The former Bears quarterback opens up about his days in Chicago.
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Mike Tomczak lived the dream: After growing up in Chicagoland with his dad as his coach, Tomczak played football in the Big Ten at Ohio State, and came back to quarterback the Chicago Bears in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl ring as a rookie with his hometown team. Bears fans remember that part, but some might not realize that Tomczak established himself in different ways after leaving Chicago in the early 1990s. He made stops in Cleveland and Green Bay (yikes!) before joining the Pittsburgh Steelers and getting a second Super Bowl trip 10 years after his first one.
He parlayed the experience into a media and coaching career post-NFL. Nearing 60 years of age, he’s a volunteer assistant at Youngstown State and an executive at an industrial maintenance company in the Pittsburgh area. But he still loves Chicago, the Bears and reminiscing about the best old days in Monsters of the Midway history. Midway Minute’s Dave Brown recently caught up with T-zak on the phone to talk about what happened then and what still might happen for the Bears.
Midway Minute: How cool is it that the future of the Bears franchise is back in the hands of an Ohio State quarterback?
Mike Tomczak: I love it. I love it. It's been a while, hasn't it? Dynamic player, Justin Fields. What's his professional career is going to look like at the end? Who knows? But he gives the fans and the organization great promise. I was a fan of his watching him play for a short time at Ohio State. I have never met him. I was talking to Matt Nagy this offseason, and I asked if I could chat with [Fields] at some point and give him the lay of the land of what it's like to be a quarterback in Chicago — because it's not always comfortable. But he's on his way. He's got good tutelage and hopefully he gets an offensive line that will protect them in near future.
MM: So you didn't get a chance to talk to him, one OSU QB to another, but you put in a request?
Mike: Yeah, I guess our schedules got crossed up or whatever. But regardless, he doesn't need to hear from me. I mean, obviously, if he was interested, or if Matt had followed through, he'd have been talking to me, but it doesn't matter. He's got a job to do and it's up to him to go out and do it. The organization needs a shot of adrenalin. Why isn't Justin Fields starting right now? It's a moot point, because they're starting Dalton, but... if I'm Khalil Mack, and if I'm those other guys, I'm saying: "My shelf life is about three years. I want to win a championship now. I ain't got time to let this guy develop. I mean, he gives us the best chance," I believe.
MM: What about the Bears telling Dalton that he's the starter, promising him the job, and going back on that promise? Won't that have negative consequences?
Mike: Like they've never gone back on their word before. "Oh, Mike, we'll negotiate with you," in 1989, and then no phone calls. I wish Andy great success, that he stays healthy and leads the Bears to a championship. But the way the game is going now in the 21st century, it's a young man's game at quarterback, except for a few people. Matt Nagy is a good guy, a smart guy, and he probably knows what's best. He's there on a daily basis, and I get it — I'm a coach myself.
MM: If you did get a chance to talk to Justin, what would you tell him about the uncomfortable part of being a quarterback in Chicago?
Mike: OK, here we go! Oh, man. You know, it's never as bad as you think it is. And never as good as you think it was. And that's one thing that Mike Ditka always preached to us. He said: "Every week, you're going to get hit in the mouth. Every week, you're going to be challenged. And not only on the field, but off the field." You know, through the media, through people at the bars. It just goes on and on. And just it's a great sports town when you're winning — no doubt about it, a great sports town.
But it's lethal when things aren't going well. Really lethal. And I grew up there obviously. Mike Phipps and Bobby Douglass and Vince Evans and Bob Avelini were, you know, average quarterbacks. But they really never had a franchise quarterback until Jim McMahon, who was probably the first and only. Jay Cutler, they traded for him. They thought [Mitchell] Trubisky was the guy. Who was that — [Rex] Grossman, led them to the Super Bowl? So there's a long list, but it's a short list of successful quarterbacks that have played for Chicago.
MM: Did you see The Ringer ranking the best Bears quarterbacks since Super Bowl XX? All 45 of them. You came out No. 7. Did you see that?
Mike: No. What happened? Come on! Yeah, that's amazing. I got a lot of relatives — was it voted upon in Chicago or something?
MM: I think it was Rodger Sherman's analysis. It's been out for a couple of weeks.
Mike: Yeah, send it to me after we hang up or something. Greatly appreciate that acknowledgment. I was fortunate; I had an opportunity to get to play for the Bears that not many others had. That experience, I cherished it; I cherished the relationships, I cherished the good times, as well as the bad times, because that really molded me to who I am today. Did I take the game seriously? Yeah, I took the game seriously. But then again, I brought a lot of levity to the game — you could ask a lot of my teammates that I've played with over the years in Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Green Bay. Those relationships during that time are pretty impactful.
