CHICAGO — Say what you want about George and Billy, Kareem and Magic, John and Tatum, but I think the most fascinating sports pair of the year are Mike Ditka and Jim McMahon.
Smash and Crash. Sgt. Bilko and Sting. A coach and his quarterback.
Under normal circumstances, it’s a weird relationship, those two positions. The coach is in charge, but a good quarterback must flash some mojo of his own too. The offense has to believe in him, and you don’t win that sweaty confidence by posing as a choir boy in the coach’s chapel. Uh-uh. Think of the best quarterback-led teams — Namath and Ewbank, Bradshaw and Noll, Marino and Shula — and you’ll see both coach and quarterback casting their distinct shadows.
But Ditka and McMahon? We’re talking different planets here, aren’t we?
Consider Ditka, the son of a steelworker who, as a player, took pride in the number of bloody noses he inflicted — a guy disciplined enough to be an assistant to Tom Landry, who screams as often as he breathes and who says he was hired because he won’t “take no crap from nobody.”
OK. Now toss in McMahon — quarterbacking’s Captain Gonzo — a guy who arrived for his first Bears training camp in a limousine, guzzling a Budweiser; a guy who butts heads with his linemen, then takes them out to dinner, who refuses to hook slide, who gave himself a Mohawk hair cut, who once asked the team doctor for a shot — any shot — just so he could “feel some pain,” and whose major goal is to make the cover of Rolling Stone.
A relationship like this can work only two ways. Not at all, or better than
anyone could imagine. The Bears are 9-0. Take a guess.
‘We both hate to lose’
Jim McMahon is at his locker, eating corn chips. His punk- short hair is sticking out in six directions. He pulls his shirt off. A bandage is on his shoulder. He stares at it, then pulls it off, too.
Question: How would he describe your relationship with Ditka?
Pause. “One . . . of . . . mutual . . . respect.”
What do you and Ditka have in common?
Pause. “We both hate to lose.”
And what’s the biggest difference?
Pause. Head scratch. Another corn chip.
“That’s a pretty heavy question for this early in the morning.”
Cut to Ditka in his wide office, burly, gruff — he still looks like he could take out a defensive lineman, no problem. Question: How does he put up with some of McMahon’s antics.
“I’ve learned to just look the other way. We’re a better team with him in there than without him. But yeah, he shocks the —- out of me sometimes.”
There is talk that the two really don’t like one another. I don’t buy it. There’s a grudging respect that comes when a soldier says to himself, “Jeez, that guy’s more nuts than I am.” It’s happened here in Chicago.
There’s also an intense need for McMahon on this team, which for years was dirt-dry at quarterback. And Ditka knows it. The word is that McMahon might not start today against the Lions (a shoulder injury). But don’t believe for a second that if the game is close, he won’t be in there.
Ditka may be puzzled by McMahon, he may feel like the father whose son comes home wearing an earring, but he knows he needs him. In a game against Minnesota in September, McMahon was benched because he hadn’t practiced all week (a sore neck, he said). Ditka’s rules were no practice, no play. No exceptions. But with the Bears trailing 17-9 in the third quarter and Steve Fuller at quarterback, the cameras caught McMahon putting on his helmet and walking up to Ditka. “I said it’s time for a change,” McMahon recalls. Ditka put him in. McMahon threw three touchdown passes, and the Bears won, 33-24. They both think like linemen
Call it a black-and-blue understanding. Ditka thinks like a lineman. So does McMahon.
“They know football’s about getting hit,” says lineman Keith Van Horne.
“It’s Mike’s team. But Jim is a big force. We feel we can win when he’s in there.”
In fact, Ditka cautions his quarterback to take it easy. McMahon is reckless enough to have played with a broken hand, and several downs with a lacerated kidney. “A quarterback’s got to live to see another day,” the coach says. This is Mike Ditka talking?
Ah, well. Success is a great leveler. Under other circumstances — like a four-game losing streak — Ditka might chide McMahon for his hair, or scowl at his gold-chain sunglasses, or fine him for throwing practice passes left- handed. Instead, he shrugs, and underneath it all, perhaps he grins. Why not? In the color coding of their souls, both his and McMahon’s collars come up blue.
And so on they go, Iron Mike and a Jim Dandy, perhaps football’s oddest couple. On its most successful team. If they keep playing the way they are, McMahon might get his Rolling Stone cover. And Ditka might get a cover, too.