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On Top Of The Pack

The Bears and Packers squared off in a vintage brawl, and when it was all over, Chicago, led by a demon defense, two tough QBs and Walter Payton, was still undefeated

When he was 10 months old, Mike McCaskey saw his first Chicago Bears game. When he was eight, he was a Bears ball boy. When he was 19 and a split end at Yale, he practiced against the Bears' secondary in training camp. When he was 20, he sat on the bench at Wrigley Field and watched his mother's father, George Halas, coach the Bears to a 14-10 win over the New York Giants for the 1963 NFL Championship.

Now, at 40, McCaskey is president and chief executive officer of the club, and the Bears, after Sunday's bruising 9-7 defeat of their NFL Central Division rivals, the Green Bay Packers, are 3-0. Papa Bear Halas, who founded the Bears and, some would say, the NFL itself, back in 1920, died a year ago at 88, and the ball was passed to the oldest of his 11 grandchildren. A former associate professor at Harvard's graduate school of management, McCaskey knows business theory cold. But it's the blood that moves him, and there was plenty of that, if few points, on Sunday.

"If this were just a business, we'd sell it tomorrow," says McCaskey, "we" being himself and the other McCaskeys who help run a team that hasn't won a playoff game in 20 years. "But I'm steward of a legacy my grandfather left. I want to bring back the feeling I had in 1963. I want to honor his memory."

You'd think that honoring a man like the flinty Halas would be a tough job. But Papa Bear used to come to the McCaskeys' house just to play Wiffle Ball with Mike and his brothers and sisters. And what did the kids call Halas as he'd round first, legging out another blast over the Pfitzer juniper bushes?

"He was always 'Grandpa,' " says Mike softly.

The Bears' win over the Packers in Green Bay was another kind of game, a primeval struggle the old guy would've appreciated. The Bears dominated the Packers—the score is misleading—running 72 plays to Green Bay's 45, and out-gained them 345 yards to 154. Moreover, 47 of Chicago's plays were runs, a lot of them boneshakers by fullback Matt Suhey and the ageless man-child Walter Payton.

More to the point, there was enough clockcleaning and unsportsmanlike conduct to assure everyone that even though the Bears and Packers have now met 128 times in regular-season play—more than any other two teams in NFL history—they just aren't going to be friends, ever.

"It was the way football's supposed to be played," said Payton. Riled-up Packer guard Greg Koch growled, "They're a bull——team and a bull——organization."

Certainly the game wasn't pretty. Packer fans, perhaps thinking that new coach Forrest Gregg, like Bart Starr before him, is another Lombardi immortal who shouldn't have returned, booed lustily. But for the Bears, who hadn't won in Green Bay in five years, there was much to cheer. Clad in new, shiny blue pants—"They looked nice in the sun, didn't they?" said Payton—the team showed a spirit that could only have trickled down from the top, from the front office. "Everybody's signed, everybody's happy, and we know who's responsible for what in management," said free safety Gary Fencik, who was about as cranked for the game as a man could be without getting arrested.

Payton gained 110 yards on 27 carries, picking up 97 on the fading Franco Harris in the Break-the-Jim Brown-Record rushing derby. Payton is now just 34 yards behind Seattle's Harris and 337 in back of Brown, and he could become the NFL's alltime leading rusher so quickly that people will forget Harris was ever in the race. In the last two weeks he's gained an astonishing 289 yards. "If it comes, it comes," says Payton, trying hard not to show how much he wants the record.

And then there's the Bears' defense, which, it can now be said, is for real. Going into the game it ranked first in the NFL in rushing defense and total defense and second in passing defense. Coming out it was on top in all three. Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's "46" one-linebacker alignment, so called because former Bear headhunter Doug Plank wore No. 46, and which features a startling array of stunts, blitzes and coverages, seems impenetrable. In three games the Bears have given up just 174 yards on the ground—Green Bay got only 32 in 19 carries—and have allowed but 29 pass completions in 79 attempts.

"We've been using it seven years," says Ryan of the 46. "But we always had an Achilles' heel—a rookie or two." And it was the rookies who failed? "Rookies fail everybody, don't they?" says Ryan.

The Bears are now 2-0 in their division and have won their first three games for the first time since 1978. They may fade, of course—in '78 they lost their next eight in a row—but it seems unlikely. "Good teams win games like these," said head coach Mike Ditka.

But for a full appreciation of the game one had to go back to the previous Monday, when Bears quarterback Jim McMahon met the Chicago press to discuss the hairline fracture he'd suffered in his right hand, his throwing hand, the day before. A third-year man out of Brigham Young, McMahon has become a gritty team leader, a resourceful scrambler and thrower who can roll out of a pocket or into a saloon with equal ease. He'd broken the hand while completing a 61-yard touchdown pass to Willie Gault in the Bears' 27-0 win over Denver, getting crushed to the turf by defensive end Rulon Jones and bruising his back at the same time. The back hurt so much, he said, he didn't think much about the hand.

Would he be able to play against the Packers? McMahon, holding a beer in his left hand, said he didn't know. He wouldn't be able to practice, would he? McMahon took a sip of beer, and acknowledged that this was so. "It breaks my heart," he said.

A similar story was developing in Green Bay. Lynn Dickey, 34, the soul of the Packer offense and perhaps the most battered quarterback in NFL history, had a deep bruise on his lower back, the result of a sack by safety Mike Davis in a 28-7 loss to the Los Angeles Raiders the previous Sunday. Would Dickey be able to play against the Bears? In his career he'd played with almost everything else, including a steel rod in his left leg and a spinal headache. But he could barely bend at the waist now, and the bruise wasn't responding to treatment. He had tried to throw on Wednesday and couldn't go deep at all. Dickey indicated it was a day-to-day thing.

On Saturday, Dickey sat by his locker with a towel around his waist, and on his lower back was a black circle drawn by a doctor with a marking pen. "In the center of that is where it hurts," said Dickey. "That's where I'll get a shot."

But could he play? Dickey thought for a moment. "We're one and one," he said. "They're two and oh. To let them get one on us here...I just don't feel I can pass this up." He smiled almost dreamily. "It's like what our trainer, Domenic Gentile, and I always say: 'What's one more torpedo in a sinking ship?' "

Late that same night McMahon sat in a whirlpool at the Howard Johnson's in De Pere, Wis., staring blankly ahead. His back was against one of the water jets, in his left hand he held a beer. McMahon is an outstanding athlete—nobody on the Bears can touch him in racquetball, for instance—and he's got muscles you don't normally see on a quarterback. But maybe as he sat there he was thinking about Dickey and how he himself is going to feel after 10 more years in the league.

The next afternoon both Dickey and McMahon started, of course, each having been given painkilling injections. McMahon ignored the pain that lingered in his hand and led the Bears up and down the field, throwing short passes when necessary but mostly giving the ball to Payton and Suhey. He scrambled early for 11 yards, and when he did, his teammates cringed.

The net result of Chicago's first-half efforts was two Bob Thomas field goals, due largely to penalties and the team's inability to get a touchdown on first-and-goal at the seven early in the game. For McMahon, who scrambled two more times for nine and then 22 yards, there was more pain. When he came to the sideline midway through the second quarter, "he was losing all his color," said Ditka. "That's when I made the change."

Into the game went Bob Avellini, the veteran backup. Avellini completed 11 of 17 passes for 133 yards and led Chicago to its game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter. The Packers had been leading 7-6, and it seemed both teams had lost the ability to score and were, indeed, content merely to fight. There were five flags thrown for unruly behavior. Fencik got one of those, for kicking Packer tackle Karl Swanke. "Yeah, I kicked him. I kicked the——out of him," Fencik said. "I'm not proud of it. But in this game sometimes you get into that gray area."

For Dickey, who completed 11 of 23 passes for 142 yards, the gray area was everywhere. The Bears' defensive tackles, Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael, sacked him three times and crashed into him on most of the other passing plays. After the game McMichael, a 6'2", 263-pound weightlifting fiend, felt so moved by Dickey's stoicism that he went up to the Packer quarterback and praised him simply for standing in there.

"I was uncomfortable, and as the game wore on I was more uncomfortable," Dickey said, while peeling off layers of padding to reveal a body that has been all but used up.

If there was beauty in the game, it came from the floating grace of Packers' wide receiver James Lofton, whose four catches for 89 yards comprised over half of Green Bay's total offense, and from the shocking blasts of Payton's runs.

Payton deserves even more study than he's gotten. He's a treasure. Sunday was his 17th game against the Packers. He's no different now than he was in 1974 as a rookie, except he has more moves. Two weeks ago against Denver he broke a 72-yard TD run, the longest of his career. Can a childlike lust for action keep one perpetually childlike? Do Walter Payton and Pete Rose share some exotic strands of DNA?

It's been suggested that Payton's stiff-legged gait is the key to his longevity, because it keeps his heels off the ground, which in turn keeps his knees from taking blows while his feet are rooted to the turf. To run this way takes well developed lower-torso muscles, and as Bears trainer Fred Caito says, "Walter has tremendous gluteal strength." In other words, Payton has a big, strong butt.

But that doesn't explain how he can run over three linemen at a time, or throw a football 60 yards, or think it's funny to sneak up on somebody and pinch his thigh till he hollers uncle. It should be enough, one supposes, just to watch the man run and to know how happy he is to do it so well.

Payton is a given; the Bears' offensive line is strong; the receivers are improving. The key for Chicago is the defense. It has already produced an over-achieving middle linebacker, Mike Singletary, who may be the best in the league. Known as Samurai, for, he says, "the noises I make out there," Singletary seems to knock out an average of one runner per game.

And having a rough, tough quarterback goes well with the city of big shoulders, too. After the game McMahon sat stiffly in the locker room, drinking an ale, wearing sunglasses. Under his chair was another bottle of ale, and in his hand was a bottle opener. Someone asked him why he had played in the game at all. He shrugged. "They don't pay me to sit on the bench," he said.

"Jim's a throwback," said Fencik. "Like Kilmer and those guys. It's nice."

Fencik, the Yale grad with the street fighter's itch, is a throwback, too. As is Singletary. And Payton. And Ditka. And, in a way, all of pro football. We were supposed to give this up when we became civilized. But the Bears are undefeated. And as their very civilized president says, "Grandpa would be proud."





McMichael (76) had to congratulate Dickey (12) for his courage.



For Fencik (45), the defensive "gray area" included a shoe-top stop of Jessie Clark.



A broken hand and a bruised back sent McMahon to his knees.



Thomas had a game-winning three FGs and a PAT from head man Ditka.



Avellini pitched in admirably when McMahon had to go out.



Gregg had his problems with zebras as well as Bears.