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Hub Arkush: Remembering the Fog Bowl

January 5, 2019

It will have absolutely no relevance or impact on the wild-card game Sunday between the Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, but based on the 30-plus (and counting) phone calls I’ve received from TV and radio hosts and newspapermen around the country this week already asking me about it, I’m not sure how we don’t take at least a couple minutes to remember one of the most famous games in NFL History?

30 years and four days ago, the Eagles and Bears met for just the second time in their long histories in the playoffs. It is not remembered because Mike Ditka’s Bears beat Buddy Ryan’s Eagles 20-12 — in what became one of the more bitter coaching rivalries in NFL history — to advance to meet the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title Game for the second time in five seasons.

Its place in history will always be as the “Fog Bowl.”

I joined the Chicago Bears radio network in 1985 and earned a spot in the broadcast booth as the Bears color commentator in 1987, a role I remained in for the next 18 seasons.

It would be just the second playoff game I called after the bitter disappointment of a second straight first-round elimination by Washington the previous season.

NFL Hall of Famer Dan Hampton remembers, “As a team, we were trying to not only stay relevant but assert ourselves again as a dominant team. Unfortunately it came against a guy that we loved in Buddy Ryan and his team.”

There is debate to this day whether Ryan or Mike Ditka was the better and/or more important coach on the Bears ’85 Super Bowl champions, but there was no uncertainty about their distaste for each other, and Ryan left after that season to take over the Eagles.

The day broke unseasonably warm for Chicago in December, with temperatures in the high 50s, and the first half was played in sunshine as the Bears raced out to a 17-9 lead.

It was a sloppy half of football, particularly for the Eagles, who had two touchdowns called back on penalties and saw a sure third TD pass dropped in the end zone by their All Pro tight end, Keith Jackson.

No more than a minute into the second half, an incredibly dense fog rolled in off the lake and blanketed the field. Suddenly from our perch in the broadcast booth near the top of Soldier Field, we could see nothing on the turf below.

As Hampton recalls, “During the game the fog came over that northeast corner and we never knew all the time that it was building up that it would become such a debacle where nobody could see anything, and there’s no question in my mind that ten years later, even five years later that they would have stopped the game.”

Referee Jim Tunney halted play and conferred with Ditka and Ryan whether they wanted to continue, and the two old-school warriors said play on.

My broadcast partners, Wayne Larrivee and Jim Hart, and I were at a loss. Every few minutes there would be a break over portions of the field where we could make out a few players with no chance to read their numbers and we were working blind.

To help out everyone in the stadium, Tunney would reset the down and distance on his field mike after every play.

For large parts of the second half, that was all we knew about what was going on.

Our boss, WGN Radio Program Manager Dan Fabian considered sending Jim or I down to the field to see if we could see more and help call the game, but we had no cell phones in those days, and while we did have a wireless mic, there was no way to patch it into the broadcast.

We were stuck in our booth, somewhat helpless.

Wayne, Jim and I spent the second half occasionally able to see something on the field we could describe and analyze, but for the most part kidding back and forth about our predicament, trying to entertain our listeners and keep them informed through Tunney’s every-play updates.

The players on the field were in a similar state.

As Hampton remembers, “As a lineman it didn’t bother us so much because obviously we’re in close quarters all the time; it didn’t bother us.

“But when the play was over and you looked down the field, you would think to yourself, what the hell’s going on, you couldn’t see anything.

“When I would be at the completion of a pass rush, I’m eight yards deep in the backfield and I could barely see where our linebackers were in their drops, let alone a quarterback trying to hit a receiver 12, 15, 30 yards downfield.

“It was unbelievably bad, and everybody kind of laughs and minimizes it, but I was astonished that the game was even being played.”

Hamp is grateful to this day that the Bears came out of the first half on top.

“There’s no question that for a team with the lead being able to maintain the lead was so much easier during the course of that second half and, hey, it was almost like God wanted the Bears to win, it was crazy.”

Ultimately, the game was basically a mess with each team managing just a field goal in the second half – although how the refs knew if the kicks were good or bad is a mystery to me to this day.

Randall Cunningham threw for 407 yards to just 172 for Mike Tomczak, the Eagles outgained the Bears 378-to-177, but four Bears’ sacks of Cunningham repeatedly stunted second-half drives.

Philly turned the ball over three times, the Bears four, and seven Eagles penalties for 60 yards to just one five-yarder on the Bears were the second-to-last nail in the Philadelphia coffin.

In the Eagles’ last gasp, Cunningham drove them to the Bears 16-yard line at the south end of the field with just over two minutes to play, and the Eagles QB heaved one to the end zone, I believe, at Mike Quick.

Up in the booth, we heard a roar from that south end zone and then were able to make out multiple players running back North. Near the Bears 30, the mist broke just enough for us to make out number 37 on the Bears, we thought with the football under his arm being chased to the sideline.

Maurice Douglass had picked off Cunningham, sealing the Bears win.

Hampton remembers, “It was like a huge roar, and then out from the fog came a Bear player with the ball and everybody chasing him and trying to tackle him.

“Obviously we were euphoric because they had matriculated the ball down the field and they were down near the South red zone and it was obvious they were threatening.

“For our guy to be able to come out with it, you know Mo Douglas was a godsend.”

Ryan was devastated, even possibly sensing then that would be the best of the Eagles teams he would coach and his best shot at beating Ditka.

In our postgame interview, Ditka was strangely subdued — extremely happy but as puzzled as the rest of us as to what had just happened.

Making the rounds from Hampton to McMichael, Duerson, Rivera, Anderson, McKinnon, Gentry and others, I learned more about the game I had just broadcast but not actually seen.

What we didn’t know then is it was really the last gasp of one of the greatest teams ever assembled. A week later, the Bears would lose that title game to the 49ers at Soldier Field in sub-zero temperatures with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice taking them apart.

Under Ditka, the Bears would make two more trips to the playoffs in ’90 and ’91, but most of the ’85 Bears had moved on by then and they were never a real Super Bowl contender again.

I lost count years ago of the thousands of times I’ve been asked what it was like to call that game.

And I’ve wondered myself thousands of times how it might have gone had that fog not rolled in off the lake, as we learned later covering no more than 15-to-16 city blocks around Soldier Field.

Perhaps Hampton was right? Maybe, at least for just a couple hours on that New Years Eve, God really was a Bears fan, leaving us with a win we will talk about for as long as the game is played.

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