25 years ago, thrill of victory warmed Bears fans
The gusty lake breeze made the 16-degree temperature at Soldier Field feel like 10 degrees below zero as New York Giants punter Sean Landeta stood in his own end zone awaiting the snap in a scoreless 1986 playoff game against the mighty Chicago Bears.
The ball dropped from Landeta's hand, wobbled in the wind and dribbled meekly off the side of the punter's foot. The Bears' Shaun Gayle scooped up the near-whiff at the 5-yard line and strolled into the end zone unchallenged for the shortest punt return touchdown in NFL history and the first score on the way to the Bears' 21-0 playoff victory.
"It was colder than you know what, but I was too excited to worry about it," remembers Brady Smith of Barrington, who was 12 years old and sitting in an end zone seat that gave him a good view of Gayle's TD. The Daily Herald awarded Smith tickets to that memorable game because of his outstanding work as a newspaper carrier.
As exciting as the moment was for the young boy, Smith has even better NFL playoff memories. Like that time he sacked St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger in the end zone for a safety that helped Smith's Atlanta Falcons and their young quarterback Michael Vick cruise to a 47-17 win in an NFC Divisional Playoff game in January 2005 — just as he envisioned when he was 12.
"I think every kid dreams of that at that age," says Smith, who played at Barrington High School and Colorado State before an 11-year NFL career as a defensive end for the Falcons and the New Orleans Saints, where he was coached by Da Coach.
"I liked Coach," Smith says of Mike Ditka. "And I think he liked me."
While Ditka once noted some teams were named "Smith" and his Bears were "Grabowskis," this Smith had that blue-collar work ethic of a Grabowski that meshed well when Ditka coached the Saints.
Smith, whose dad Steve played in Super Bowl IV for the Minnesota Vikings, has plenty of NFL teams he could back, but he's pulling for his hometown team to win this year's Super Bowl.
"Definitely the Bears," says Smith, now 37 and retired, noting that Bears Roberto Garza, Frank Omiyale and Kevin Shaffer were teammates of his with the Falcons. "I'm pulling for those guys to get rings."
Smith, who always wore long sleeves as a player even though most of his games were in domes, will be watching Sunday's game on TV with some buddies in comfy Barrington.
When Lee Kunkel of Palatine accompanied his 15-year-old daughter, Kim (another Daily Herald carrier), to that frigid Bears playoff game in 1986, he came prepared.
"I grew up in Minnesota and I really knew how to dress for cold weather," says Kunkel, now 69, who remembers that first touchdown happened "right down in front of us."
"We had the sleeping bags. We had hand-warmers. I think we even had the socks you put a battery in," recalls Kim, who now is 40, married with three young kids and has a job with AT&T. "It was fun having that experience with my dad. I remember we won, and I remember it was very, very, very cold."
While saying she would like to attend another Bears playoff game someday, she and her husband, John, and children Donovan, 8, Kailey, who turns 5 on Super Bowl Sunday, and Brooke, 2, plan to watch Sunday's game in the comfort of their home in Port Barrington.
"My girls have the Bears cheerleader dresses and I think my son has three Bears jerseys," says Kim Mosack, who also had a good view of that freaky Bears touchdown on the whiffed punt in 1986.
But not as good as the view a trio of Chicago's finest and I had as we huddled near a kerosene heater along the end zone sideline. The cops were there to keep overly exuberant fans, generally those without shirts, from rushing the field. I was there because I was a young news reporter without enough clout to get a seat in the press box. A sideline pass would be hard to come by for this Bears-Packers clash for the ages, but 25 years ago it was deemed the lowliest spot for the least-connected reporter.
And I loved it.
My most vivid memory of that game isn't that punt return, however, but the giant frame of Bears' Hall of Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton. I wasn't allowed to get any closer to the Bears' bench than the 30-yard-line. But when the Bears offense had the ball, Hampton often would mosey into my territory with some of his defensive mates to watch the action. As great as he was at rushing the passer and stuffing the run, the 6-5, 264-pound "Danimal" was an even better wind block.
In his short sleeves, Hampton was like one of those massive grizzlies at the zoo, steam rising from his body, seemingly unaware of the cold or the pigeon keeping a low profile in his shadow. Even the Honey Bears, who also wandered into my designated area in their snow pants and parkas, wore more clothes than Hampton.
"I remember it was very cold, but it's January, it's Chicago," Hampton says Wednesday. He notes that his Bears team had been practicing outside on frozen, snowy ground for weeks. In addition to sending a message to the Giants that the fearsome Bears defense was "impervious to the elements," those bare Bear arms made it more difficult for offensive lineman to keep Hampton and crew at bay.
"The less they can grab the better, so we didn't put on the sleeves," says Hampton, 53, a sought-after football commentator these days. The Super Bowl champ says he doesn't yet know where he'll be for Sunday's titanic Bears-Packers clash, but he is sure of one thing: "I don't think I'm going to be sleeveless."
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