Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ditka's Disgrace

Yesterday, I wrote about the 30th anniversary of the first wild card to win a Super Bowl — and I suggested that it might have been appropriate if the Jets had won the AFC title on Sunday because that would have put two wild–card teams in this year's Super Bowl.

But it might have been more appropriate if the Chicago Bears had beaten the Green Bay Packers for the NFC title.

(That isn't an easy thing for me to say, being a lifelong Green Bay fan. But hear me out on this one.)

It was a quarter of a century ago today that the Chicago Bears played in their first Super Bowl. Their opponents were the New England Patriots — and, while it is probably hard for the current generation to believe, that was the Patriots' first Super Bowl, too.

Football fans had rarely seen two teams playing in their first Super Bowl at the same time. Granted, the most recent such game had been only a few years earlier, when the San Francisco 49ers faced the Cincinnati Bengals. But it had only happened twice before that — when Broadway Joe followed through on his famous "guarantee" in Super Bowl III and in the very first Super Bowl (when it was a sure thing that both teams were making their first appearance).

There was never a chance of a team appearing in its first Super Bowl this time. But, until Sunday, there was a chance that the Bears might be able to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their first trip to the big game with a return trip.

It wouldn't have been the Bears' first trip back to the Super Bowl since that day in January 1986. They made it back to the Super Bowl a few years ago — and lost to the Colts.

Even so, it would have made an interesting story line — not that the Super Bowl ever lacks for interesting story lines. In fact, sometimes the story lines have been better than the games themselves.

For awhile, it was even possible that the Bears and the Patriots could mark the anniversary with a rematch. But that possibility ended when the Jets defeated the Patriots in the divisional round.

It remained possible — for a week — that the Bears could observe their silver anniversary with an appearance in Dallas. The odds of that happening dwindled rapidly after Jay Cutler went down with an injury.

But, really, how could you commemorate that anniversary? It was Walter Payton's only Super Bowl after a career of toiling for mostly bad Bears teams — but he really did nothing special when he got there. He didn't even score a touchdown.

That would be understandable, I suppose, if the game had been a defensive struggle. But the only defense that struggled that day was New England's.

I felt it was disgraceful that Payton didn't score on a day when the Chicago Bears set a Super Bowl scoring record with 46 points.

I guess you could call Payton the consummate professional. While no one could have known that Super Bowl XX would be his only Super Bowl, he had been in the NFL for a decade, and that is a long time for a running back.

Seems to me that any reasonable football fan would have to at least suspect that it would be his only one. And, in fact, Payton only played two more seasons after he went to the Super Bowl. The Bears made the playoffs both years, but they were one and done both times and Payton never scored a touchdown in either of his last two playoff games.

He should have scored a touchdown in Super Bowl XX.

The Bears were deep in New England territory late in the third quarter. Realistically, the game had been over for a long time. Chicago led New England, 37–3.

With the ball at New England's 1–yard line and what amounted to a five–touchdown lead, the Bears were imposing their will. But instead of calling for quarterback Jim McMahon to give it to Payton, coach Mike Ditka chose to go with the novelty act he had unveiled earlier in the season in a Monday night game — in which 300–pound defensive lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry came in, took the handoff and made his roly–poly way into the end zone.

For a time there in the mid–1980s, the "Fridge," as he was known, became something of a cult hero.

But not to me.

I felt it was shameful that someone like Payton was denied the satisfaction of finally scoring in a Super Bowl. His team was about to do something no team had done before — exceed 40 points in a Super Bowl — and Payton's touchdown would have been the one that made that a reality.

Ditka told a Payton biographer that Payton was the greatest football player he ever saw but an even better human being.

It was too bad he didn't give him the ball from a yard out and let him get his name in the Super Bowl history books for doing more than averaging 2.8 yards per carry that day.

Payton achieved many things in his life, which ended far too soon. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame several years before his death. He ran for more than 100 touchdowns in his professional career, but he refused to celebrate when he scored; he just handed the ball to an official or a teammate and went back to the sideline in his quiet, low–key way.

He was over 30 when he got to the Super Bowl. He had given everything he could to help the Bears get there. He ran for more than 1,500 yards that season but stood back and allowed the others to take the credit.

There were many stars on that team, to be sure. And most of them were given their moment in the spotlight.

But not Payton.

No comments: