CHICAGO — Pope John Paul II possibly will be pleased to know that a nice Polish boy named Michael John Tomczak, who makes his living playing football in the city with the largest population of Poles in the United States, distinguished himself Monday night in an event that--in Chicago and New York, at least-- certainly competed for attention with the Pope's U.S. tour.
In a couple of communities where sport ranks third, a clear but not too distant a third, behind faith and family, this season-opening National Football League game was given the greatest of buildups, advertised rather gaudily as "global warfare" and "Super Bowl XXI 1/2," what with the winners of the last two NFL championship games locked in mortal combat.
And the man most obviously on the spot before the Chicago Bears and New York Giants took the field was young Tomczak, whose inexperience at quarterback, when compared to New York's Phil Simms, was expected to be the biggest drawback for Chicago when the time finally came to put up or shut up.
Instead, this 24-year-old from Ohio State, who was never even drafted by an NFL team, stepped into the breach created by Jim McMahon's injury, threw two touchdown passes, ran for another touchdown and left the Giants wondering "who was that guy?" when the Bears were finished mauling them, 34-19.
Maybe now the young man will receive Chicago's blessing. There were a lot of Doubting Tomczaks out there among know-it-all football watchers, including presumptuous Los Angeles sportswriters who hadn't been impressed with what they had previously seen, but clearly, this is the Bear quarterback now--not Doug Flutie, not Jim Harbaugh, not anybody, at least until McMahon's throwing shoulder mends.
The players, understandably, were insisting that they knew what Tomczak could do all along.
"If anyone had any doubts about him, none of them came from anybody on our team," center Jay Hilgenberg said.
That's known as being supportive of a teammate, although it is much, much easier to give a guy support when he has just gone out and shredded one of the NFL's meanest defenses for more points than the Giants had given up in any of last season's games.
The support that counted most for Tomczak was the protection provided by the bodyguards such as Hilgenberg, who worked in front of him. Chicago's offensive line of tackles Jimbo Covert and Keith Van Horne, guards Tom Thayer and Mark Bortz and tight end Emery Moorehead were so good at shielding him from Lawrence Taylor And His Orchestra that, when the party was over and the quarterback sacks were piled up, the Giants came away with a total of zero.
Hilgenberg, who played in a shoulder harness, had 260-pound nose tackle Jim Burt hovering over him all night. By the fourth period, even ABC-TV's Dan Dierdorf was ready to declare a winner. "We haven't called Jim Burt's name one time all night," Dierdorf said.
Chicago's defense, on the other hand, was talked about and heard from, loud and often. It sacked Simms and his understudy eight times. Linebackers Mike Singletary, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson spent so much of the second half twisting Simms' limbs that he nearly ended up back in New York as a sidewalk vendor's pretzel, and at one point defensive end Richard Dent bopped helmets with the Giant quarterback and left his eyeballs looking like Little Orphan Annie's.
It was a splendid performance by a Chicago team that has won 31 of its last 34 regular-season games, and 49 of its last 61 games of all kinds, playoffs included. Furthermore, the touchdown pass New York finally scraped together in Monday's fourth quarter, when the game was no longer in doubt, was the only touchdown the Giants' offense has managed against the Bears in the last two games between these two squads.
Who has the better defense? For now, at least, we must give the nod to Chicago, which never got the chance to do battle with the Giants in last season's playoffs.
Who has the better quarterback? Well, no sense going overboard about Tomczak after one game. Yet, there is evidence now that Chicago's quarterback predicament is not as serious as some thought. The Bears could be in good hands until McMahon gets back, and possibly in good hands in case McMahon never gets back.
Thayer, a bit more candidly than some of his teammates, conceded: "Mike had a lot to prove to himself and to his team. I think he earned some serious respect tonight."
Nevertheless, it was pointed out more than once in the Chicago locker room that Tomczak has started eight games in his career with the Bears, and the Bears have won eight of them. That's right; this pitcher is 8-0. Funny how nobody seems to remember that, and how even opposing coaches make it sound as though the kid just fell off the back of a turnip truck.
"Their quarterback was excellent, considering it was his first start in a game of this magnitude," losing Coach Bill Parcells said Monday.