MM: Maybe some fans don't realize: You established a second life after leaving the Bears, especially in Pittsburgh. You started a lot of games for the Steelers. You were on another Super Bowl team. It turned into jobs post-NFL, working in coaching and media and other places. Is that the thing you are most proud of as a professional?
Mike: I've never been asked that. It's a hidden [topic] that a lot of former athletes don't want to answer. It's such a short-lived profession. And I praise the guys that can go on and have a second career. Because some people still have their uniform on and their jock on. They've tried to live that dream, you know, and they don't really dedicate themselves to something else. Because all they knew for many, many years is football. But having said that, I met some people along the way. I've networked along the way. You are a brand, if you will, in today's culture — your own brand. You have an online interview website. That's your brand. I try to capitalize on things that I'm good at and, with things that I don't know, I continue to learn. I surround myself with good people. I had a position coach in college, Jim Tressel, at Ohio State for a couple of years. I started my professional career but we remained in touch for all those years. And I'm currently involved here at YSU because of him and a number of other things, but it just goes to show you, if you hang around and just show up and keep your mouth shut, and do a good yeoman's job at your place of employment, people will keep you around for a while.
MM: So tell me a little bit about what you do as a volunteer coach at Youngstown State.
Mike: Well, it's my fifth season and I've had a number of roles. But this year, it is more defined with Doug Phillips in his first season. I've worked jointly with the head coach, in an advisory role from a football aspect, a culture aspect, from reading players body language. Also: fundraising. We collectively have raised a lot of money for the football program for being an FCS school. I sit in meetings and always somehow end up in a quarterback room. I lend my thoughts. It's been a joy. So I do that in the mornings, then I go to work. I have an industrial maintenance company called MRO Systems that I'm the northeast regional director for. It's headquartered out of the Chicago area. I get involved with the community and the workforce for about five, six hours, and I go back to the office and watch a bunch of film, and go to meetings, and just be involved, and help out where I can.
MM: Are you liking life in that respect, then?
Mike: Well, yeah, it's in my DNA. My dad was a very successful high school coach in Chicago.* I got asked to coach at Ohio State in 2001, which I declined, because I had just retired. Tressell and I still laugh at that. He said it took you 16 years to realize that you need to get here to Youngstown. I just try to motivate people I come in contact with.
*Ron Tomczak was the head coach at Thornton Fractional North in Calumet City from 1966 to 1983 and coached both of his sons there. He died in 2007.
MM: How old are your kids now?
Mike: They are 24 and 22. Daughter graduated from Denison University. She did track and field there. My son's a senior at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Fla., studying business. He had a real successful amateur hockey career. And then he had enough and he decided to become a student. So he's going out in the real world here shortly.
MM: When you went to the Packers, was there any kind of Bears-Packers rivalry mental barrier to get beyond?
Mike: I got over it pretty quick. After the first meeting I was getting ready to go and I had to use the men's restroom and I went to one of the stalls to squat down. And I didn't check to see if toilet paper was there. Long story short, I was without toilet paper and a gentleman was, like, two stalls down and I said, "Hey, yo, can you supply some toilet paper?" And he goes: "Who is this?" I go, "Tomczak." And he goes: "F-U, you're a former Bear!" I was, like, "What?! How do you leave me hanging like this?" He made me sweat it out a little bit but he threw some down a little later.
Lindy Infante sat me down for, like, an hour and asks me all these questions. "How do the Bears practice? What happens in their meetings? What happens after practice? Do the receivers come out early? Does Ditka do this or that?" When you want to become successful, you study successful people, and he was trying to help change the culture there. He was a wonderful human being but we just didn't have the personnel. When I came down to Soldier Field to play in that game for the Packers, I mean, there were Bears fans that maybe liked me when I was in the Bears colors, but they turned pretty quick. The rivalry is very thick, no doubt about it. I didn't care for [Mike] Singletary those two games I played in.
MM: Did he get a hit on you?
Mike: No, he didn't get to me; he was just talking crap. It was different. When you're teammates, they're the best. When they're your enemies, all bets are off. You're gonna get whacked. In my case, I always got whacked like a crash test dummy. Even competing against Ditka, I didn't care for him for those three hours.
MM: After the game was it no hard feelings?
Mike: Yeah. Had a beer with the guys afterward. "I'll see you this offseason."
MM: Can you believe Super Bowl XX was 36 years ago?
MM: I love it — makes me feel good to remember. Yeah, hopefully Matt gets this done before the 40-year anniversary happens. Some of the guys are going to be collecting Social Security soon.
MM: Even in '85, it seemed like the championship before that, in '63, was a million years ago. Do you remember guys like Ed O'Bradovich hanging around?
