This is a football city, and that is because we (or most of us) still like to think we live in a rough-and-tumble town. The echo of Carl Sandburg remains strong. He called the city “alive and coarse and strong and cunning” and endowed it with those “big shoulders,” and through the generations they have performed for us in the human forms of Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, Mike Ditka, Dick Butkus, Brian Urlacher and … I could go on.
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On game days, the Soldier Field stands may be filled with more investment bankers than cabdrivers. But taverns and sports bars are still jammed with regular folks. Ditka got it right when, a few weeks before the Bears' Super Bowl victory in 1986, he said, “Some teams are fair-haired. Some aren't. Some teams are a Smith, some are a Grabowski. ... We're a Grabowski.”
Some years ago Jeannie Morris was explaining to me the meaning of football. She was the wife of Bears' great Johnny Morris of the 1963 championship team, a pioneering female sports broadcaster, a writer and a good person. All the profits from her best-selling "Brian Piccolo: A Short Season" went to Piccolo's widow and three daughters.
"Football is a strange game, perhaps the most human of all sports because it is filled with contradictions: intricate and simple, vicious and artful, base and honorable. Like life at its headiest, football is all about risk. (Chicago) is a Bears town, and I do think that 'city of big shoulders' thing has resonance.
"And then there's the generational thing: '63, '85. The Bears give us plenty of seasons to bitch about but offer one joyous team every 20 or so years.
"I ran into a guy recently who said his happiest memory was shivering through the Bears championship game in 1963 with his father. He was 10 years old. He said it was the most wonderful day he ever spent with his father. ... The great gift of all sports is that they offer lines of communication, not just between fathers and sons but through entire communities."
All of which brings us to Rich Cohen.
A child of the North Shore, he grew up in Glencoe, became a successful magazine writer and a prolific and best-selling author of nearly a dozen nonfiction books, including "Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams," "The Record Men: The Chess Brothers and the Birth of Rock & Roll" and "Sweet and Low: A Family Story."
Now he tackles (sorry, couldn't help myself) one particular gathering of colorful characters and grand talents in "Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football."
He wanted this book, he writes, to be "about the Bears, but also about the ecstasy of winning and what it means to be a fan. ... I would delve into the Bears as another journalist might delve into the Amazon. I would die in the jungle, or return with the answers."
And so he begins: "I read every book and article about the '85 Bears, written both by reporters and historians." That's a lot of reading, a great deal of it deadly dull and cliché-ridden, but he mines it efficiently enough to give us only the shiniest nuggets, and a terrific book.
The book is also about himself, because "(a)s a writer, I have found the best stories tend to be those closest to me."
And so we learn which players' posters adorned his bedroom wall; travel with the teenage Cohen to New Orleans for the 1986 Super Bowl (how he got tickets, we'll never know); visit the White House in 2011 for a very belated honor, a day President Barack Obama called the best of his presidency; take a cross-country driving trip dotted with meaningful football-related stops; and learn that Cohen "had come home after the Super Bowl and lived my life, hopeful that things might work out for me as they had worked out for the Bears. (The team) had cured me of the defeatism of the Chicago fan. They had saved my life."
That bit of hyperbole aside, Cohen is a wonderful writer: "Football is an angry game, played with punishing violence. People get destroyed on the field, lives end. It makes sense that its first star was someone who'd already lost everything, a ruined man, ill-treated, stripped to his essential qualities: speed, strength, power. Jim Thorpe is the spirit of the game. Every NFL hit still carries the fury of the disgraced Indian, prowling the field, seeking justice."
What, you may be wondering, does Jim Thorpe have to do with the 1985 Bears?
One of the book's great joys is its successful effort to tie the threads of the past through the story, and there is great stuff here about owner/coach George Halas, quarterback Sid Luckman and Walter Payton.
I have written Tribune magazine cover stories about some members of this Super Bowl team — Ditka, Jim McMahon and Steve "Mongo" McMichael — and regret that "Mongo" did not sit still for an interview with Cohen. Whatever his image, McMichael is a delightfully introspective person.
But many others were happy to sit down with Cohen, and he found these former players "to be some of the smartest, most reflective people I'd ever interviewed." They include such former players as Gary Fencik, Emery Moorehead, Kurt Becker and Brian Baschnagel. William "Refrigerator" Perry wasn't available.
Cohen is particularly enamored of — and fans/readers will be surprised by — Doug Plank, the pre-Super Bowl safety whose uniform number, "46," gave name to the Bears' ferocious defense. He was a player of such abandon that, he says, "My entire career would be considered a penalty today."
And Ditka is, well, Ditka.
But no one, not even Ditka, epitomized the iconoclastic spirit and winning DNA — what Halas would have called the "old ziperoo" — of the 1985 Bears as much as McMahon.
Cohen gets it: "On some level, I probably wrote this book just to meet the quarterback."
They do meet. Like many former players, McMahon is not in good shape. His body is beaten, his brain increasingly addled by the effects of the pounding he took. Cohen is more than aware of the price some paid and still pay for on-field glory, what he calls "the legacy of big hits." He is particularly moving on the suicide of Dave Duerson and precise in detailing the increasing evidence that football is more dangerous than previously known: "When you cheer a big hit, are you cheering the onset of a disease that will eventually rob a person of everything?
McMahon is asked by Cohen if, knowing what we now know about brain injuries, it had been worth it.
McMahon smiles and says, "I'd do it all again in a heartbeat."
Any fan understands why.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
By Rich Cohen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $26
Listen to Cohen discuss "Monsters" with Rick Kogan on Sunday, Nov. 3, at 10 p.m. on WGN-720 AM.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun