NEW ORLEANS — There are misty, watercolor memories of the way they were. Of George Halas, pinching pennies. Of Mike Ditka, throwing tantrums. Of Doug Atkins, swilling martinis and shooting pigeons.
Of Willie Galimore, John Farrington, Bill George, Mike Rabold--killed, every one of them, in automobile accidents.
Billy Wade, quarterback of the 1963 Chicago Bears, now a banker in Nashville, Tenn., tells you everything you expected to hear about the team for which he played, and about the team that will take the field Sunday in Super Bowl XX.
"They're an awful lot alike," Wade says.
That is how the National Football League champions of 1963 are often remembered: as an awful lot.
Boozers. Braggers. Bullies. The kind of team that punched out early from practice, stampeded toward the neighborhood taverns, then punched out their opponents the next day on the field.
Here in New Orleans this week, they are talking about Bear quarterback Jim McMahon's night-stalking, about him sitting with three buddies in a French Quarter bistro and introducing them as "my bookies."
There also are those football fans with short memories who hark back to Raider lineman John Matuszak's nocturnal prowling, about the wild week he spent in town, a week in which he seemed to believe that a Super Bowl was a very large punch bowl from which to drink.
But to recall the champions of 1963, one needs to look not one step farther along Bourbon Street than in the stately but creaky Old Absinthe House. There, former Bear linebacker Joe Fortunato's helmet hangs, adorned, as are other souvenirs from sports events of old, by delicate examples of women's underthings.
"The '63 Bears played hard on and off the field," former center Mike Pyle says.
Did they ever. On the grass fields of that decade, they put together a record of 11-1-2 that season, then rallied in their only postseason game on an 11-degree day at Wrigley Field and defeated the New York Giants for the NFL title, 14-10. This was--and remains--the only championship Chicago's famous football team has won since 1946.
They were not exactly world-beaters that day. Wade completed just 10 of 28 passes for 138 yards, and the leading rusher for the Bears was Ronnie Bull, who carried 13 times for 42 yards. As with the team that would come along a couple of decades later, though, the Chicago defense was just too much, intercepting five of Y.A. Tittle's passes and holding the Giants scoreless in the second half.
They were not what you would call models of clean living, these Bears. They were big and tough and had tempers.
Bull, now a salesman in Chicago, says most of the team's attitude was reflected in the manner of its hard-boiled tight end, Ditka, who was the type who hollered and screamed in practice louder than most guys would in a game. "And if looks could kill, Mike would have left a lot of people dead," Bull says.
It was Ditka who, as much as any other player, battled publicly with Papa Bear Halas over paychecks. Halas was the man who "throws nickels around like manhole covers," he once said.
But Halas also was the man who, before his death in 1983, brought Ditka back to Chicago to be head coach. Now, Ditka speaks of "Mr. Halas" with nothing but reverence.
Not all the old Bears do.
To this day, former safety Davey Whitsell has very little good to say about the man. He doesn't make a habit of going around bad-mouthing the dead, but when asked a straight question, Whitsell, who runs a trailer park in La Place, La., and lives in the nearby New Orleans suburb of Metairie, where the Saints train, will not try to disguise his feelings about the old man.
He remembers vividly how tight Halas was with a buck and how the players even had to account meticulously for every piece of equipment.
One year, just before Christmas, backfield coach Chuck Mather mentioned a child who absolutely worshiped Whitsell and wondered if Davey would donate his jersey so he could give it to the kid as a gift. Whitsell obliged.
A couple of days after Christmas, Whitsell drove his wife and three young children three hours from their Indiana home to the Bears' headquarters on Madison street in Chicago. Players were expected to show up personally to pick up their final checks. In so doing, they could have a little chat with--or lecture from--the franchise's owner and coach, a la Branch Rickey in the old baseball days.
"You're not going to get your check until you return that jersey," Ebenezer Halas informed his player.
For 45 minutes they argued about it, until Frances Osborne, one of Halas' secretaries, told him to lighten up and give Whitsell his money.
Doug Atkins used to tie one on and then telephone Halas in the wee hours of the morning to complain about money.
Atkins was always driving Halas nuts. One time, when the 6-foot 7-inch, 280-pound defensive end did not show up for practice, he phoned Halas from the bar at a local country club and told him, "I didn't show up because I didn't think you were prepared to see me like this."