Who: Mike Singletary, the dominant middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears’ teams from 1981-1992. Here is Singletary’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction video:
Why: I know, I know. I’ve picked a Chicagoan for my baseball and basketball players from the decade I lived there, and you saw me picking a Bear from a mile away. But you’re still puzzled, because it’s not Walter Payton. “Sweetness” almost got the nod; he was a transcendent running back with man-of-the-year personal qualities. But it just didn’t feel right picking an offensive player from that 1985 Bears championship, because that ain’t how they got it. That prize was gained by the legendary Monsters of the Midway defense. Their 46 defense, perfected by D-coach Buddy Ryan, is a scheme so risky, you might lose every game if you don’t have the best players, and especially the best middle linebacker. The “mike” (no, really) has the toughest job on the field; he has the equivalent role of the quarterback, except the quarterback knows what the quarterback is going to do. (Consider the mike’s job the rough equivalent of dancing backwards in high heels.) And in the 46, which gives up the middle of the field to the QB, you need a visionary. As you can see from the photo here, Singletary was quite literally one of those—his eyes were the scariest thing on the football field. On a play, Singletary’s eyes would bulge out, boring X-ray vision into the brain of the opposing quarterback, catching every nuance, every hesitation, every hopeless attempt at misdirection. Singletary knew what the quarterback was going to do before he could communicate that to his offense. And since the greatest defense in history followed Singletary’s every command, the quarterback was toast. For a game about large men running into each other, football is all about intelligence, and you did not want to try to outthink Samurai Mike.
Impact: Bone-crushing. That 1985 team had a 18-1 Super Bowl run which allowed just ten points in the divisional round, NFC championship, and Super Bowl XX combined. Singletary was first or second on his team in tackles for 11 straight seasons, ending the promise of countless plays. He was defensive MVP twice, and a ten-time Pro Bowler. But it’s those brains that got him where he is today: a talented and entertaining head coach of a promising San Francisco 49ers team. Yeah, I have trouble looking at that picture too, because those samurai eyes are wearing glasses. Maybe that’s to shield his players from the aforementioned withering glare. Or heat vision. I’m not entirely sure.
Personal Connection: Despite that decade in Chicago, I only got to see Singletary play once. Truth to tell, as awesome as the Bears were during those years, they weren’t that lovable. Mike Ditka’s Bears crushed fools, and bragged about it. For someone who grew up rooting for the underdog, that was a bit off-putting. But I eventually got it; the Bears were built on ending aspirations, not building them up. Singletary was the assassin of other people’s dreams. And so I followed Singletary’s career more than any other Bear, pretty darn certain I’d never see anyone like him again. Thankfully for football fans some years later, then-Ravens assistants Rex Ryan (son of Buddy) and Singletary had other thoughts.
Other Contenders: Sweetness, of course; the two most rock-solid QBs, who happened to share a uniform if not a city, the golden-armed Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts and the microsurgeon Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts; linebacker Mike Vrabel, who also caught eleven passes in his time with the Patriots and Chiefs, all for touchdowns; Elbert “Ickey” Woods, the most entertaining player on the most watchable team ever, Sam Wyche’s Cincinnati Bengals; New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, whom you might just like even if you can’t stand football.