As we prepare to enter the final weekend of 2023 without NFL football, it is important to remember that today marks just nine days from the first full Sunday of the season. To celebrate the season inching closer and closer, today’s installment of Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff brings us to the life and career of the best player in franchise history to don the number nine, quarterback Jim McMahon.
Despite hailing originally from Jersey City, New Jersey, Jim McMahon spent the majority of his childhood in San Jose, California. There, the future Chicago Bear dodged a massive bullet, almost literally. As a child, McMahon was playing a game with his brother when he attempted to untie a knot in his gun holster with a fork. The utensil slipped, and rocketed towards his eyeball, leaving the organ speared by two prongs on the fork. Luckily, McMahon was able to keep his eye, although his vision would never quite be the same. His sensitivity to light is a big reason why the quarterback has been seen so often wearing sunglasses throughout his career and even thereafter.
Nonetheless, before his junior year of high school, the McMahon family moved once again, this time moving just two borders to the west, and ended up in Roy, Utah. There, McMahon attended Roy High School and joined the school’s football team as their starting quarterback and punter. With the team, McMahon led Roy to a 20-0 regular season record and earned several awards, including recognition as an All-Region, All-State, and All-American quarterback.
Regarded as a true gunslinger coming out of high school, McMahon struggled to gain recognition as a top collegiate prospect, and the quarterback failed to attract the attention of a number of elite programs, including his dream school, Notre Dame. However, McMahon was known around the region as a talented quarterback with a cannon for an arm, and the BYU football team offered the Roy High School MVP a scholarship offer, which he accepted.
In his first season with the Cougars, McMahon served as the team’s starting punter as he was buried in the depth chart of legendary coach and quarterback whisperer LaVell Edwards’ offense. The following year an injury to starting quarterback Marc Wilson allowed McMahon to serve as the team’s starter for half of the season. Unfortunately, McMahon missed the final game of the year due to a serious injury that forced him to redshirt his true junior season in 1979.
Upon returning to full health before the 1980 season, McMahon was able to compete for the team’s starting quarterback spot, a job he eventually earned. With the command of the offense, McMahon shined in his junior and senior campaigns, totaling an impressive 23-3 regular season record.
During this stretch, McMahon helped rewrite the NCAA’s record book, setting 75 different collegiate records on the field. He was able to finish top two in passing yards across the nation twice, had the most combined passing touchdowns, and had the highest yards per-play total each season. McMahon also led the team to consecutive Holiday Bowl victories following both the 1980 and 1981 seasons, marking the first time BYU won consecutive bowl games in program history. McMahon would be leaving the team in the capable hands of Steve Young, who backed up the San Jose native during his final season.
McMahon’s legacy on the field was matched only by his infamy off the field. The BYU football team operates under a strict “code of conduct” that McMahon’s gregarious personality often could not help but break. Frequently, the star quarterback was in hot water with the coaches for either his use of four-lettered words or his presumed activities away from the game. Quickly, McMahon had gathered a reputation as the punky quarterback, but he was still a highly touted prospect for the ensuing 1982 NFL Draft.
The Chicago Bears used the fifth overall pick to select McMahon, making him just the second offensive player off the board. The quarterback became the day-one starter for a team that was trying to establish their identity on both sides of the ball in what was Mike Ditka’s first year as the head coach. Luckily, the squad already had a number of franchise-caliber level players including Walter Payton, Dan Hampton, Mike Singletary, and Gary Fencik.
In a rookie season that would end up being cut short due to a player’s strike, McMahon led the team to a 3-4 record where he led the team with 1,501 passing yards and carried a 9-7 touchdown to interception ratio. Despite not being as productive as he was at BYU, McMahon showed signs of his ability to make plays, even if it meant changing the play at the line of scrimmage, a practice that Ditka did not always appreciate.
The following year, the quarterback was already an established presence on the team, for both his play and his personality. While his numbers started to match those from his collegiate days to the tune of 2,184 yards and 12 touchdowns, McMahon’s confidence and persona began to emerge on the professional scene. Often seen wearing sunglasses or a visor while playing, McMahon quickly became a media magnet, and brought energy to a Chicago Bears team that lacked talent in many positions. Nonetheless, the team seemed to react, and they improved their record from 3-6 to 8-8.
By the 1984 season, McMahon was already somewhat of a seasoned vet and had improved his abilities as a pocket passer tremendously. However, an injury shortened his third season to just nine appearances, where the team posted a 7-2 record. The Bears would finish the season strong with a 10-6 record, but the offense could not keep up with the defense’s performances, and ultimately fell in the conference championship without their starting quarterback.
