Dancing Bears

The Baltimore Sun

To look at the video now, awkwardly caught between disco's twilight and hip-hop's heyday some 21 years ago, is to wonder how the idea ever took flight.

Ten members of the last Chicago Bears team to play in the Super Bowl made a rap music video called the Super Bowl Shuffle, promoting their football prowess weeks before they even qualified for the championship.

Rather than sample from popular songs of the day like many hip-hop recordings, the Shuffle came from, of all things, a tune linked to old minstrel show Amos 'n Andy.

And the Bears filmed their swaggering performance the day after a midseason defeat -- perhaps the last squad so flauntingly dominant before the NFL emphasized "parity" to try to even out quality among its teams.

We are the Bears Shufflin' Crew, shufflin' on down, doin' it for you.

We're so bad we know we're good. Blowin' your mind like we knew we would.

You know we're just struttin' for fun, struttin' our stuff for everyone.

We're not here to start no trouble. We're just here to do the Super Bowl Shuffle.

The video began with a drumbeat that sounded like a 4-year-old banging on a counter with a spatula. Soon after came several Chicago Bears players in their navy-and-orange uniforms. They flashed cocky looks and strutted side to side, attempting to capture the rhythm and cadence of a gospel choir.

That video didn't just define the Bears in their last Super Bowl season. It marked the rise of the pro athlete as entertainer, fueled by round-the-clock sports cable.

"We were stepping out of the element of sports and stepping on stage and doing something that was kind of unusual," former Bears defensive linemen Richard Dent said. "It sort of took the world by storm."

In the video, the players who coined themselves the Bears Shufflin' Crew clearly left their best moves on the gridiron. As each one tried his hand at rapping, it was evident the whole bunch was hip-hop hopeless.

But back in the day, the Shuffle was def ("outstanding" in 1980s slang). Folks couldn't get enough of the six-minute recording -- or the antics of the maverick bunch that made watching football fun en route to winning Super Bowl XX, as they lyrically foretold.

Like few teams ever, the 1985 Bears were so full of characters, they drew up to 10,000 fans per practice and millions of followers worldwide, some of whom cared little about football. Some teams have tried to recapture that aura, even making records similar to the Shuffle, but none has come close.

"We were real entertainment, not just football players. People were coming from Germany and Japan just to watch us practice," recalled the former Bears wide receiver Willie Gault, who rounded up teammates for the song after being approached by a Chicago record-label owner named Richard Meyer. "We made it more than just a football game."

A video turned out to be the perfect showcase for the team's colorful characters.

There was quarterback Jim McMahon, the self-described "Punky QB." A reckless, cool-handed passer with a brash attitude, he butted helmets with his offensive linemen and wrote messages on white headbands -- including one that mocked the NFL commissioner. He also wore dark sunglasses, one of the video's most memorable features, although he didn't intend it as a fashion statement. He wanted to shade his light-sensitive left eye, which he injured in a mishap as a child.

Walter PaytonRunning back , who died of illness in 1999, was the team's living legend, the greatest NFL runner of his day. Nicknamed, "Sweetness," he possessed ballet-artist grace, wrecking-ball power and delighted in taking on tacklers.

Then there was defensive lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry. Judging from his 320-pound frame, Perry looked as if he seldom made it past a Red Lobster without stopping. But he had an infectious boyish grin, a charming demeanor and the agility of a lighter man.

The Bears' brand of entertainment was nouveau for football and emerged at an opportune time.

MTV, then four years old, had made watching videos the "in" thing. Hip-hop, still marginalized, was beginning to build a following. And 6-year-old ESPN -- which stood for the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network -- was beginning to transform sports coverage and make athletes as recognizable as TV stars.

"It made sense to try a video like that at some point, given the nature of the team's personality and how personality translates well in so many forms of entertainment," said Raymond I. Schuck, a pop-culture instructor at Bowling Green State University.

Meyer, the owner of Chicago-based Red Label Records, purchased the rights to The Kingfish Shuffle. The song had been created for the character George "Kingfish" Stevens on Amos 'n Andy, the radio serial and later TV show popular during the first half of the 20th century. Meyer produced and co-wrote Shuffle, blending the Kingfish tune with more modern rap lyrics.

"I remember him saying, 'Julia, what do you think of the Bears doing a rap record about the Super Bowl?'" said Julia Meyer, whose husband died in 1992. A former model, she played a referee in the video, blowing a whistle to mask a curse word.

"At the time, rap was just taking off," she said. "But I wanted to laugh at the time. You don't see football players as rappers and singers."

Richard Meyer envisioned the project as a venture for charity, which delighted many of the players, since Gault had promised then-Mayor Harold Washington that the team would lend its services to help Chicagoland's underprivileged. But not all of the players warmed to the idea.

"Some of them thought we were jinxing ourselves," recalled defensive back Gary Fencik, a participant.

The players recorded the song first. It was released around mid-season. They agreed to make a video about a month later. The filming was scheduled for the day after a Dec. 2 game at Miami.

After winning their first 12 games, the Bears suffered their only loss of the season that Monday night to the Dolphins. Some players expressed second thoughts about filming the video the next day, but Gault convinced them to honor their commitment.

"Doing the video brought us closer together," Gault said. "We had a chance to reflect on the loss, and we said that we wouldn't allow that to happen again."

The players filmed the video with a backup band and dozens of extras over six hours in Chicago's famed Park West Theatre. Payton and McMahon could not attend; their parts were filmed separately and matted onto the video. Only Gault was to perform a dance step, a provocative hip-swaying move. The rest of the players were merely "gliding along," as linebacker Otis Wilson recalled, adding their own moves. They hadn't practiced beforehand, and it showed.

Nevertheless, the video became a fast hit. On Feb. 8, 1986, it peaked at No. 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, falling right behind Sanctify Yourself by Simple Minds, one place above Loverboy's This Could Be the Night.

"It was not a club song. It was more of a television record, I wouldn't even say radio record," said hip-hop artist Kurtis Blow, a DJ on the Sirius old-school rap channel Backspin. "It was so hot on TV, they played it on every show."

The song earned a Grammy nomination for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance, Duo or Group. It lost out to the song Kiss by Prince, who happens to be the featured halftime performer at this year's Super Bowl.

Some of the joy in making the song and video soured eventually. Fencik said the backup band demanded more money. Some players came away feeling they were not adequately compensated. They declined invitations for a sequel.

Julia Meyer owns the rights to the song and sells Shuffle-related items on a Web site, superbowlshuffle.net. Super Bowl Shuffle ring tones are available, and Apple plans to release the song on its iPod shuffle.

The players who took part in the video say they relish its enduring place in pop culture, although Fencik said he's still taking ribbing for his halting style of dance. He learned a lesson years ago that has become even more obvious in the age of YouTube.

"It taught me," the former Bear said, "to be careful how you take part in films that can be shown forever."

joseph burris@baltsun.com

Off the field

Three of the forces in the 1980s that altered sport and entertainment:

ESPN:

The 27-year-old cable channel introduced round-the-clock sports to TV, including the popular SportsCenter, which now attracts as many as 88 million viewers a month.

MTV:

Going on the air in 1981, the channel melded video with rock music and caused teens to clamor "I want my MTV." As music videos became standard fare elsewhere, the station branched into reality TV and social action campaigns and continues to shape youth culture.

Hip-hop:

Perhaps the most influential musical form since rock 'n' roll, the genre helped change the way young, and many not-so-young, people move, talk and dress. Rapping, record "scratching" and breakdancing took root in the Bronx.

[Sources: ESPN, Viacom, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum]

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