The Sports Section | Sports | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Sports

The Sports Section

by

comment

Mike Singletary's last home football game was one of those occasions sports fans want to explain to people who aren't sports fans. To fully appreciate the impact and import of the game, one didn't need to know Singletary personally--although, according to all testimony, it couldn't have hurt--but one did need to have seen him play and perform over a number of years. One had to have a feel for the type of player he is, and for all those so-called "intangibles" he brings to a team. In this case, the word in its strictest definition is not quite accurate. "Intangible" means "incapable of being apprehended by the mind or senses" or "incapable of being defined," according to my Webster's. As it was clearly obvious to everyone watching in the stands or via television what made Singletary such an exceptional player--in each and every game he ever played in--"intangible" was needlessly vague.

It has never been my pleasure to know or even talk with Mike Singletary, but he has been one of the main reasons I've spent so much time with the Bears over the years, why I've set aside Sunday afternoons and the occasional Monday night. He brought not only great emotion to the game but also a sense of discipline--for a player's role in a team framework--and an astute intellect. (He was an obsessive viewer of game films, and was joined by his wife Kim in analyzing opponent tactics; this sort of devotion is rare in any family, not just in sports.) Mike Singletary was and is a great sportsman--using that overused word in its purest and highest meaning--and to see him go out so well and so, well, nobly was an inspiring event. It was all sports promises and so rarely delivers.

The Bears, it should be remembered, had lost six games in a row and looked increasingly awful along the way. The margin of defeat in the last five losses was, in order, 3, 3, 14, 13, and 17. The last two games had seen Peter Tom Willis replace Jim Harbaugh at quarterback, but he threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in two weeks and was no more composed than Harbaugh--though he is not as mobile as Harbaugh and therefore was less capable of dealing with the pressure yielded by the Bears' porous offensive line. Harbaugh was pegged to return to the starting role for the Bears' last home game of the season, against the playoff-bound Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the best teams in the American Football Conference. Harbaugh said he would be inspired for the game and he expected the Bears to be excited, as it would be the last home game for Singletary, who announced early in the season that this would be his last campaign.

Harbaugh is a Michigan man, and--for anyone who had seen the Bears over the previous month and a half--this sounded like high grade BMOC bull. The Bears were 4-9, the Steelers 10-3, and these were professional athletes we were talking about, not college kids trying to send the seniors off with one last garland and a big postgame kegger.

The Steelers won the toss and elected to receive, but the kickoff return was fumbled right into the arms of Chicago kicker Chris Gardocki. The Bears could do nothing with this excellent opening opportunity, even though they went for it on fourth down--and failed. (I thought of the new Springsteen line about being unable to tell one's courage from one's desperation.) Yet when the Steelers finally did get the football, it became clear right away that something was up. The Bears defense was inspired, with players flying all over the field. A couple of uneventful series later, Lemuel Stinson blocked a Pittsburgh punt, and the Bears converted it into a field goal to go ahead 3-0.

Singletary has never been the lone-wolf defensive star that, say, Richard Dent was and on occasion still is. Singletary annually led the Bears in tackles, but he never went out of his way to draw attention to himself--aside from his wide-eyed glare over the snap, a purely pragmatic practice dictated by poor eyesight. Singletary came to the Bears with a reputation for breaking helmets with his tackles at Baylor, and he could certainly lay the lumber, but he was not one to stand up and glory over a fallen opponent, the way a Dent or a Dan Hampton was apt to do. Neither was he a sticky-fingered ball hawk; it was rare for Singletary to intercept even one pass in a season. He was a team player, the metaphorical heart at the literal center of the defense. With his skills diminished by time, there was no greater honor than to have the rest of the defense more than make up for his age by playing with an intensity that this season had previously been limited to Singletary himself.

He was credited with only three tackles on the day, but the rest of the defense was smashing Pittsburgh's receivers before they could come down with the ball and just generally outplaying the Steelers, man to man, in all facets of the game. Besides, one of those three Singletary tackles was a doozy. Pittsburgh called a draw play to Barry Foster, the league's leading rusher entering the day. In a maneuver the television cameras captured perfectly, Singletary--with his wide eyes projecting every thought in his head--saw the draw developing and shot a gap in the line before a blocker could get there. The old Singletary would have pile-driven Foster into the turf; the present-day Singletary simply made a great open-field tackle by grasping Foster around the waist, falling down, and pulling him to the ground. It didn't make the play any less great or memorable. It was simply solid, fundamental football.

The final score was 30-6. The Bears had faced a team that was tied for the second-best record in the league and had given it a sound thrashing. Unfortunately, the Bears returned to their hogtied ways last Sunday against the Detroit Lions, losing 16-3. The game was almost a carbon copy of their 17-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers: the Lions took the initiative early and held it against an apathetic opponent. The defense had its moments. Donnell Woolford allowed a long Detroit completion right over his head on the first possession, giving the Lions a first down and goal to go, but then made a great play on a run to help the Bears hold Detroit to a field goal. He later picked off two passes. It was his second straight excellent game; he seemed possessed by the spirit of Singletary.

Yet Singletary himself seemed once again all too human. Discovering the Bears in a defense in which Singletary would have to cover the fleet Barry Sanders, the Lions threw a third-quarter pass to Sanders circling out of the backfield and he left Singletary in his dust. Otherwise, though, the defense held its head relatively high. But with the offense performing in a sickly manner, one Detroit touchdown was all that was needed. Chicago travels to Dallas to finish the season against the Cowboys this weekend. With the Reader taking its annual week off next week, it would be two weeks before we got back to the Bears, so we're going to put the patient under and perform the postmortem right now. Judging from their relaxed interest level against the Lions, the Bears shouldn't mind all that much; a minimum of anesthetic should be necessary.

Because as lovely and subtly thrilling as Singletary's last home game was, it raised serious questions for the Bears' future. That a team supposedly so inferior could stifle one of the best teams in the league from the relatively weak AFC, admittedly on an off afternoon, and admittedly without their best quarterback (Bubby Brister, the once-promising Don Majkowski of the AFC, was pressed into service and looked awful)--nevertheless indicates that the Bears could have been better than they turned out. We all knew the Bears suffered from bad luck this season--six interceptions returned for touchdowns, how does one explain that?--but they could have been one of the mediocre teams fighting for a playoff spot this weekend instead of being where they are, slipping into last place in a weak National Football Conference Central Division.

They could have been contenders--if they had played all season with the intensity they showed in Singletary's final home game. Now that, we've decided, was a special event, one that even jaded pro athletes could get inspired for, but what does it say about the ability of head coach Mike Ditka to inspire the team on an ordinary Sunday afternoon? Ditka, during the team's six-game skid, defended his inspirational qualities by saying he was quite possibly the greatest motivator ever among football coaches. That's a pretty big boast, but unfortunately his team's performance this season tells a very different tale. Singletary is a unique player; a fan can feel the force of his personality over the television, so it's no wonder that his teammates feel strongly about him and wanted to send him out properly. But shouldn't a coach also be able to inspire such devotion, at least from time to time?

Sunday's season finale has the Bears playing in Dallas, where Ditka was an assistant to head coach Tom Landry before coming to the Bears. Ditka had great respect for Landry, and he was vocal in his displeasure about how Landry had been brushed aside in favor of Jimmy Johnson when the Cowboys changed owners in the late 80s. A fan would think that Ditka--outmanned or not on the talent scale--would have his team as ready as it could be for what looks to be a personal grudge match. Let's see how the Bears of this weekend compare with the Bears of two weekends ago.

If the Bears look awful, and they should, then they not only have a severe rebuilding job ahead of them--that we already know--they also have a coach who has lost control of his team.

After the win over the Steelers, a camera crew caught a teary-eyed Mike Singletary leaving the field. "I don't think I can dream this good," he said. "This is what I remember. And I dont ever want the feeling to go away. Ever."

Singletary would probably be surprised at how strongly fans shared that sentiment. It is our job to preserve it in whatever way we can, preserve one man's example against the combined cynicism and bluster that have come to dominate pro sports.

Add a comment