Mike: Oh, absolutely. And a healthy Gale Sayers. I was just in awe. If you play for the Bears, the relationship with other alumni, it's a badge of honor. Same thing in Pittsburgh. There's two franchises rich in tradition. In Pittsburgh, the number of Super Bowls, and the Bears had the most former players in this Hall of Fame. So I was extremely grateful, and I can't emphasize that enough, how blessed I was to do that.
MM: You made a tackle on special teams in the Super Bowl. Are you happy with how that turned out?
Mike: Yeah, it gets me a free beer. Or a cup of coffee. That story goes a long ways. It was 4 minutes, 26 seconds left — not that I was watching the clock — and we're up 46-10. And I was looking around to my left and my right, and that was the only guy who hadn't played. And I was like: "How am I getting in the game?" I'm thinking to myself, "I got family here, (they have to see me play)." First down, I told the special teams coach, "I'm going in." He says: "Wait!" So on fourth down, I sprint onto the field and whoever was the flyer — I think it was Shaun Gayle — I tell him that "Coach Kazor wants to see you!" I ran down the field as the flyer, or gunner as they call it nowadays. And Irving Fryar was coming my way and I said, "Oh," and I reached out and grabbed him. Ditka comes at me on the sidelines and asks what I'm doing. And I'm, like, "Coach, my family's here, blah-blah-blah." And he's like, "OK, kid, you're in the next series (at quarterback), don't mess up." So I go in the next series, hand off a couple times, and we go out there one more series, hand off and kneel down, steal the football, put it in my locker, and get back out there celebrating.
MM: And you guys didn't have any beer or champagne in the locker room?
Mike: It was dry. And they cut the Super Bowl party off early. They ran out of liquor. But (Dan) Hampton and those guys opened it back up. That's when it was time for me to go with my people. They served enough liquor at the ring ceremony, though. I think Ditka fell asleep in his suit. You can ask him.
MM: Was that your own guitar in the "Super Bowl Shuffle" video that you played?
Mike: Haha. No, it was a prop. What a 24 hours that day was. Going from bedlam and defeat in Miami, getting home at 2 in the morning to going and doing that thing for 10 hours. What a blast.
MM: Do you think the Super Bowl Shuffle is underrated in the history of hip hop music?
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. We should have been well compensated for that. But it was "for the needy." We weren't for the needy.
MM: Did the needy even get the money?
Mike: I have no idea. I didn't see a penny. "I'm not here because I'm greedy, we're just here to feed the needy. Uh-huh. Uh-huh." I've sung it on many occasions for many people. Willie Gault Productions, it was great.
MM: Why did you like to play for Mike Ditka?
Mike: You know, if I had to choose any coach at the time, it would be Don Shula or him. Buffalo and Denver were the only (other) two teams looking at me. It's pretty elementary. I mean, that was my team growing up. I didn't care if Abe Gibron or Jim Dooley was the head coach, I was gonna play for the Bears. I knew what they had on the roster from the quarterback position, and their history showed that they didn't keep more than two quarterbacks (typically). But the fact that McMahon was injury plagued in '84, because Steve Fuller played in the playoff games, was a factor. They were going to keep another one in '85. And why Ditka? I mean, I bleed like Ditka, I got some of the same DNA as Ditka. My dad was a lot like him. My dad was a tight end at Wichita State, and he beat the shit out of Bill Parcells every day in practice. So, yeah, if I had a chance to be a Bear, I was gonna take an opportunity. It worked out wonderfully.
MM: Can you explain what made Ditka effective as a coach?
Mike: When you're in the 1 percent who get an opportunity to play pro football, you're held to a higher standard. And if you don't have a leader, one that holds you to a higher standard, you're gonna be average. Egos will get involved. He challenged us. There was a culture well before I got there, it was a Ditka culture. You challenge guys, you make them accountable. They play hard. It's all about the team.
And that was all fine and dandy and everything, but after Super Bowl, greed started to set in. A number of people became a little bit hypocritical about what got us there originally. With salary disputes and commercials and talk shows. I remember Ditka saying: "Hey, all these talk shows, and all these commercials — knock it off." And four or five guys had these Campbell's Soup deals. And then they couldn't do it anymore. And then a month later, Ditka is on TV with his own commercial for Campbell's Soup. A little resentment there, obviously. But in the big picture, we had our opportunities. And in '86, the Redskins were better than us in that one playoff game. Things down the stretch weren't cohesive as they were in '85.
MM: It was always presented to the public like Ditka forced Doug Flutie on everybody. But if all of the other Bears had tried harder to accept Flutie, might the results have been different?
