A brief history of Bears in pop culture, from ‘Galloping Ghost’ to ‘Very Cavallari’

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From songs to movies to commercials, the Chicago Bears have often crossed over from football phenoms to pop culture icons.

Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rosenthal has covered the intersection of sports and pop culture for more than two decades, and says the Bears are to football what the Yankees are to baseball and the Lakers are to basketball: a team that transcends the playing field and impacts our larger culture.

“The Bears are certainly in the upper echelon of teams where the intersection of sports and pop culture,” Rosenthal said. “They’re synonymous with pro football in a way that few teams are.”

1920s: "The Galloping Ghost"

The Bears' impact on pop culture dates all the way back to the 1920s, when iconic owner George Halas signed the first transcendent superstar in pro football history: the "Galloping Ghost" Red Grange.

“Red Grange was the first superstar in the NFL – so he was the guy in all the newsreels. He was the guy you saw as the identity of the Bears then,” Rosenthal said.

1940s: "The Monsters of the Midway"

In the forties the bruising Bears became known as the “Monsters of the Midway,” a nickname that echoes across the decades.

“What are the Jacksonville Jaguars? You don’t have to ask that with the Chicago Bears. You know what the Chicago Bears are – you don’t even have to say Chicago," Rosenthal said.

1970s: Brian's Song

In the 1970s, the Bears were central in "Brian's Song," one of the most widely seen and critically-acclaimed sports movies of all-time.

The cast included Hollywood legends James Cann, Billy Dee Williams and Jack Warden in an Emmy-winning performance as "Papa Bear" George Halas. The made-for-TV movie was so popular it was released in theaters.

1980s: "Super Bowl Shuffle" and beyond

After their Super Bowl win the '85 Bears were everywhere, appearing on cereal boxes, magazine covers and seemingly everywhere else. The "Chicago Bears Shufflin' Crew" became the first football team ever nominated for a Grammy Award, losing to Prince for "Best R&B Performance."

“That was more of an extension of this bravado. The dominating play and the swagger those guys had. That was a very charismatic team," Rosenthal said.

With the Bears on top of the sports world they crossed into other athletic competitions as well, including into the wrestling ring. The Refrigerator William Perry joined the Battle Royale at Wrestlemania 2 in 1986. Later in the 90s, Steve "Mongo" McMichael served as both a commentator and a member of the Four Horsemen.

Mike Ditka's outspoken and outrageous personality, volcanic temper and status as the leader of the greatest football team of all time made him a favorite of late-night talk shows from Johnny Carson to David Letterman.

“If you were to say to somebody in Hollywood, 'I want to cast a coach who is tough and gruff and somehow likable,' you’d come up with Mike Ditka,” Rosenthal said. “Ditka kind of established himself as something larger than life – a whole other character.”

Into the 90s, he had cameos on "LA Law" and even the finale of "Cheers," not to mention starring roles in an avalanche of commercials.

Not all of the Bears-related pop culture of the 80s was well-received. Jim McMahon starred alongside Anthony Michael Hall in "Johnny Be Good," which Rosenthal describes as a "terrible movie."

"That’s the kind of thing where it’s like what is this guy doing here, and it’s only because he and the Bears established such an identity," Rosenthal said.

1990s: From Superfans to "Hang Time"

One of the most universally-known cultural breakthroughs celebrating the Bears and fandom in general is the recurring "Bill Swerski's Superfans" sketches on "Saturday Night Live."

Despite the sketches' slapstick nature, Chicago as a whole seemed to embrace how it was represented: ultra-loyal fans who never give of on the team or the city, even if it means denying reality.

“Those sketches were really funny, they were really well performed and they really did catch onto a truth which was at that time in Chicago and in the rest of the country thought the Bears — for a very brief window — were invincible,” Rosenthal said.

 

Another Bears legend found his second calling as an actor in the 90s: Dick Butkus. Butkus’ persona was so well-established that he could play against type, and carved a successful career showing a softer side in sitcoms like "My Two Dads" and "Hang Time."

“People knew how tough he was, that was never a question," Rosenthal said. “The things you saw and read about this guy made him intimidating on the football field, but maybe off it, he was a bit more human.”

2000s-Today: Urlacher's hair, smoking Jay Cutler

In more recent history, the Bears have maintained a national  identity with stingy defense and tough players like Hall-of-Famer Brian Urlacher, who made his way from the sports pages to the gossip pages dating both Paris Hilton and Jenny McCarthy.

And up to today, Chicagoans can't escape Urlacher's face in ads trumpeting the success of a hair-restoration process.

The Bears continue to get shout-outs both from local artists and hitmakers, like Rick Ross and Meek Mill's  “So Sophisticated,” which includes the line: “We going hard, run it back just like it's Walter Payton.”

“Don’t underestimate that Payton is a really good word to rhyme with – but the truth is he is a gold standard for a certain kind of excellence,” Rosenthal said.

And of course, over the past few years lightning-rod quarterback Jay Cutler became a meme, and eventually a reality television star.

 

MOVIES

Hollywood has loved the Bears for decades, often using the team as a stand-in for an idea that encompasses hard working, uncompromising, tough and gritty (usually Midwestern) people.

While it's hard to include every single mention of the Bears in film, here are a few notable ones:

Rocky, '76
When one of the toughest men in cinematic history needs an even tougher name for his dog, a Bears middle linebacker provides the obvious choice: Butkus.

A Christmas Story, '83
The Bears work as a great way to distract your "old man" from your misdeeds.

The Princess Bride, '87
“When you see Fred Savage in the Princess bride, with Bears stuff in his room, that immediately places him in somewhere where everybody knows – that’s in the heart of America,” Rosenthal said.

Plains, Trains and Automobiles, '87
When characters feel the need re-establish their macho credentials after an awkward moment, a mention of the Bears does the trick.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, '89
When a story needs a Midwestern everyman like Clark Griswold, you have to put him in a Bears hat.

Hearts in Atlantis, '01
Who better than Sir Anthony Hopkins to tell the story of Bronko Nagurski, "the greatest football player who ever was.

Have a pop culture moment we should have mentioned? Send us a message.

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