An honor 25 years in the making

CHICAGO -- Jay Hilgenberg remembers sitting on the edge of the bed in his Honolulu hotel room, getting ready to catch a bus to his first Pro Bowl practice, when he turned on the television.

It was Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1986.

"I was putting my flip-flops on, all fired up to go out there as a Super Bowl champ, and started watching the launch go off," the Bears center said of a scene that would become one of the biggest disasters in the history of the U.S. space program.

"All of a sudden," Hilgenberg said of any Super Bowl afterglow, "man, that was the end of that."

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger shortly after it took off from Cape Canaveral that morning killed all seven of its crew members and plunged the country into a period of mourning.

Bears tackle Steve McMichael watched it unfold on television back home in Chicago.

"Christa McAuliffe," said McMichael, uttering the name of the woman who was to become the first teacher in space. "My mother was a schoolteacher, and that's why I remembered where I was and that woman's name. Those are life events, and you remember where you were. I remember where I was when the planes hit those towers. I remember I was in our living room in Pasadena, Texas, watching our black-and-white TV when John Kennedy was shot.

"And everybody in Chicago can still say they remember like yesterday that day when we won the Super Bowl."

It was just two days before the space shuttle disaster, on Sunday, Jan. 26, that the Bears defeated the New England Patriots in New Orleans in Super Bowl XX. But aside from the ticker-tape parade that warmed a bitterly cold city on Monday, the celebration was short-lived and quickly overshadowed.

Scott Hagel, Bears senior director of corporate communications, was in sixth grade in January '86 and recalls that, the week of the 26th, he was given the assignment to create his own newspaper page.

"I vividly remember that my lead story was the Challenger exploding," Hagel said. "And right underneath, the headline was 'Bears win Super Bowl.' As a kid, those two things were forever connected."

The '85 team will be honored Friday by President Barack Obama, nearly 26 years after the Super Bowl win, with a traveling party of approximately 100 former players, coaches, office staff and Bears executives planning to fly to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony.

"It never bothered me that we didn't get to go [in '86]," Hilgenberg said. "It would've been neat, but this worked out even better. I'm sure we appreciate it even more now."

Contrary to the commonly held belief that it was the Challenger tragedy that canceled a White House visit back then, however, there never was a D.C. trip planned in '86, said Ken Valdiserri, the Bears' media relations director at the time.

"I think it may have been lost in the shuffle after Challenger," Valdiserri said. "But we may not have ever been intended to be invited,"

While President Kennedy was thought to have started the tradition of honoring championship teams at the White House, the '78 Pittsburgh Steelers were the first and only Super Bowl champions to visit the White House until the '86 New York Giants were invited the year after the Bears won. Before that, the champs might expect a call from the President in the winning lockerroom.

Ironically, as some fans and even Bears' Hall of Fame defensive end Dan Hampton have lamented that the celebration of the '85 team has gone on too long, in the immediate aftermath of the victory anyway, it barely lasted at all.

Valdiserri was in his office on Tuesday after the Super Bowl and even before the shuttle disaster, spirits had begun to dampen as news of popular defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's departure to Philadelphia had begun to circulate.

"I remember defensive players coming up to the office, giving him a hug, wishing him well and then it was, 'Who's going to be his replacement?' " Valdiserri recalled. "So the Super Bowl euphoria, while it was cherished and fun, had a short life, it really did."

In addition to the disappointment Bears defensive players felt over Ryan agreeing to a five-year deal to become head coach of the Eagles, they were also considering the possibility that cornerback Leslie Frazier would be lost for the next season with a knee injury sustained late in the Super Bowl.

In Hawaii, Mike Singletary reflected the glum mood to Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Verdi.

"I lost two teeth at the dentist, my best friend and defensive coordinator, and maybe a cornerback, too," Singletary said. "On top of that, here we are in Hawaii and it's raining. Just makes you appreciate the good times that much more, I guess."

And the Bears have certainly done that -- in reunions and anniversary celebrations and a White House ceremony that will bring even more of them together.

"A main motivation to drive yourself to win a championship is all the years after that, when you can still be around guys you love and reminisce and tell stories like it's a family reunion," McMichael said. "It's like a really good sitcom. You can watch the same reruns over and over and still laugh."

Any questions raised over whether political leanings might get in the way of visiting the White House were quickly put to rest by the large number of former players and coaches planning to attend.

"I think it's cool regardless of anyone's politics or feelings," Hilgenberg said. "We're going to visit the President of the United States and the President is from Chicago and we're the Chicago Bears. How neat is that?"

"It's just a good thing for everybody concerned, period," McMichael said. "It's a feel-good story as far as I'm concerned and our country needs more of those."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.