The 25th anniversary of the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl team brings together notorious adversaries Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan.
The most indelible memory of the 1985 Chicago Bears championship team is perhaps the most sugarcoated: the awkwardly funky flow of “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” Forgotten in a fog of nostalgia over the years is some of the monstrousness of those Monsters of the Midway, namely the acrimonious relationship between head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. On Friday 5, those two historic rivals, along with the rest of the Bears’ Super Bowl–winning squad, will gather in the Arie Crown Theater to reminisce and mark the 25th anniversary of that storied season.
It’s not unreasonable to expect fireworks. NFL.com named the Ditka-Ryan power struggle the No. 3 rivalry in league history. “I don’t want to take anything away from the offense, but, uh, we probably could’ve done it without them,” Ryan, then head coach of the New York Jets, said disparagingly of the ’85 team, whose dominant defense often kept teams scoreless. Ditka’s take on Ryan? “Empty tin cans make the most noise,” he once told a reporter, “and he’s an empty tin can.” This reunion is football’s equivalent of Israel and Palestine getting together to shoot the shit.
“We’re all going to say whatever we want to say,” Ditka tells me one recent afternoon over a bowl of soup at his River North steakhouse. Though he’s 71 and graying, Iron Mike and his moustache look as robust as ever. “Nothing will be choreographed.” If Ditka’s being straight—that the gathering won’t be a dewey-eyed hug-fest—it’s only a matter of time before someone brings up the infamous Miami game, the ’85 Bears’ only loss.
It was halftime of that December Monday-nighter when the brewing hostilities between Ditka and Ryan came to a head. Ryan assigned a linebacker to cover the Dolphins’ third wide receiver, despite Ditka’s insistence that a quicker defensive back be slotted. In his eponymous 1986 autobiography, the head coach recalls his terse words to Ryan: “‘Kiss my ass. Get somebody out there that can cover him,’ I said.… When we got into the locker room, I said [to Ryan], ‘We can do it any way you want to do it. We can go right out back and get it on or you can shape your ass up.’?”
When Ditka was hired by Bears founder and then-owner George Halas in 1982, there was one prickly caveat: He had to retain Ryan. “I got the head job and Buddy probably thought he should have it,” Ditka tells me. He maintains Ryan never respected his authority. (Ryan wasn’t able to be reached for comment.)
“Buddy—being a bit stubborn—knew he didn’t owe his job to Mike Ditka,” explains ’85 Bears safety Gary Fencik over the phone last week.
“They bitched and screamed back and forth,” recalls placekicker Kevin Butler. “It created internal competition: Who’s gonna outshine who this week, offense or defense? And it worked. Neither of them won a championship after they split up.”
“Time heals things, and I think Mike and Buddy just have to look back and smile,” says Brian McCaskey, the Bears’ senior director of business development who was a trainer on the ’85 team. (His mother, Virginia Halas McCaskey, owns the team.)
Back at his restaurant, Ditka sets aside his soup spoon for a moment to reflect on Ryan. “We didn’t have the most cordial relationship when we coached, but we honestly couldn’t have won without him,” Da Coach allows. “Buddy and I won together and we’ll get back together. It will be good to see him.”
The 1985 team reunites for Glory Days: Legends of the Chicago Bears at the Arie Crown Theater (2301 S Lake Shore Dr, 312-791-6000) on Friday 5 at 6pm. Tickets ($49–$199) are available at glorydayschicago.com.