After the most violent NFL game ever played, Marc Wilson sat on the team flight back to the West Coast, nursing his injured thumb. A Raiders team doctor approached. He had a secret message to pass along.
"They're not going to tell you this, and you didn't hear it from me," Wilson recalled the doctor telling him. "But your thumb is broken. They won't tell you about it because they need you to keep playing."
It was early November 1984, and the Raiders had just lost to the Bears, 17-6, at Soldier Field. The Raiders played in L.A. at the time, and they were known for their wrathful, swashbuckling style. They were also the reigning Super Bowl champs, and they came to Chicago with a 7-2 record. But that afternoon they were pounded into a fine pulp by Buddy Ryan's famous 46 defense, which was well on its way to setting the NFL record for sacks in a season (72). By day's end, the Bears had recorded nine sacks, and forced three interceptions and two lost fumbles.
How ugly was it? Mike Ditka, Chicago's coach, called it "the most brutal football game I've ever watched." Merlin Olsen, calling the game on NBC, said at one point, "I'm sure Al Davis is wondering if maybe he better recruit some extra trainers." Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick wrote: "So brutal was the Bear onslaught that Al Davis was seen covering his face with his hands."
It was ugly enough that the Raiders considered playing their punter at quarterback.
It was ugly enough that the punter refused.
Everyone who played in the game seems to have a vivid memory of it. Its physicality so frustrated Howie Long, a Raiders defensive end, that Long at one point threatened Bears guard Kurt Becker. "I'm going to get you in the parking lot after the game and beat you up in front of your family!" Long reportedly shouted at Becker. Several years later, Long owned up to making the remark:
"Yeah, I said it," Long says. "He'd spent the day flying over the pile and hitting defensive backs late. He was my target for the game, but I had missed him and sprained my back, so I was upset. Everyone has their favorite threat, and that's mine. [Lyle Alzado]'s is 'I'll kill you and everything you love.'"
The Bears didn't escape the game unscathed, either. Jim McMahon, their quarterback, would get knocked out early in the third quarter. When McMahon went down and NBC's cameras showed him wincing on the sideline, play-by-play man Dick Enberg said the injury was a "bruised back." The actual diagnosis? A lacerated kidney. McMahon would spend nearly two weeks in the hospital and miss the rest of the season. In Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and The Wild Heart of Football, Rich Cohen's recently released book, McMahon's agent, Steve Zucker, summed up his client's condition this way: "I went down to the locker room—this was in the middle of the game—and I found Jim there, standing at the toilet, in his pads, pissing blood."
But what about Wilson, the Raiders' quarterback? He had become the starter because Jim Plunkett, the two-time Super Bowl winner, was out with a pulled abdominal muscle, an injury he'd sustained earlier in the season. Wilson would get knocked out of this game twice before halftime. The first time, he got slammed to the turf after a sack. Olsen, from up in the booth and without the benefit of a sideline reporter to confirm actual information, repeatedly told the NBC viewing audience that Wilson's injury was "whiplash." (When McMahon first got hurt, Olsen said, "It looked like he had the same kind of whiplash that took Marc Wilson down the first time.")
Wilson, now 56, spent 10 seasons in the NFL, all but two of them with the Raiders. It was a middling career that never matched the heights of his time at BYU, where he was an All-American (and a teammate of Jim McMahon). In the NFL, he threw 82 touchdowns and 102 interceptions, and his passer rating was 67.7. He talked to me by phone not long ago from suburban Seattle, where he works in real estate. He said that what actually happened when he was hit by the Bears' Otis Wilson was something worse than "whiplash."
"I smacked the back of my head on that Astroturf," he said. "It was hard as a rock. For a while, I wasn't sure where I was."
This was 1984, of course, so there was little concern that Wilson had sustained what was clearly a concussion. Olsen at one point even predicted that Wilson would return to the game rather quickly. "That whiplash," Olsen said as the camera showed Wilson after he had gone to the sideline, "may have just numbed his senses a little bit."
Wilson missed just two series before returning. His replacement, David Humm, was a veteran backup, but Humm had been living in Las Vegas and "playing golf" earlier in the year, according to Enberg. After Humm, the Raiders' emergency QB was veteran punter Ray Guy.
In the second quarter, Wilson had to leave the game again. This time, Wilson's hand connected with another player's helmet as he followed through:
Wilson busted up his thumb pretty badly on the play, and he was in obvious pain as he left the field. Humm returned to replace him, but he kept getting battered around. At one point, according to Wilson, Humm even took a shot that knocked out a couple of his teeth. With 1:09 to go in the first half, Humm finally took one hit too many. He blew out his knee. The Raiders, it seemed, were going to have to turn to Guy, their punter. This is how the scene looked on TV that afternoon:
In Da Bears! How the 1985 Monsters of the Midway Became The Greatest Team In NFL History, author Steve Delsohn shared a story from Bears tight end Emery Moorehead, who related what Raiders running back Marcus Allen had once said to him:
Guy refused to go in. Then all of them were arguing at halftime about who was going back in—was it gonna be David Humm or Marc Wilson? Nobody wanted to go back in.
I made several attempts to talk to Guy, but a Raiders spokesman eventually told me he "wasn't interested at this time." Wilson, meanwhile, was in the locker room when Humm got hurt, getting an X-ray on his thumb. On a television, the X-ray technician saw Guy talking to coach Tom Flores about possibly going in.
"Do you guys have any other quarterbacks?" the technician asked. When Wilson answered "No," the tech said, "Dude, you better get back out there." Wilson never did get the results of that X-ray.
"Ray was a great athlete—he could really throw the ball," Wilson said. "But there's a big difference between practice and a game."
When Wilson went back in the game again, as you can see in the video above, receiver Malcolm Barnwell had to help him fasten his chin strap to his helmet. On the first play, Wilson pitched the ball to Allen, who fired a halfback pass deep downfield that sailed incomplete. When the second half began, no one knew who was going to be under center for the Raiders until Wilson took the field. NBC certainly didn't know. It flashed a graphic showing the second-half lineups. The Raiders quarterback was listed as "? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?" L.A. would run the ball several times before Wilson attempted his first pass. It didn't go so well:
"It's not easy playing with a broken thumb," Wilson said, laughing. "I couldn't grip the ball between my thumb and forefinger. It really affects the deep throws, because you need to be able to grip the ball."
Wilson would complete four of 11 pass attempts in the second half and somehow avoid any additional injuries. He would finish out the season, which the Raiders ended with an 11-5 record before losing to the Seahawks in the AFC wild-card game. Humm never played another down in the NFL.
The Bears would win the Super Bowl the following season. Years later, the Los Angeles Times would say of the game, "In a single afternoon, you could watch two franchises' destinies passing."
Wilson has since read and heard stories about how violent that long-ago game was against the Bears, but at the time he didn't realize it. "I know a lot of guys got carted off that game," he said. "But playing in the game, I really didn't have a sense that it was that bad."
Even the matter of the broken thumb was unremarkable, by Wilson's lights. "It was a different time, a different era," he said. "I didn't worry about it.
"I was grateful that they still wanted me to play," he continued. "Because I desperately wanted to play."
Former Deadspinner Dom Cosentino covers the Jets for NJ.com. Art by Jim Cooke.
Big thanks to Ironworker Jeff from Chicago for the video clips.