The following year, McMahon enjoyed perhaps his best season as a professional during the team’s Super Bowl run. The addition of speedster Willie Gault allowed McMahon to stretch the field vertically and with better blockers up front with Jimbo Covert and Jay Hilgenberg, both the passing and rushing attacks were able to thrive. McMahon finished the regular season with career highs for both passing yards (2,392) and touchdowns (15).
The team posted a 15-1 record throughout the year, and after earning the first seed on the NFC bracket of the playoffs, the Bears made mince meat of their in-conference opponents, leading them to a Super Bowl XX showdown versus the New England Patriots. In a blowout victory, McMahon played extremely efficiently, passing for 256 yards on 12 completions in 20 attempts. He was held scoreless through the air, but the mobile quarterback punched in two goalline touchdowns to aid in the 36-point victory. Following the game, McMahon played in the first, and only, Pro Bowl of his career.
After winning the Super Bowl, the team still had the talent to make another push for a championship, but injuries held McMahon to just six appearances throughout the year. His last start, a late season battle against the Green Bay Packers, contained one of the most egregious acts in NFL history, where defensive lineman Charles Martin picked up McMahon from behind and body slammed him well after the end of the play.
The act worsened McMahon’s pre-existing injury, and the quarterback was forced to miss the remainder of the season, including the team’s postseason run. Over the next two seasons, injuries would headline McMahon’s time with the Bears, and the quarterback was held to just 15 total games, although he helped the team make the playoffs each season.
McMahon played well when healthy, punctuated by a 46-15 record as a starter through his first seven seasons. Outside of his injury-riddled 1986 season, the BYU product was the team’s leading passer every year he was with the team, but by 1989, the team decided to move on from McMahon as the starting quarterback.
Signing a one-year deal with the Chargers, McMahon started in 11 games, but the team struggled despite the quarterback having one of his better seasons with over 2,000 passing yards. After the year, McMahon signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he would primarily serve as a backup. However, Philadelphia provided familiarity, with former Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan serving as the Eagle’s head coach. Ryan, who was always an advocate for McMahon’s improvisational abilities in Chicago, was able to see McMahon start 11 games in 1991, leading the team to an 8-3 record over that span.
After serving again as a backup during his third season with the Eagles in 1992, McMahon joined his former division rival Minnesota Vikings, where he would start in 12 games throughout the year. Finishing with an 8-4 record and nearly 2,000 yards, the season would end up being his final as a starter, and he finished his career with a one-year stint as a backup in Arizona and a two-year stint as a backup in Green Bay.
In his final professional season, the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl, giving McMahon his second championship win. During the ensuing White House visit, McMahon donned his numbered nine Chicago Bears jacket under his blazer, an homage to his championship run years prior. The Bears were unable to visit the White House due to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
Following his second Super Bowl, McMahon retired from the NFL following a 15-year career that saw seven seasons spent with the Chicago Bears. Outside of being the only quarterback in franchise history to start in and win a Super Bowl, McMahon’s name is littered at the top of the team’s record books. In franchise history, McMahon has the fourth-most passing yards (11,203), the fourth-most passing touchdowns (67), and the second-most wins by a quarterback (46).
Since his retirement, McMahon has received a number of honors, including seeing both his high school and collegiate jerseys retired by their respective programs. However, as he always has, the former quarterback has remained in the public eye for reasons outside of football. McMahon had several business ventures, including a restaurant and time spent as a motivational speaker, but unfortunately, he has become a part of the enduring conversations about the relationship between football and brain disease.
Just over a decade ago, McMahon was diagnosed with dementia, almost certainly related to the numerous concussions he sustained during his years in the game. Thankfully, the dementia is still in the relatively early stages, but the condition has both affected his mind and his already afflicted vision. Recently, McMahon has become an advocate for cannabis treatment related to his illness.
McMahon will always be known first as the quarterback to take the team to the promise land in 1985, but not far behind will be his legacy off the field. From writing commissioner Pete Rozelle’s name on his iconic headband in protest of the league’s sponsorship rules to bad-mouthing the men and women of New Orleans while visiting for the Super Bowl, McMahon’s antics will always be remembered and celebrated alongside his statistical success.
Peter Jurich beargoggleson.com
2023-09-01 19:55:51 , "Gadsden Arizona" – Vivrr Local