This doesn't make any sense really, but I'm rooting for the Indianapolis Colts to beat the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl in Miami on Sunday Feb. 4, 2007, because of something that happened before my eyes on Sunday Jan. 26, 1986 in New Orleans. Call it the Ditka Result.
While so many Bears fans apparently still revere Da Coach, who managed to take the most talented, most compelling team in the NFL to all of one Super Bowl, I can't stand the guy. I'm sure he'll survive this, but I've got a platform to tell my story and here it is.
I was at Super Bowl XX in New Orleans for The New York Times, covering one of the yearly mismatches that had struck the ‘ultimate' game in the mid-80s. The Bears had blown through the regular season at 15-1, destroyed the Big Blue Team of Destiny in a playoff game at frigid Soldier Field when the hawk blew the football away from Sean Landeta's punting foot and he swung and missed (among other mistakes and great Bears play). Now that was a great day for me. The 21-0 dismissal of the GMen was followed by a 24-0 rout of the LA Rams in the NFC championship game.
Their opponents in New Orleans? The New England Patriots, a wild-card team that barely made the playoffs at 11-5 and won three playoff games on the road--at the Jets, the LA Raiders and the Dolphins. The Bears had scored 456 points and allowed 198 (!) in the regular season; the Patriots numbers were 363 and 290. Tony Eason was the Pats' starting QB for god's sake. This was definitely not the Brady/Belichick team of today.
So when we got to New Orleans, a thumping seemed inevitable. But the Bears made the week interesting. Funny, but I hardly remember anything about the Patriots being there that week. It was all Bears. Jim McMahon and his headband and moon shot at a news helicopter, fearsome Richard Dent, dignified and ferocious Mike Singletary (putting those two adjectives in one description can only be for one player), boisterous Otis Wilson (whom I had covered years before when he played high school football in Brooklyn), Da Coach and his pronouncements, Buddy Ryan, holding court as the Shadow Coach and the ‘genius' behind the Bears 46 defense. There was the carnival sideshow that was William (Refrigerator) Perry and the Super Bowl Shuffle and all the rest.
And then there was Sweetness. Walter Payton. Then and now Walter Payton is one of my all-time favorite athletes. If ever a nickname fit a player it was this one. From the moment you met him you knew this guy had been raised right. He was respectful but not dull, fun to talk to without being silly, insightful about the sport, this game and his place in it. And man could he run. And block. And just flat out play.
Finally, after 11 years in the League in which he had surpassed Jim Brown's seemingly untouchable career rushing record, after he had led the NFL or the NFC in rushing five times, after 109 touchdowns and eight trips to the Pro Bowl, Walter Payton was going to perform in the brightest spotlight of all.
A Payton fumble on the Bears second play from scrimmage helped the Pats take a 3-0 lead. But soon the inevitable result became inevitable and the rout was on.
Fridge, a defensive tackle, was in on offense for three goal-line plays, a move that had caused a sensation around the Nation. Fridge would block or he'd run or he'd sneak his 330-pound body out in a pass "route" and he scored three TDs in the regular season. The first play he was in on, he was supposed to pass to Emery Moorhead but was tackled; on the second, QB McMahon faked and kept it and scored, on the third, Fridge himself got the ball and ‘ran' for the TD. Walter Payton was left to watch the Shuffle in the end zone. ("I thought I was going in to block for Walter," Perry said about that play.)
When the game ended, I called the office in New York to tell them what we had planned for our post-game coverage. I said that our columnist George Vecsey would do a sidebar on Payton. The editor at the other end of the line said, "Why? The Bears won, 46-10, and he didn't even score a touchdown." My response was, "well, that's exactly the point isn't it?"
Here's some of what George wrote that day:
He is the leading rusher in the history of pro football and, for that matter, he gained more yards rushing than anybody in the Super Bowl today. But Walter Payton never reached the end zone in the Bears' 46-10 victory, and that disappointed some fans in the stands who chanted ''Walter, Walter, Walter.''
It also disappointed Payton, he admitted long after the game was over...
Somebody watching from the press box high in the rafters thought he had seen Payton glowering at Coach Mike Ditka after one series, but Payton, when he finally emerged for a postgame interview, scoffed at that.
''You must have been closer than anybody,'' Payton said.
But was he surprised he didn't get the ball at times? ''Yeah,'' Payton admitted.
Was Payton disappointed? ''Yeah,'' he replied. But he quickly added: ''When they're keying on you, you can't mind. I don't mind being the rabbit."
Payton also said he dedicated the game to three running backs ''who gave up their lives.'' He would not elaborate, but writers from Chicago believe he was referring to Joe Delaney, a Kansas City back who died trying to rescue a drowning child; Brian Piccolo, the Bears' back who died of cancer, and Ricky Bell, the pro back who died of severe muscular disease of the heart.
Payton did not look as happy about the victory as most of his teammates did, but he reminded Chicago writers, ''You've known me for 11 years. I'm happy but I don't know how to express it, so I just sit back and enjoy it.'' Most of those around Payton would have to take his word for it.
The day after the game, McMahon had this to say about his great teammate: 'It's a shame that Walter didn't score a touchdown, but that's not my decision.''
The decision was Ditka's. And he decided to let Refrigerator Perry score a touchdown in the Super Bowl and not Walter Payton; he decided to let Matt Suhey score a touchdown in the Super Bowl and not Walter Payton; he decided to let Jim McMahon score a touchdown in the Super Bowl and not Walter Payton.
Now, like those three running backs he honored in New Orleans, Walter Payton is gone, dying far too young from liver disease. I wish he were here for lots of reasons. but one definitely is to talk about the one piece of honor missing from his glorious career.
Of course, he would have been too sweet to say it, so I will: If the Bears lose on Sunday, let's call it Walter Payton's Curse. And you have Ditka to blame for it.