Commentary

Toughness defined

These 10 Bears wore you down, crushed your spirit -- and maybe a few bones

Updated: January 25, 2012, 6:30 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPNChicago.com

Dick ButkusManny Rubio/US PresswireNo one better defines the Monsters of the Midway than Dick Butkus.

Dick Butkus is 69 years old. But if he lined up at middle linebacker again, assumed the distinctive Butkus crouch and began snarling like a junkyard dog I'm almost positive a little bit of pee would come out of any quarterback on the other side of the line.

Butkus made NFL Films famous, not the other way around. He was the Tasmanian Devil, but with a thicker neck. Plus, Taz could never stuff the run like Butkus.

Anyway, when you think Monsters of the Midway, you think Butkus. And when you think Butkus, you think toughness.

Defining toughness is like trying to catch a hummingbird with your big toes. It's impossible. You can't quantify the word because it means so many things.

Does it mean playing with a quarter mile's worth of Ace bandage wrapped around your knee? Playing mean? Playing like your W-2 form depends on it?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

[+] EnlargeWalter Payton
AP Photo/John SwartThey don't get much tougher than Walter Payton, who missed just one game in his 13-year Hall of Fame career.

Does it mean playing as if a city depends on you? Playing through a double team as one guy tries to cut-block you and the other guy tries to rupture your spleen? Playing in temperatures so cold that polar bears would need a North Face coat and a cup of hot chocolate?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

It's all of those things and more. It's these guys: Butkus, Walter Payton, Dan Hampton, the Dougs -- Atkins and Plank -- Steve McMichael, Olin Kreutz, Gary Fencik, Mike Ditka and Mike Singletary.

Our panel of experts could only pick 10, but the list could have gone on and on. How about the punky QB, Jim McMahon, who was an offensive guard stuffed into a quarterback's body? Or Richard Dent, who terrorized and terrified offensive tackles for years. Or Papa Bear himself, George Halas, who was tougher than one of those manhole covers that Ditka said he threw around.

Or Bronko Nagurski. Or Bobby Douglass. Or Wilber Marshall. Or ...

But 10 it is. Ten Bears who epitomized toughness in the way they hit, the way they tackled, the way they ran. What they did was so basic, but also so essential in football. They broke your spirit and your bones. They imposed their will on you because they were stronger physically and mentally. They hurt you, but you couldn't hurt them. And if you did, they wouldn't acknowledge it.

I caught a considerable amount of grief from ESPNChicago.com readers for not including Butkus in our inaugural Chicago Hall of Fame Class of 2011. But if there were a Toughness HOF, then Butkus is my first inductee -- and the first choice of our top 10 list.

His name alone sounds like a football term.

How'd our quarterback get hurt?

He got Butkus'd.

Butkus didn't want to tackle you, he wanted you to dial 911. Space doesn't allow to me list all of the injuries he played with, but put it this way: He left bits and pieces of himself on football fields from one coast to the other.

And then there was Payton. Sweetness was actually Sweatness. Nobody outworked him. Nobody trained harder, practiced harder, played harder, competed harder than Payton. Why there isn't a statue of him outside Soldier Field is a bigger mystery than Big Foot.

Payton carried the ball 3,838 times in his regular season career for 16,726 yards. Add playoff games, exhibition games, practices ... and the numbers are staggering when you consider how many times he got hit. And how many times he hit.

Few players ever lowered their shoulder like Payton. And run out of bounds? Are you kidding? You can count on one hand how many times Payton ran out of bounds when he wasn't trying to stop the clock.

Dan Hampton's nickname was "Danimal,'' which is pretty much all you need to know about the Hall of Fame defensive end/defensive tackle. He wore No. 99 -- and no, that isn't how many knee surgeries he endured. But close.

If you've never heard of Doug Atkins then you're not really a Bears follower. You're a poser and you need a remedial Bears history lesson. Or as our man Jurko wrote in an e-mail to all the panelists: "Any list that does not have Doug Atkins on it is not a list.''

Wise man, that Jurko. Not so wise were the Cleveland Browns, who stupidly traded Atkins to the Bears and Halas after two seasons. All Atkins did was revolutionize the defensive end position.

The other Doug -- Plank -- was a sniper. You never saw him until he appeared from nowhere and knocked you into DuPage County. He was a safety, but he wore a linebacker's facemask. That tell you anything? And it was no accident that Buddy Ryan's famous "46"' defense was named after Plank's jersey number.

McMichael = Mongo. Enough said -- almost. McMichael started 101 consecutive games at defensive tackle. Ditka, not easily impressed by anybody, marveled at McMichael's toughness. That's good enough for us.

In years to come, people will better appreciate just how good -- and how tough -- Kreutz was. He began his career as a Bear and he should have ended it that way, too.

[+] EnlargeDan Hampton
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDan Hampton was a dominant force in Buddy Ryan's "46" defense and he did it all while enduring 10 knee surgeries.

Still, Kreutz was a center with a very wide mean streak. It's hard to think of another Bear in recent years who cared more about his profession and his teammates than Kreutz. It's also hard to think of another Bear who played with more aggression and passion than Kreutz.

Meanwhile, Fencik played with a Yale man's intelligence and a hitman's nerve. He was fearless and remains the Bears' leader in career interceptions.

As for Ditka, just YouTube the catch and run where he blasts through seemingly two dozen Pittsburgh Steelers. Or punches a Cleveland Brown by sticking his fist through the guy's facemask. He was a tight end with an attitude. Even his crew cut could beat you up.

Little changed once he became the Bears' head coach. I'm guessing he could have whupped half the players on the roster. He brought a toughness and swagger to the franchise that hasn't been duplicated since.

Of course, ask Ditka which player on that '85 team played with an Old Testament eye-for-an-eye fervor and he'll say Singletary. Has to be, right?

Off the field, Singletary looked like a preacher/bookworm (OK, a really muscular bookworm). On the field, the undersized middle linebacker played like a wrath-of-God, eyes-bulging-out-of-their-sockets, Category 5 hurricane. He was the Minister of Defense and running backs said the Lord's Prayer just before Singletary hit them.

So this is our list of 10. If you feel one of these guys isn't tough enough to belong on it, please contact the individual in question and make your complaint known.

And then run.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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