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Circus Atmosphere Gone as Bears Aim for the Top

September 13, 1987|Associated Press

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Last year the Chicago Bears were the circus Bears, an explosive combination of personality and performance which proved too compelling for Madison Avenue or Middle America to pass up.

This year they're just trying to get back to the Big Top.

And while there is less of a circus atmosphere around the Bears, how tame can things be on a team with an oft-injured, spike-haired quarterback and a defensive lineman who sometimes carries the ball and always weighs more than 300 pounds?

Last year the Bears were the defending Super Bowl champions and that dominated the mood at the training camp here.

It was grab as grab can for commercials, endorsements and all the other perks that go with being champions.

There were, to a point of distaste for some, squabbles among teammates as to who would be featured on what high-paying television commercial.

Dan Hampton found matters so repulsive that the veteran defensive end, always willing to cooperate, withdrew and went into self-imposed silence, refusing any interviews.

The Bears won their first six games and the hype grew with every victory despite Coach Mike Ditka's stern warnings that all was not well with the team.

Then reality began to set in.

The Bears won some close games and lost first to the Minnesota Vikings and then the Rams at Soldier Field where they had been nearly invincible.

Then it all came to an end. The Washington Redskins defeated the Bears, 27-13, in the playoffs and the champions became also-rans.

This year, they promise, it will be different.

Hampton is talking again and happy.

But there are still dark clouds behind the nice words.

Quarterback Jim McMahon had shoulder surgery last December and has been absent from the scene, not having played a down in the exhibition season and with his future very much clouded. He'll start the season on the injured reserve list.

Ditka is still warning about the upcoming season, questioning the dedication of his players, who have vowed to redeem themselves.

Ditka said that McMahon, with whom he has had continuing conflicts, will be on the sidelines helping him and coaching the younger players.

"Even if I have to make McMahon an assistant coach, I want him to be out there because the Bears will need all the help they can get," Ditka said.

Ditka has also kept the pot boiling William (The Refrigerator) Perry's pot belly.

After signing a three-year extension of his contract, Ditka noted Perry weighed in at 333 pounds, at least 13 over the limit.

Threatening to double the fines of $25 a pound over the limit, Ditka said "Let me get to the heart of it. Maybe somebody should ask him why his wife doesn't understand the importance of this. Somebody has to help him. I think his wife would be the most logical."

Perry's wife, Sherry, told Ditka off and the Bears' switchboard was flooded with calls from irate women over the matter.

Ditka smiled.

The goal is to get back into the Super Bowl and changes are being made, rapidly, even in the defense which has dominated and been No. 1 in the league for three straight years.

But offense could be the problem without McMahon, who will not be eligible for six weeks. There is some concern about whether he'll play at all this season.

Mike Tomczak won the starting quarterback job from Doug Flutie and rookie Jim Harbaugh, but Tomczak was unimpressive in a 20-17 final tuneup against the Raiders.

But there have been some changes made. Neal Anderson has been switched to fullback in place of Matt Suhey and will play alongside the great Walter Payton.

"I want to see what they can do together," said Ditka.

Ditka also cut punter Maury Buford and kept Bryan Wagner, who they recently acquired in a trade with Denver.

Another major switch came earlier. Ditka moved Todd Bell to safety to team up with All-Pro Dave Duerson with veteran Gary Fencik being relegated to a backup role.

Injuries have hit the team hard. Among those sidelined have been wide receiver and punt returner Lew Barnes, safety Shaun Gayle and tight end Tim Wrightman.

"Things don't look too good," said Ditka as the team prepared for the regular season opener Monday night against the champion New York Giants, pitting the last two Super Bowl winners.

But if all was going smoothly, it wouldn't be the Bears.

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