In one of the final scenes of ESPN’s “30 for 30” on the 1985 Chicago Bears, former linebacker Mike Singletary has to say goodbye to his old coach Buddy Ryan. It’s a moving scene, during which Singletary struggles to keep his emotions in check.
That scene came more than 30 years after the last game Singletary played under Ryan, yet the love he had for his former coordinator never waned. It’s a love all of those former Bears defensive players have for Ryan, which is what surely makes today a very hard one for those retired Monsters of the Midway.
Ryan, at 82 years old, passed away this morning.
Based on the outpouring of love and support we’ve seen on Twitter from his formers players in just a few hours since his death, it appears Ryan had a lasting impact on everyone he coached.
Yet that admiration goes beyond just those who knew or played for Ryan. It also spreads to Bears fan who are old enough to remember just how dominant Ryan’s 46 defense was in the mid-1980s.
I was born in 1977, a year before George Halas hired Ryan as the Bears’ defensive coordinator. My childhood is filled with memories of those dominant Chicago defenses. My love for football developed rapidly as I watched Ryan’s units chew up and spit out the rest of the league. In fact, I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for Buddy Ryan, I probably would have never played football or carried over that passion for the sport into my career.
For that, I thank you Buddy.
The apex of Ryan’s career came in 1985, when he created and developed what most believe is the greatest defense in the history of the NFL.
Ryan’s ’85 unit was a fire-breathing mass of angry, hungry defenders who not only wanted to beat you, they wanted to take your head home with them as a trophy. No defense has ever shown the same tenacity and aggression as his ’85 team. It was a defense built on constant pressure, one that ended the careers of many quarterbacks.
That season, the Bears defense finished first overall, third against the pass and first against the run. Ryan’s unit allowed just 198 points that season, which was 65 points fewer than any other defense in the NFL. They led the league in interceptions, were fifth in fumbles recovered and third in sacks.
In the 1985 playoffs, the Bears defense shutout both the L.A. Rams and the New York Giants en route to a 46-10 drubbing of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
As the game ended, Ryan was hoisted up and carried off the field on the shoulders of his players. It’s the only time a coordinator has ever been carried off the field, which just shows the immense impact Ryan had on that team and its players.
Coordinators in today’s NFL, they’re just coaches to most players. Bonds are often built but in today’s league, where players jump from team to team and are treated like commodities, those bonds don’t typically stand the test of time.
Yet Ryan was a father figure to his Bears players, one whose teachings, support and love they never took for granted, or ever forgot. He was one of the last of his kind, a coach for whom his players would run through a wall.
One of my favorite stories about that 1985 Bears team happened the night before the Super Bowl. Ryan knew he was leaving the team to become the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles the next year. He knew it would be his last game coaching that defense and he made sure to say goodbye to the players he loved.
In reaction to the news, Steve McMichael picked up a chair and slammed it through a blackboard. That was how fiercely his players loved him, which is a level of caring and respect we may never again see between today’s players and coaches.
Every Bears fan is indebted to Ryan for what he built in the 1980s, for without him, the Bears would still be searching for their first Super Bowl title.
It’s a sad day for the Chicago Bears franchise, as one of its legends has moved on. Yet Buddy Ryan’s legacy will forever live on in those old videos of Singletary, McMichael, Richard Dent, Otis Wilson, Wilbur Marshall and company mauling opposing offenses. That is what Ryan left behind for all of us, the greatest gift a Bears fan could ever receive.
RIP Buddy. Say hi to George for us.