Gary Fencik played free safety for the Chicago Bears for 12 years, making two Pro Bowls, setting team records for career interceptions and tackles, and captaining the defense that won the famous 1985 Super Bowl. Fencik grew up in Chicago, attended Yale University, and now is a partner at Adams Street financial group.
Below is the interview that our very own Zack Weiner conducted with Fencik
On Playing at Yale University
How important was it to you to receive your degree from Yale before playing professionally? Do you think that many of the draft picks today make a mistake by not finishing their education?
No student today or when I attended would consider any option that did not involve matriculation as a serious alternative. Graduating with a degree and on time was an assumption everyone took for granted. When I played in the NFL, there was no option to leave college early and enter the draft. This changed shortly after I retired [in 1987] and has had an enormous effect on the number of players who enter the NFL with their college degree. I can’t say the players who become draft eligible are making a mistake, but many players face enormous challenges in their post-NFL career because of the lack of a college degree.
As a student at Penn, I can vouch that most people don’t take Ivy League Football very seriously. What do you think about the level of competition both back in your day and presently?
I understand the difficulty in comparing Ivy League football to what we all watch on TV with the SEC or similar leagues. There really isn’t a comparison between the Ivy League and any Division I football program in its talent and the commitment required by those schools for the athletes who receive a scholarship. I know that when I played, there were many players who made the choice between a “full ride” and the Ivy League. That choice would not be available for the majority of players in the Ivy League today. There are always exceptions like Ryan Fitzpatrick with the Buffalo Bills but I know that football players in the Ivy League come in looking to play good, competitive football that is part of their college experience and not dominated by it.
On Playing for the Bears
How special was it to you to play in the city you grew up in?
Who wouldn’t want to play for your home town team! It was a great experience and winning a Super Bowl has made our team famous in a way I never imagined. I was with John McEnroe the other night at the United Center where he was playing in an “old timers” match which included Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras. When Sampras walked past me on his way up to the court, he said “I know you” and with a moment’s pause came up with Super Bowl Shuffle. I heard HOF Steve Young say winning the Super Bowl was “the truth”. It captures a lot of my feelings about accomplishing something in your life that is simply unequivocally considered the best.
What was it like playing for Mike Ditka? Could you sense right away that he would be a legendary coach?
Are you kidding! The traditional path for coaches is to become an offensive or defensive coordinator before moving up to head coach. Ditka was neither and was the special teams coach back when special teams didn’t take on the importance it does today. I was entering my 7th year in the NFL so I knew my time was limited. Mike benefited from inheriting Buddy Ryan as the defensive coordinator. Alan Page (HOF and current Minnesota Supreme Court Judge) and I wrote a letter to the late George Halas about keeping Buddy and his staff. We covered our butts by having the entire defensive team sign the letter too. George visited us one day at practice and told the defensive players our coaches would be back the next year. How many head coaches would keep the defensive coordinator as a condition of getting the head coach job?
What impressed me about Mike was his focus and his impatience with players who weren’t willing to make the commitment he felt was necessary to win. In his first meeting with the players, he stated our goal was to get to the Super Bowl and win it. He also said 50% of you won’t be there when we get there. He was wrong. About two-thirds of the players who heard the speech didn’t make it to New Orleans for Super Bowl XX.
In practice, what was it like trying to tackle Walter Payton? Do you consider him the greatest running back of all time?
Even when I played, you really didn’t tackle your own guys except to practice short yardage or goal line plays. Walter was a very compact and powerful runner. He liked to deliver a blow and jolt you so he could keep running. I used to love watching our highlight films where they’d show him running in slow motion. I have never played with anyone who loved to play or even practice more than Walt. If the first unit was off the field, he would be punting or kicking field goals. He was always in motion.
Do I consider him the best ever? I actually hate trying to pick the best runner, QB or any other position. He was great and part of his greatness was his overall talent as a runner, receiver, and blocker. But, I think there is a small group of runners, all in the Hall of Fame, who you could spend a lot of time discussing if one of them was actually the best. It would be an honor for anyone to be in the conversation and Walter would certainly be included as one of the best in anyone’s discussion.
On the 1985 Super Bowl Team
Going into that game, knowing the whole world is watching, are you nervous, or are you just so in the zone that you are just focused on your play?
We had two weeks to prepare and didn’t go down to New Orleans until the second week. Once you arrive, the tension really picks up. The press, the coverage, knowing this is maybe your only chance to win a SB, starts to ramp up the anxiety. The most difficult part of the experience is trying to get tickets for everyone. I would say that 24 hours before the game, I had never been so nervous. A lot of guys on both teams also were getting the flu which didn’t help.
