Thirty-two years ago to the day on Thursday, the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Cardinals met in the preseason — and all hell broke loose.
In what had to be one of the greatest preseason melees of all time, several dozen players from each team scrapped throughout the game (again, it was a make-believe game!) and the pot boiled over into a major brawl that culminated late in the third quarter.
If you’ve not seen the shocking footage of the event, it’s quite something. Imagine a fight like this happening today. People would be losing their minds — and rightfully so.
“Boy, this is a real one!” then-CBS announcer John Madden said with about five minutes left in the third quarter of the nationally televised game.
Boy, was it ever …
The fight appeared to ignite — after tensions were brewing throughout the game — when Cardinals linebacker Freddie Joe Nunn and cornerback Lionel Washington seemed to go after Bears wide receiver Keith Ortego, who was aggressively blocking downfield.
But it really mushroomed when Cardinals players started kicking Bears tight end Pat Dunsmore, who had come over to the defense of teammate Keith Van Horne. Dunsmore and Van Horne appeared to be trapped against the wall behind the Cardinals bench at Soldier Field, and Dunsmore could be seen knocked to the ground, kicked and punched — trampled even.
“I was trying to stay alive in enemy territory,” Dunsmore said, via a UPI report.
Among the Cardinals’ offenders were Charlie Baker, Ottis Anderson and Earnest Gray. As the Chicago Sun-Times’ Kevin Lamb wrote for the next day’s paper, "it looked like a scene from a prison movie where the warden's stoolie is perforated with blunt objects and left for dead, a blot on the floor.”
Bears head coach Mike Ditka knew better than to run over and join the battle royale. But after the game, he ripped into the Cardinals’ players, coached by Gene Stallings. (Interestingly, Ditka and Stallings were on the same Dallas Cowboys coaching staff for nine years previously. They later apologized to each other after the game for their players’ actions.)
“What they did to Dunsmore was atrocious,” Ditka said. “They should be in a gang in New York. Kicking a guy in his groin when he is down. That is a lot of guts. Supposedly these guys are high-paid athletes, guys who went to college.”
Amazingly, Dunsmore was one of 26 Bears who were later fined for the fight. Twenty-five Cardinals also were fined. The total fines for the 51 players looks laughable now — a mere $29,300, which would be a little more than $67,000 today with inflation — but was believed to be an NFL record for a single event at the time.
The highest individual fines ($2,300) went to the Cardinals’ trio of Baker, Anderson and Gray; all three were also ejected.
“Everybody just got a little excited,” Anderson claimed. “I was the peacemaker and I got caught.”
Van Horne also was ejected and fined $1,500. “The fighting was stupid on everybody’s part,” he admitted after the game.
William “The Refrigerator” Perry was fined a Bears-high $2,000 for body-slamming Cardinals QB Neil Lomax, which sparked the tensions earlier in the second quarter.
Adding insult to injury, Dunsmore was cut a little more than a week later. He would never play in the NFL again.
“Dunsmore got fined?” Bears linebacker Otis Wilson asked. “He almost got killed!"
The Bears were coming off their only Super Bowl victory seven months earlier, at the height of their popularity as a team and a national sensation.
“Nobody is going to back down from the Bears,” Ditka said after the game. “That’s just going to be another notch in their belts if they stand up to us.”
Stallings had just taken over the wayward Cardinals that offseason following the franchise’s 10th straight year of finishing third place or worse. He would go 4-11-1 in his debut coaching season. Two years later, the franchise — which was birthed in Chicago the same year as the Bears, in 1920 — would move to Phoenix and Stallings would be fired midway through the 1989 campaign.
The fight was a wild snapshot of the NFL at the time. Even though it was met with anger from then-commissioner Pete Rozelle and with disdain from fans and media, it’s likely nothing comparable to how such an event would go down today. We’d be talking multiple-game suspensions for more than one player most likely.
All because of a preseason game.