right?
Rich: Yeah, but you know what, though: I go back and forth about it because as a product, as I’m watching it, it’s just about as good as it’s ever been, I believe. Part of me thinks there’s too much scoring because it becomes inflationary. I love hockey because there’s so much tension—who’s going to score? Some of these games seem like the Nerf football games you play as a kid and you say, “Okay whoever scores next wins,” but you don’t keep fucking score, everybody scores every time, so whoever is able to stop the team once is going to win.
As a Bears fan, you love defense, and the defense has been so disadvantaged by the rules, partly to protect these guys and partly because people love to see goals. I mean, people love to see points. When you see a guy—I remember when I was a kid—that Darryl Stingley had happened, and it just really freaked me out, scared the shit out of me, and then he came back and he was a paraplegic. It was just so awful. It is, it’s a tough thing.
Alex: Now, when you did this book, you’re describing these guys walking around. You always talk about Plank’s titanium shoulders.
Rich: The idea that Jim McMahon can’t play catch with me because he can’t fucking throw his keys—he’s all fucked up. So they made these decisions themselves. They had a choice and they made these decisions. A lot of them even knew, because it wasn’t like if you were a player on the Bears and you were a rookie in ’85, all you had to do was look at Ditka. He was a fucking mess. He was a very physical player. He played for a very long time.
But the fact is when you’re 22, you can’t make a decision like that. That’s why you need other people to protect you from yourself, because you’ll do stupid shit: You’ll drink and drive, you’ll take drugs. You’ll do everything you’ll pay for later because you’re an idiot, you’re a kid. You’re just thinking about the next ten minutes and you’re not thinking that other things—you haven’t lived long enough to realize that other thing is going to come around before you know it.
It’s just like what’s going to look good in the next. If you watched how a guy like McMahon played, he played like a guy who believed that it didn’t matter what happened in three years. He’d dive head first. He would do it all the time and he loved it and he obviously was a guy who loved getting hit. There’s guys like that. We all grew up with them.
Alex: He’s like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. He’s nuts.
Rich: Yeah, and that’s his whole thing, and especially now, it’s the coach’s job and the owner’s job and the GM’s. They have to protect that guy from himself. You’re using that quality he has to make your team great and to make this game exciting, but you also, at the same time, have a kind of responsibility to protect them from his own stupidity, that he can’t see what’s coming, but you know because you’re 20 years older than him.
Ditka would say, “Well, I couldn’t change him—it would have ruined him.” That’s probably true to some degree. Now, though, it’s like watching a game, it’s like willing suspension of disbelief and you don’t think about it because you get into it, but when you see a bad hit, the kind you used to see ten times in an ’85 Bears game, you sort of have this moment of, “What the fuck am I doing here.” That’s what the league has to protect itself from because that’s what’s going to hurt the league.