Sic Transit Mcmahon: the Cheering Has Stopped for the NFL's Bad Boy—Now He's Rich, Famous and Hurt

updated 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon should have known there was disaster ahead. The omen was there on a night last July, right outside Soldier Field. Resplendent in his black leather suit, his hair moussed to punk perfection, McMahon was posing for his Mad Mac, the Grid Warrior poster, one of the countless perquisites of Super Bowl victory. At his feet lay Honey, a hitherto docile rental bear who, without warning, turned, snarled and bit McMahon on the leg.

Well, that's how his season turned out too. Lots of pain. Snarling. And on top of that, the Bears sort of turned on him. "It's been a real downer," says McMahon of the winter—and autumn—of his discontent. Indeed what happened to McMahon and the Bears this season should serve as a cautionary tale to whichever team wins the Super Bowl later this month.

Just a year ago McMahon, with his Rozelle-twitting headbands and wraparound shades, was a bona fide folk hero. His release was quick, his mouth was quicker, and as he led his team to victory in Super Bowl XX, both he and the Bears seemed invincible. Although no team had won back-to-back championships since the 1979-80 Pittsburgh Steelers, nothing short of a Valentine's Day Massacre reprise was likely to keep the Bears from repeating. Or at least that's what NFL illuminati said. But McMahon separated his shoulder in September. And with its motor-mouthed leader idling on the sidelines, Chicago proved vincible in the extreme. Earlier this month the Washington Redskins knocked the somnambulistic Bears into hibernation in the playoff semifinals.

As for McMahon, 27, his personal wheel of fortune also came full circle. Though he has undergone surgery to repair his injured shoulder, his football career may be over. Ask him what this season's high point was and he just shrugs—with his good shoulder. "There really wasn't any," he says.

Not on the football field anyway. In the field of commerce, McMahon had a Hall of Fame year. In addition to his Bears salary of $700,000, he made an estimated $3 million in the 12 months following the Super Bowl. Were he really the money-grubbing type, "he could have easily doubled that," says Steve Zucker, his friend and agent. As it was, McMahon endorsed everything from Hondas to Miracle Whip. At one point his personal appearance fee rose to a giddy $20,000 an hour. McMahon!, the book, is hovering around No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list, and as with the Mad Mac poster (250,000 sold thus far), sales are still on the rise. In addition McAuthor's brashness has made him a hit on the talk show circuit. He's done Oprah, Johnny (twice), even David. "I have a standing invitation to do Letterman, whenever I'm in New York," he says. He has also received 20 or so movie and TV offers, including a co-starring role with Philip Michael Thomas.

While other Bears, too, had books and endorsements, McMahon insists it wasn't simply "outside interests" that brought down last year's Super Bowl champs. "Injury is why teams don't repeat," he says flatly. "Because you're champions, teams come in and try to knock your butt off. You always get an extra shot or two."

Or a late hit. That's what ended McMahon's season and possibly his career. On Nov. 23 in Chicago Charles "Too Mean" Martin administered a cheap shot of almost classic purity. A full three seconds after McMahon threw an interception, the Packer defensive end picked him up and body-slammed him onto the concrete-hard artificial surface. The impact blew out what was left of McMahon's already ailing right shoulder. "It just reaffirmed my belief that there are some idiots out there who want to paralyze you," says McMahon, who knows he may have thrown his last pass in anger. "It will be a long way back. The doctor can't guarantee I'll throw as well as before." As for "Too Mean" Martin, the still livid McMahon feels he was too lightly penalized, though he did receive a two-game suspension without pay. "He could have broken my neck," says McMahon. "I'm still considering a lawsuit against him and the Packers."

In fact McMahon took a psychological as well as physical beating this year. When he was first hurt in September, several teammates openly questioned the severity of his injuries. "Some players didn't believe I was hurt," says McMahon, who had sustained a partial tear of the rotator cuff. "They thought I might just be loafing." So did Bears coach Mike Ditka, who threatened pointedly to trade any "unhappy players"—meaning McMahon, among others. The relationship between coach and quarterback, always stormy, reached tempestuous new heights when Ditka brought in Doug Flutie as a backup quarterback in October. McMahon disparaged Flutie as "Tutti-Frutti" and questioned Ditka's loyalty to his players. Finally, even adoring fans began to turn on McMahon, lashing out at him for disrupting the team.

The criticism wounded McMahon, but not mortally. "Personally, I don't doubt that I will be back," says McMahon. As a first step, he has already started his social rehabilitation. Several weeks ago, McMahon, his agent, Ditka and other Bears officials sat down and hammered out a detente. Coach and quarterback agreed to communicate face-to-face rather than trade broadsides in the newspapers. McMahon's physical rehabilitation is also well under way. Twice a day he leaves his suburban Northbrook home for two-hour stretching and strength-building sessions. His attitude is "gung ho" reports his wife, Nancy. "He's had to deal with injuries before. He doesn't seem worried." Not until April or May will McMahon start throwing a football, and if he is unable to perform by next summer he will simply adjust his game plan accordingly. "I really don't like to think about it," he says, "but if I can't throw the ball the way I want, well I always wanted to play wide receiver. Or I could punt."

Can he imagine himself giving up football? No, he says, it's still too much fun. Pity to think that the fun—like the Bears' championship season—may already be a thing of the past.

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