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McMahon was a rebel without pause
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
"The one thing about Jim McMahon, which was his curse and also maybe the one thing that made him tolerable was, as obnoxious as he was, he was unrepentant. He knows he's a jerk and he doesn't care that you know he's a jerk and he's not going to say, 'Whoops, I made a mistake,' " says journalist Rick Telander on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
He knew only one speed -- hell-bent -- a zealous pace that brought him athletic records, fame, injury and fast criticism.
The quarterback loved bars and night life, leaving residue that sometimes led to the field the next day. He blew up at coaches, ignored play calls, screamed in the huddle. He was brash and flamboyant, his headbands, exotic haircuts and dark sunglasses stoking a rebel-without-pause image.
"Outrageousness," he said, "is nothing more than a way to wake people up."
At Brigham Young University, a Mormon school whose strict rules hardly fit him, McMahon set records almost as fast as he talked. He broke or tied 56 NCAA Division I-A marks, led the Cougars to Western Athletic Conference titles his last two years and was an All-American as a senior.
McMahon finished fifth, then third in Heisman Trophy balloting and later complained, "BYU never bothered to push me much for the Heisman."
In 1984, he helped Mike Ditka and the Chicago Bears to their first of five consecutive division titles, though his season was cut short by a kidney injury. The next year, a healthy McMahon and the Bears won 18 of 19 games in winning their only Super Bowl.
"He doesn't really cuddle up to you," said Ditka, who often feuded with McMahon. "That doesn't bother me. I know he's going to give you everything he's got."
McMahon was a winner - going 67-30 (.69 percent) as a starting quarterback. But injuries slowed his career, sending him to the sideline for a month or more four times during the division-title streak. He played more than nine games just five times in his 15 NFL seasons. In four of his last five years, he hardly played.
McMahon was born on Aug. 21, 1959, in Jersey City, and was reared as a Catholic by his parents, Jim Sr. and Roberta. The family moved to San Jose, Calif., when he was three. At six, McMahon severed the retina in his right eye by accidentally poking a fork into it. The injury made him sensitive to light -- the real reason, he said, for the trademark sunglasses later in life.
Growing up, McMahon played all sports in his neighborhood, encouraged by his parents. "We told him to believe he was the best," his mother said. "If he didn't, nobody else would."
The son took the words to heart, becoming a starting quarterback for Andrew Hills High School as a sophomore. The family then moved in 1975 to Roy, Utah, where McMahon became the team MVP in three sports at Roy High School. He twice led Roy into the state playoffs and was named all-state as a senior after passing for 1,555 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Despite McMahon's boisterous personality and knack for getting into trouble, his parents directed him toward BYU, a no-nonsense school but one whose football program emphasized passing.
"We had a very good offense," McMahon said, "obviously a very quarterback-friendly offense."
As a freshman, he played mostly as a punter, then split time with Marc Wilson in 1978, earning All-WAC honors. The next spring, an injury put him behind Wilson, and McMahon redshirted.
In 1980, he had a storybook season. The junior threw for a NCAA-record 4,571 yards and also led the nation in touchdown passes (47), total offense (4,627 yards) and pass efficiency (176.9). In the Holiday Bowl against SMU, McMahon passed for four touchdowns and helped erase a 20-point deficit in the final four minutes, climaxing the 46-45 comeback with a Hail Mary scoring heave on the final play.
His numbers were slightly less phenomenal as a senior (3,555 yards and 30 touchdown passes) as BYU went 10-2 and again won the Holiday Bowl, this time 38-36 over Washington State. He passed for 342 yards and three touchdowns in the bowl victory.
"Going to BYU helped me make it to the pros a whole lot," McMahon said, "but I think I would have become an NFL quarterback no matter where I went."
After being drafted by the Bears with the fifth pick of the first round in 1982,
McMahon, though, showed a strong arm and running ability. The Bears rose to 8-8 in 1983 as McMahon passed for 2,184 yards and 12 touchdowns though he had 13 interceptions.
The winning began the next year with a 10-6 record, division title and trip to the NFC finals. McMahon suffered a lacerated kidney in November and was lost for the season.
The team, which included Walter Payton and a swarm of outstanding defenders, was building momentum to greatness. "We knew it in '84," McMahon said years later. "If I hadn't gotten hurt, we might have won that year."
Led by its defense, the Bears won their first 12 games in 1985 before a Monday night loss at Miami. They went 15-1, outscoring opponents 456-198, the league's biggest margin by far. McMahon played solidly, throwing for career-highs of 15 touchdowns and 2,392 yards in 13 games and running well (5.4 yards per carry, three TDs).
In the NFC playoffs, the Bears blanked the Giants and Rams as McMahon led the offense with three touchdown passes and a scoring run. He also drew a $5,000 fine from NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for wearing a headband with a corporate logo -- adidas -- in the Giants game.
The next week against the Rams, he showed up with a headband lettered "Rozelle." The commissioner sent McMahon a hand-written note saying the headband "was funny as hell, " though he didn't rescind the fine.
Ditka called the antics "relatively sane" and suggested that McMahon took pressure off the team.
The Bears showed little anxiety against New England. They earased an early 3-0 deficit to romp 46-10 as McMahon, who wore a headband saying "Pluto" (the nickname of his best friend), threw for 256 yards and ran for two touchdowns.
McMahon called the event a bore. "I was pleased with the game," he said, "but all the rest of it was a pain."
Injuring his shoulder in the 1986 opener, McMahon was in and out of the lineup as Chicago went 14-2. A late hit by the Packers in Week 12 ended his season, and the Bears lost to the Redskins 27-13 in their first playoff game.
Chicago won two more division titles though McMahon started just 15 games. Then he was dealt in 1989 to San Diego, where in his only season there he threw for 2,132 yards. Signed as a free agent by Philadelphia the next summer, he played three years for the Eagles. He passed for 2,239 yards in 12 games in 1991, but hardly played the other two seasons.
His last productive year was 1993 with Minnesota (12 games, 1,968 yards passing), and his final season came as Brett Favre's backup in the Packers' 1996 title season.
As the years went by, McMahon's reputation as a party-goer lessened as he spent more and more time with his family - wife Nancy and four children - in suburban Chicago. "His family values are about as good as you can get," Ditka said.
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