Somewhere up in my parents’ attic in rural Illinois, in a box of old neglected toys that would make Woody and Buzz cry, lies a beaten-up G.I. Joe figurine of William “Refrigerator” Perry. He came with a black football attached to a chain, wore a No. 72 tank top, and sported dark-green pants. He’s probably got grass stains on him, and he might be missing an arm. But he was my favorite toy; Cobra Commander was no match for him.
The real-life Refrigerator Perry, of course, was a massive defensive tackle for the 1985 Chicago Bears, perhaps the most popular, most famous team in NFL history. That team captured the imagination of the country in a way few other teams, in any sport, ever have. They turned their boisterous head coach, Mike Ditka, into an icon so renowned he was inspiring Saturday Night Live sketches a decade later. They had a “punky QB” named Jim McMahon who turned headbands with black marker written on them into pseudo-political statements. Most famously, they recorded their own rap—back when rap was still mostly the underground domain of Kurtis Blow and Rock Master Scott—called “Super Bowl Shuffle,” which actually hit pop charts and inspires parodies to this day. (I guarantee one of your friends can still do Walter Payton’s verse: “Running the ball is like makin’ romance.”) They were the type of team whose players got their own G.I. Joe figurines.
What the 1985 Bears were, mostly, was brash: From the very beginning of training camp that year—after a season in which they’d surprised observers by reaching the conference-championship game—they carried themselves like the best team in football, even though they’d never won anything. You couldn’t escape the Bears that year; at one point, Coca-Cola used McMahon and Perry as the centerpieces of their ad campaign to retreat from the New Coke marketing disaster. The thing was, the Bears backed it all up. This group of crazy characters and their wacky coach beat everyone who crossed their path, losing only one game all season and trouncing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Bears were a fad, sure, but had they not won a championship, history would have forgotten them. That they won it all, after claiming all along that’s what they were going to do—that’s what made them legends. We like nothing more in sports than a cocky champ, whether it’s Joe Namath, Reggie Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, or the 1986 Mets. We haven’t seen a football team like the Bears since. But I’m looking around these parts these days … and I’m thinking we might have the closest thing in 25 years right here in town.
When the Jets agreed to appear on HBO’s Hard Knocks before this season began, they were asking for trouble. Until last year’s Cincinnati Bengals, every Hard Knocks team had ended up with a record equal to or worse than the previous season’s. More to the point, the Jets carried themselves on Hard Knocks as if they’d won the Super Bowl last year, rather than a team that needed an inordinate amount of luck just to get into the playoffs. The Jets—the quieter, less successful franchise in town, at least since the days of Namath—were full of characters, from Mark Sanchez setting off stink bombs in the coaches’ office to Antonio Cromartie hilariously struggling to remember the names of all his children. (“I have Alonzo, who is 5. I have, uh, Karis, who is 3. I have my Junior, which is, uh, 3. I have my, um, daughter who just turned 3 as of yesterday. I have another son, named Tyler, he turns 3 in December. I have another daughter that was born October 16th named London. Another daughter that was born named Lelani who is 2 years old. And, ah, I have my newborn with my wife—her name is Jerzie.”)
But the real hero and breakout star was coach Rex Ryan, who unleashed more F-bombs than a Mamet play being filmed by Quentin Tarantino and scored by Eminem. Ryan was so compelling and entertaining on Hard Knocks that you wondered why he even bothered being a football coach; the man is destined to host the world’s first NC-17–rated cooking show. What was most striking about him, and why the Jets players love playing for him so much, is his total lack of guile about his confidence in his team. In a risk-averse league full of coaches terrified to make headlines lest it cost them their jobs, Ryan, in discussing whether he was pumping up his team’s chances too much, brayed, “Fuck that!” On camera, he responded to a question about his team’s goals for the upcoming season: “Leading the league in fucking wins!” Linebacker Bart Scott explained why his teammates would follow Ryan into hell: “He talks like us.”