For some people it was Mark Twain, Charles Dickens or John Steinbeck. For others it was Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen or Norman Maclean.
For me, the author who touched my life more than any other was Jim McMahon. Yes, that Jim McMahon, the quarterback of the Chicago Bears in the 1980s.
I read the book “McMahon!: The Bare Truth About Chicago’s Brashest Bear” by McMahon and Bob Verdi when I was in junior high school. Without question, I can tell you that book changed my life.
It might have saved it.
For me, the junior high years were by far the hardest. Serious thoughts of suicide crossed my mind often as I struggled to adjust to the changing life and new pressures. I absolutely dreaded going to school every day.
I can’t blame my depression on my classmates or teachers because it was something internal. It was just that dark, senseless demon that lives in a lot of us.
So, how did reading a book about the life of a young tough-as-nails quarterback with a problem with authority change any of that? For starters, McMahon taught me not to give a rip what other people think.
That was the key.
The book was about him growing up, his battle with the powers that be at Brigham Young University, winning a Super Bowl, telling coach Mike Ditka to go to hell and not liking the owners of the Bears.
To me, the book was about not letting the opinions of others affect you and not taking crap from anybody. When you worry about what other people think of you, you are letting them live your life for you.
If people don’t like you, that’s their problem. It seems simple, but it was exactly what I needed to hear.
I read McMahon’s book over and over before the end of junior high, and it took me out of the darkness. I read it so much that the paperback book wore out.
I bought a hardback copy in 1998 at a used bookstore in Moscow, Idaho, and read it again. I lent that one to a friend and never got it back. Another friend gave me copy a few years ago, and I read it again.
I think about what that book and the message that I took from it nearly every day.
My favorite quarterback didn’t throw as many touchdown passes as Dan Marino, he didn’t win as many Super Bowls as Joe Montana, and his 78.2 career quarterback rating was well below Steve Young. But what Jim McMahon meant to me is a whole lot more than that can be measured by statistics.
I have no doubt that if I lived in a house with guns — any guns — I would not be here today. If it wasn’t for a silly book by a quarterback, I just might have found a way to check out without a gun.
My friends and family never would have saw it coming, and they certainly would have had no idea as to why.
Luckily, they don’t have to wonder because I spotted that book near the checkout at Albertsons and my mom bought it for me.
For the last couple of years, it has been fairly-well documented that McMahon has been going through some hard times of his own. Really hard times.
Last week I read a quote from him that sounded just like me. Thanks to all the beatings he took on a football field — he once unknowingly played through a broken neck — McMahon has been dealing with depression and early onset dementia to go along with a lot of pain.
“I am glad I don’t have any weapons in my house,” McMahon said, “or else I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be here.”
McMahon would sometimes leave his house and forget how to get home. He would walk into a room and wonder why he just walked into the room.
Some days McMahon hurt so much he stayed in bed in the dark all day.
Luckily, the former quarterback didn’t have a gun in his house, and he had the foresight to get some help.
He also started speaking out to fight for former players who cannot fight for themselves against the National Football League, which doesn’t seem to care a whole lot about the players who built the empire. That is not surprising from a player who stayed in a game for two plays after lacerating his kidney in 1984.
“The NFL continues to make billions and billions of dollars every year,” McMahon said. “And some of these guys are homeless. They don’t know who they are, and they were the ones who built this brand to where it’s at.”
The 54-year-old McMahon has opened himself up to criticism by joining multiple lawsuits against the NFL. He should have known what he was getting himself into when he played, some say.
The quarterback, of course, doesn’t care what critics have to say. The man long known for his free spirit is speaking up on behalf of others, and that is more remarkable than anything he could ever do on the football field.
Because of McMahon’s openness, some former players will get the help that they need. Better yet, some younger players will be able to avoid those kind of problems down the road.
Thirty years after he first became one of my true heroes, it sure is good to see Jim McMahon is still worthy of comparisons to the likes of Dickens, Hemingway and Maclean.
—Bill Foley, who has not read most of the authors mentioned above, writes a column that appears on ButteSports.com on Tuesdays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.