It has been more than 20 years since Jim McMahon has graced the cover of “Sports Illustrated” and his return this past week was a solemn homecoming for a man who was once of football’s most picaresque and divisive characters.
McMahon is cover-worthy again not for his “outrageousness” but, sadly, his illness, as old number 9, at the inconceivable age of 53, has stepped deeply into the early stages of dementia from all the hits he took during his playing days with the Chicago Bears, San Diego Chargers and, do you remember? The Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers.
To Chicagoans, McMahon will always be a Bear and it was with Chicago that he enjoyed his greatest success, going to his lone Pro Bowl and winning the Super Bowl after the 1985 season. But it’s worth mentioning that Jimmy Mac continued to play in the NFL nearly a decade after the Bears traded him, bouncing from team to team, because it shows that McMahon wasn’t just a loud-mouth with a good arm. He was a football player. He was a single-digit jersey with a lineman’s mentality who, if you remember “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” would throw his body “…all over the field.”
McMahon isn’t a Hall-of-Famer because he suffered far too many injuries. Perhaps if he had played it safe and stayed healthy the Bears, and the rest of his teams (would there have been other teams?) would have won a lot more. The cruel twist is if McMahon had been less McMahon he wouldn’t have been so loved, hated, remembered and now, pitied.
SI’s article chronicles how this man who played with reckless joy now often forgets where he is, what he’s doing, where he’s going and where he’s been. The QB whose sunglasses were as constant as his irreverence during the 80s and 90s now stares into the encroaching twilight, vaguely able to understand what lies before him while all which appears over his shoulder is draped in shadow. And distance.
The focus of the “Sports Illustrated” story is also that McMahon’s girlfriend, Laurie Navon, is now charged with taking care of him, a task more suited to an expert in geriatrics or pediatrics. Not a layperson who’s dating a 53-year-old man.
Navon’s task is mirrored by that of two other women featured in the piece, Mary Lee Kocourek, whose husband, Dave, played for the Chargers, Dolphins and Raiders, and Mary Ann Easterling whose husband, Ray, was a defensive back for the Falcons. These brave, caring women provide a face to all the families and friends of football players who once cheered their heroes and depended upon them but now must take care of them. Or mourn them.
All these players made a lot of money. Even the guys who played before the big contracts of the 1980s and beyond made more than your average person and anyone who has ever put on a football helmet knows the risks. So how much responsibility does the NFL have for this? What should the fans and media be saying when we know that thousands of men who entertained us on Sundays are now permanently disabled and their families are struggling?
How much does football have to change?
Jim McMahon sat on the sideline for his first NFL regular season game 30 years ago today. A week later he saw his first action. Five rookie quarterbacks started for their teams in their season openers this past weekend. Hopefully, 30 years from now, they and their families will be looking back on the glory days with sound mind, body and happiness.
Perhaps nothing can ensure that. But making football safer and making teams, doctors, the NFL, fans, reporters, bloggers and, yes, the players, more accountable, is a step toward a world of better football and a life of less anguish.