The 1985 Chicago Bears were a perfect mix of fierceness and flash. Relentless, especially on defence, the Bears were also expert entertainers, as proven by their Grammy Award-nominated Super Bowl Shuffle performance. They could make you laugh at their lack of rhythm on MTV one day, and then make you cry when they pummelled your favourite team the next. Few pro teams have come close to matching their swagger. And the Bears backed it up, going 15-1 that season before embarrassing the New England Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl.
In the quarter-century since that lopsided title game, the greatest football team of all time has suffered tragedy and misadventures of a similarly epic scale. The first tragic blow struck in 1999, when Walter Payton, Chicago’s Hall of Fame running back, died of bile duct cancer at 45. Last month, it was revealed that fan favourite William “the Refrigerator” Perry, then a 320-lb. lineman, is now, at 48, stricken with a rare autoimmune disease and barely able to move from the chair in his living room. And just three weeks ago, Dave Duerson, the Bears’ Pro Bowl safety, killed himself. In a suicide note, he described vision problems and pain in the left side of his brain. So as to ensure his brain could be donated to science for concussion research, Duerson put a bullet in his heart.
Duerson is one of 300 athletes—half of them football players—to have pledged their brains to Boston University’s Sports Legacy Institute, which studies the long-term effects of sports-related head trauma. Jim McMahon, the team’s cocky quarterback, is another. Last fall, McMahon went public with his struggle to remember things, a result, he said, of taking too many hits to the helmet. “My memory’s pretty much gone,” the 51-year-old told the Chicago Tribune. “There are a lot of times when I walk into a room and forget why I walked in there.” (For fans, what’s impossible to forget is his similarly disheartening role as a spokesman for MVP, an erectile dysfunction drug. In ads for the pill, which promises to increase stamina and size, McMahon says it can “make you a champion in the bedroom!”)
Physical pain is a constant for many of the former greats. McMahon has been on the operating table 19 times. Meanwhile, Wilber Marshall, a linebacker who was counted on to deliver bone-crushing hits, has spent most of his retirement battling the NFL for disability benefits. Marshall reportedly needs several surgeries, including a spine fusion and two knee replacements.
But nobody from that Bears team is as broken as “Refrigerator” Perry. For those who tuned in to this year’s Super Bowl pre-game show, it was hard to watch the where-are-they-now segment on “the Fridge.” Where he isn’t is the 18,000-sq.-foot home he built after his 1994 retirement (his ex-wife got that in the divorce). Instead, Perry lives in an unfinished home in Aiken, S.C. The lessons from 28 days in alcohol rehab in 1988 never stuck. And while he cashed in on his celebrity for a few years after football—countless autograph sessions; an appearance on the competitive-eating circuit—things have spiralled out of control. In 2007, he suffered partial paralysis. “I couldn’t get up,” Perry told ESPN. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t hold a fork or spoon.” Though initially reluctant to get help, when Perry finally did, doctors diagnosed him with an advanced case of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder in which one’s immune system attacks the nervous system.
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