WASHINGTON -- Da '85 Bears finally got their White House due.
Declaring "This is as much fun as I will have as president of the United States," President and sports fan in chief Barack Obama on Friday saluted his hometown team for winning the Super Bowl a quarter century ago.
For a White House known for brooking no drama, this had all the makings of a clash of cultures. The '85 Bears were fabled for their internal dramas and off-field high-jinks, particularly by its rebellious quarterback Jim McMahon, a swaggering leader who liked to head-butt his offensive linemen after a score.
"This team changed everything for every team that came on after, on and off the field," Obama said. "They changed the laws of football. They were gritty. They were gutsy. They were hard-working. They were fun-loving. Sort of how Chicagoans like to think of themselves."
As he wrapped up his welcome, Obama invited the team to stick around and enjoy themselves: "Don't break anything. And keep your eyes on McMahon."
For the team, this was a long-awaited recognition. The team did not get the usual White House reception in 1986, a decision attributed to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, which occurred two days after the Bears beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
"On behalf of the 1985 Chicago Bears, we consider him one of us," the team's coach, Mike Ditka, said. "We're very proud that you honored us by bringing us here. It's only 26 years after the fact, and five administrations, but thank you."
The '85 Bears remain one of the most storied teams in NFL history, a one-loss juggernaut that blew out New England 46-10 in the 1986 Super Bowl. They are remembered as much for their prowess on the field as they are for their pop culture status.
The ringleader was McMahon, who openly squabbled with the fiery Ditka and who wore his signature headband and sunglasses during the White House ceremony. ("He gave me a headband," Obama said, "but I'm not wearing it.") The team included future Hall of Famers Walter Payton, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent and Mike Singletary. And it featured the 300-pound-plus lineman and occasional running back William "The Refrigerator" Perry.
In an era before YouTube, Twitter and 24-hour sports networks, the team managed to capture national attention, even filming a video of themselves doing the "Super Bowl Shuffle."
"There were suggesting that I should dance the Super Bowl Shuffle," Obama said. "Can't do it."
The team's appearance was full of subtexts.
There, standing at Obama's side were Ditka and Buddy Ryan, the defensive coordinator with whom Ditka often feuded. Obama declared that their joint appearance was "a sign that anything is possible, even in Washington."
There was Ditka himself, a prototypical Chicagoan with a working-class ethic who turned down Republican entreaties in 2004 that he run against Obama for the U.S. Senate. Instead, he stuck with his job as a television sports commentator.
Good thing, Obama joked. "I would have been terrible on ESPN."
There, too, were defensive end Dent and linebacker Otis Wilson, who over time befriended Obama and became his workout partners.
But the remembrance was also bittersweet.
Payton, known as "Sweetness" and who retired as the NFL's all-time leading rusher after the 1987 season, died from a rare liver disease and bile duct cancer in 1999. According to a new book, Payton abused painkillers in retirement and became suicidal after football.
"Chicago still loves Sweetness," Obama said. Wilson said: "I think about him every day."
Perry was diagnosed in 2009 with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease that attacks the nervous system and can cause paralysis. He was unable to attend.
It was also a reminder of the game's punishing price.
McMahon has had memory issues, sometimes finding himself in a room and not remembering why he's there. And Obama paid tribute to Dave Duerson, a safety on the defense that was the backbone of the team, who committed suicide in February after asking his family to donate his brain to researchers studying the effect of head trauma in athletes.
"Hopefully lessons from his great struggle, with the kind of brain injuries those hits might have caused, will help today's players down the road," Obama said.