How Jim McMahon Terrorized New Orleans During Super Bowl XX

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Today's selection comes from Michael Weinreb's book, Bigger Than The Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB, and How the '80s Created the Modern Athlete. This excerpt offers a glimpse into the aforementioned punkyness of the Bears' eccentric QB.

There was no official curfew, no bed check, no assistant planted in the lobby to note the exits and entrances of four dozen grown men. This team had thrived on the Reaganesque notion of expansion of personal freedoms, and that mentality carried on into Super Bowl week. They would police themselves. Or maybe they wouldn't. The lure of Bourbon Street was powerful. McMahon, with a Rolling Stone reporter in tow, most likely felt a certain obligation to live up to his reputation, as well as an duty to take in the local culture, to expose himself (so to speak) to a town that had always been welcoming to bohemians. On Monday night, McMahon hit the town hard, recording his part in the Bob Hope special, then posing for photos with Miss Hawaiian Tropic Oklahoma (who reportedly spent a good deal of time on his lap), and then he doubled back to Hope's hotel suite with one of his linemen, Jay Hilgenberg, sometime early the next morning to clean out what remained of the buffet. The next morning, he showed up late for a team meeting, and Ditka threatened to fine Kurt Becker-McMahon's roommate—a thousand dollars if he allowed McMahon to get loose like that again. Briefly chastened, the roommates spent Tuesday night ordering room service and catching up on sleep.


"He's my friend, but I'm not his guardian," Becker would say, in his own defense. "I'm not responsible for him."

On Wednesday, at Felix's Restaurant and Oyster Bar—where The Fridge had reportedly sucked down four dozen oysters and a vat of gumbo earlier in the week—a crowd gathered and began chanting, "Rozelle! Rozelle!" People passed along gifts, including headbands by the dozen, headbands made of blinking lights, headbands made of fur. At one point a strange man in a flowered shirt walked into the restaurant with a friend dressed in a bear suit. The man began speaking in gibberish and "Super Bowl Shuffle" verses and soon joined the group, shooing away the photographers and autograph hounds. "Got to have violence," McMahon shouted. "Life is not complete without violence!"

On the way out, while being questioned by a Washington Post reporter as to the nature of his meal—Oysters? Catfish? Boiled or fried?—McMahon urinated in a doorway on Chartres Street, then moved on to refill his bladder. And the next night, he and his posse did it again, eating at a steak house before retiring to Pat O'Brien's, where the men flocked to him and the women threw themselves at him, where McMahon himself acted as if he needed none of this while embracing all of it—the paradox of the punk superstar. "You've got to teach your body who's boss!" he shouted, above the din of a piano player in an Adidas headband and an orange leisure suit playing a version of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town." "If you're feeling down, go out and abuse it again. If you don't test your body, it will never learn how to respond."

And then McMahon and Jim Kelly, a star quarterback in the USFL, retreated to Kelly's hotel room, where they hung out on the balcony and hurled fruit at the revelers on Bourbon Street. It was a moment of regression, to those days as a youth in San Jose when McMahon sat in the trees and threw prunes at the windshield of passing cars, to a simpler time when his insubordination did not inspire so many others.


On Thursday morning, the phone rang, and McMahon made the mistake of picking it up. "You rotten son of a bitch!" a woman said, and the quarterback, believing his memory intact, unable to pinpoint a precise reason for this particular insult at this particular moment, presumed it was the wrong number. But then it rang again.

"You fucking asshole!" said another stranger.

The quarterback, still groggy, hung up once more.

Down to breakfast, where McMahon endured daggerlike stares, where his general manager, Jerry Vainisi, said, "Well, you've done it now, Jim. Did you say those things?"


"What things?" McMahon said.

Vainisi, huffing, dressed in rumpled clothes he'd pulled from his laundry bag in haste in order to get downstairs and get a read on the situation, walked away without saying anything else. In the buffet line, McMahon encountered Ditka. "Did you really say that?" Ditka asked.


"Look, Mike, I got woke up twice this morning. What the hell did I say?"

For once, it wasn't what McMahon had said. It was what he hadn't said. It was a complex telephone game of rumor and supposition brought to life, which had apparently begun when an anonymous person called the request line of New Orleans deejay Boomer Rollins. The caller said he'd heard McMahon had gone on a Chicago morning show, hosted by anchor Les Grobstein, who was broadcasting from a local spaghetti restaurant. McMahon, the caller said, had called the women "sluts" and the men "idiots." Then Rollins got ten more calls, people saying the same thing, and then a television newsman named Buddy Diliberto called to prerecord a morning sports show on Rollins's station, WEZB, and said he would check it out. And without checking anything out, Diliberto went on the ten o'clock news and claimed it was true, that McMahon had said, "All the women in New Orleans are sluts and all the men are stupid." And he called for the women of New Orleans to show up outside the Hilton prepared to hurl rolls of toilet paper at McMahon. And the fundamental problem was that it all seemed quite plausible, given McMahon's behavior, given the swath he'd cut through this town over the past few nights. It was the kind of rumor that seemed just weird and specific and well-sourced enough to actually be true.


And it could be argued that McMahon had brought this upon himself, given his loose behavior. "He did [say it]," claimed one of his teammates, Otis Wilson. "He just said it somewhere else." And it could be argued that perhaps this was the dark side of the bargain he'd made in order to build himself into a rebel superhero, in order to position himself in direct opposition to the media and the mainstream, in order to make the cover of Rolling Stone: People would inevitably seek to bring him down. But mostly, it just enraged him to no end.

There were death threats and bomb threats, at least one of which was delivered in a Cajun accent: Y'all bettuh git outta thayuh, 'cuz I'm gonna blow that place skah-hah. Two dozen women really did show up to picket outside the Hilton, carrying rolls of toilet paper and signs reading, McMahon, Put Your Headband over Your Mouth. And McMahon still had no real idea what had happened. When he did find out, he went downstairs to a hotel ballroom, and he said this to the media: "There's no way I'm going to any restaurant at six in the morning. And certainly not to talk to any goddamn reporter."


In truth, McMahon hadn't even appeared on Grobstein's show, and Grobstein, who worked for the Chicago station WLS, was suddenly surrounded by his colleagues asking for exclusive interviews regarding an interview that had never occurred. Diliberto would admit his mistake and accept a two-week suspension, but there was lingering discomfort, and it lasted the remainder of that week and beyond. McMahon wore a different number during practice, so as to dodge any snipers occupying the apartment buildings that lined the New Orleans practice complex; his roommate and his teammates avoided standing next to him. "It was fucking hell," McMahon said, years later. "I can't even remember the game. I've seen Black Sunday and all those movies. If somebody wants to kill your ass, they're going to get a gun and do it."


Reprinted from BIGGER THAN THE GAME by Michael Weinreb by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2010. Buy it here.