We felt pretty confident from a defensive standpoint that we could handle New England. We had played them earlier in the season and won pretty easily, 20-7. They were on a roll but we were only down 3-0 after their first drive ended with a field goal. The game turned quickly, and I don’t recall being in another game where we were in complete dominance the entire second half. In fact, the Super Bowl was probably the earliest the second defense came in to replace the starters in any game I ever played. The only other game that would have come close was earlier in the season when we beat the Cowboys 44-0.
Very few professions have one specific moment associated with them where there is a culmination and payoff for all of the hard work you have put in. What was that euphoria and sense of ultimate success like when you lifted the Lombardi Trophy?
The Super Bowl was kind of a blur. We did a lot of celebrating on the sidelines during the 4th quarter, and of course after the game on the field and in the locker room. They didn’t have the big post game production on the field like they do today. The trophy ceremony was actually done in our locker room which shows you how much things have changed since I played. I think the biggest moment for me was when we had a dinner back in Chicago after our minicamp in the spring and got our Super Bowl ring. That was a great moment to remember.
How did the idea to do The Super Bowl Shuffle come about? Was there a particular player that spear-headed it or any guys that were reserved about doing it at first?
Willie Gault and a guy who used to be the head of a perfume company were the people responsible for the Super Bowl Shuffle. Willie asked me if I wanted to participate and I said yes although none of us knew there were plans to do a video. I know some players like Hampton declined and thought it was a stupid idea. I know it wasn’t originally called the Super Bowl Shuffle. Can you imagine the trademark issues you’d encounter today trying to use the word “Super Bowl”. We were given the words and told we could make changes if we wanted to. We did the record in November and were only told about the video a few weeks later. We actually did the video the day after we lost the only game of the season down in Miami on a Monday night. The video was done at the Park West on Armitage, and I only wish I had taken some time to practice my moves.
Did it take a lot of effort to choreograph and organize the whole thing or was it more of a spur-of-the-moment thing? Did anyone realize how big it would become?
There was certainly no choreographing on my part and it was entirely spur of the moment for some of us. Looking back, I think Willie Gault looked pretty choreographed on what he wanted to do. There are two white guys in the front, Steve Fuller and me. People tell me that I wasn’t very good but at least I was better than Fuller. In his defense, [Jim] McMahon couldn’t start the Miami game the night before and Steve was the QB, but he got hurt with a severe ankle injury and had to be replaced by McMahon. Fuller was on crutches but they thought the crutches looked bad for the video so they took them away. All Steve could do was take a step in and out on his good foot. So, any comments on my dance skills relative to Steve Fuller are a backhanded compliment.
On Life after Football
Would you say that what you learned from the game of football has helped you be successful in the world of business?
I do think my experience in the NFL has helped me in business. I know the emphasis on team can be clichéd, but I learned how important the subjugation of egos is in creating a group dynamic that can be very successful. Goal orientation and commitment is important in all sports, but I wouldn’t have lasted twelve years in the NFL without believing in these qualities. When I was going to business school at Kellogg, I had a mentor who was the CEO of a major corporation. He always emphasized the importance of culture, which I didn’t appreciate at the time, but having been with several companies over my post-NFL career, I realize culture and the values imbued in an organization are very important.
On the current NFL
As a former player who was dubbed one of the “hitmen” (along with Doug Plank), what are your thought on the current safety issues that confront the NFL today? Did you ever sustain a concussion and then stay in the game or know of players that did?
The issues related to concussions are dominating the discussions I have with my former teammates. Dave Duerson’s suicide a year ago has brought this issue to the forefront and I am working with Chris Nowinski and Dr. Cantu at the Sports Legacy Institute to promote their efforts to bring awareness of this issue to the lower levels of sports and not just to the NFL. Chris Nowinski is a former Harvard player who is also from Chicago. This group has been examining the brains of former NFL [players] and [athletes from] other professional sports, and the NFL players have all had damage tissue demonstrating the effects of the Tao protein.
I only recall having one concussion in my career which made me leave the field. I hit Houston’s Earl Campbell and it took me some time on the sideline to get back to normal. I did return to the field and completed the game. I have not had any side effects, but the concern is what happens going forward. You are probably aware that Penn had a football player commit suicide and was diagnosed with having similar damage to his brain as some of damaged brains of former NFL players.
Yes it is quite sad and a serious issue. Moving on to a brighter topic for you, do you think the Bears will win it all this year?
Don’t all Bear fans hope so every year? I like the way this team is playing, but it’s too early to tell. There have been a lot of surprises so far but teams seem to get on a roll later in the season, so I am hoping the Bears continue to gain momentum.