Mike: We'll never know. But if you want to make it fictional, he came to the team in the latter part of the year. So our team already was well-established from a culture standpoint, personality standpoint. It was said that he's gonna help the ballclub and he did help the ballclub. He gave us an extra set of skills at the quarterback position. But that afternoon against the Redskins, they were the better team. Yeah, flat out the better team three interceptions early. They were behind the chains the whole time. Were there timing issues between the quarterback and receivers? I think so. But we just didn't play well. Flutie left us, eventually went to Canada, and did some great things, and then came back and had a second act and was quite good.
MM: Then '87 starts and you are the starter on Opening Night against the Giants on Monday Night Football, in one of the greatest games in Bears history. Do you remember it as fondly?
Mike: Jeez. We kicked the crap out of them. I remember the first couple of plays, our line was coming off the ball and just whacking them. And they got after Phil Simms that night knocked him out of the game for a little bit, and Ron Morris and I hooked up on a couple of long ones. Dennis McKinnon, Silky D's punt return. It solidified Ditka's decision to have me start the game.
MM: The coolest single moment of that season was Kevin Butler kicking the game-winning field goal against the Packers at Lambeau Field. You were the holder. What pops into your head about that?
Mike: They had a timeout, and I didn't say anything to Butthead, but it was a muddy field and I went over to the spot and took a little clump of mud and built my own little tee, like anyone would do in the backyard. He made the kick, we executed the play and I lifted him up and he's giving the finger to Forrest Gregg. Hahaha. I was, like, "Really, Butthead?" You're going that way? OK."
MM: The box score says that you threw three interceptions in the Fog Bowl but who can really be sure because it was so foggy, right?
Mike: No shit! Was it three?
MM: Randall Cunningham also threw three picks!
Mike: Yeah, but Cunningham also threw for 400-something yards, hahaha. When I was in, it was fine. It wasn't foggy, it was even sunny for a while. I got hurt midway through the third quarter, and that's when the fog started rolling and McMahon went in for me. I remember coming out at halftime and thinking that something awful happened to someone's barbecue on the east side of the stadium. I was, like, "That's our barbecue king." And it got thicker and thicker, so it was challenging. I think Maurice Douglass intercepted a pass late and took it back for a good runback, which kind of sealed the deal for us. But I remember Steve Kazor, our special teams coach, had two of the ball boys go stand underneath the uprights because they had those orange X's on their vests and could act as landmarks for Butthead. kind of landmark. It worked, because he made 'em.
MM: When was the last time you talked to McMahon?
Mike: Two weeks ago; his birthday. I've been with him a couple times this summer; he's doing well. He just got engaged. He's got a documentary coming out: "Mad Mac" that we got involved in, bringing it to production and editing. And I think they're shopping it now between Netflix and Showtime and HBO. I think it's gonna have some traction. I saw a couple screenings. It will take you back. The opening scene is him on a scooter talking about "Outreageousness!"
MM: How does Mac seem to you? He's had some well-documented health problems related to his football career.
Mike: He looked normal to me. You can ask him yourself. One thing that I love about him: He is who he is and he ain't changing for anyone. He's gonna do his thing. And I love it. More people should be like Jim.
MM: How did you come out of your career with your health from top to bottom?
Mike: Pretty well, pretty well. I've been involved with a couple of neurological/brain health studies. One that's taking place here in Pittsburgh with some of the finest doctors in the country. That's an ongoing thing. But I work out a lot. I jump rope a lot. I compete with one of my favorite teammates, Jay Hilgenberg on our fitness and conditioning. He beats me on eating. He's got the best discipline for eating and rest. Thanks for asking about how I'm doing. I work out and I'm heading out to play golf in about 10 minutes.
MM: You mentioned Hilgy. Isn't amazing how the linemen have gotten lean in their retirement. They were huge bruisers in football but now many of them are regular-person sized.
Mike: Some of them. I don't know if you've seen Keith Van Horne... but Jimbo Covert and Tommy Thayer looks down to about 235. Jay is 185, Jimbo, who I saw at the Hall of Fame, is about 235. But Keith Van Horne is about 300, I've heard.
MM: Van Horne is about 6-foot-8.
Mike: He's 6-foot-12!
MM: Who else should be going to the Hall of Fame after Covert
Mike: Jay Hilgenberg should go in, no question. Seven-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro team. You talk about Dermontti Dawson — I played with Dermontti and I played with Jay; both wore No. 63. My favorite players. Equally as good, and Jay was pulling before Dermontti was. The sportswriters just got to get behind you. I'm sure the Bears said that it's only fair to get Jimbo in there first, and he was very deserving. I just think Jay's legacy needs to be recognized. It would be cool to see him get in. McMichael should be in on the defensive side as well.
MM: So if the Bears and the Steelers are on TV at the same time, who are you watching?
MM: They play each other this year! My allegiances are with the Bears. But I want to see them play each other. I love that city. I love the people and the fans.
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