‘Cut from a different cloth,’ Steve McMichael started road to stardom at Freer High School
CORPUS CHRISTI — Before he was an All-America defensive tackle at Texas and a Super Bowl winner with the Chicago Bears, Steve McMichael was a six-sport athlete at Freer High School in the first half of the 1970s.
Besides playing football, McMichael lettered in basketball, track and field, baseball, golf and tennis. A catcher on the baseball team, he was good enough by his senior season to be offered a minor league contract by the St. Louis Cardinals.
But while McMichael stood out on the diamond, it was on the football field that he distinguished himself as a blue-chip college prospect who drew recruiters from schools throughout the country.
Even as a high school kid, McMichael played with the same competitive ferocity and take-no-prisoners mentality that defined him as a five-time All-Pro during his 13-year career with the Bears. His boisterous antics made him a legend in Chicago, where he still lives.
“He was cut from a different cloth,” recalled Tommy Roberts, who was Freer head coach when McMichael was a three-year starter from 1973 through 1975. “He was a terror in the making. You could see it coming. He was just young. They hit as a pup, they’ll hit as a dog.
“It was fun to be a part of bringing him along. Steve had a mean streak on the field. He wanted to get to the ball and hurt whoever had it in their hands. He had no pain. He would just throw that aside. He was just brutal and he took no mercy on anybody on the football field.”
McMichael, 63, was in the news recently when he announced that he has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable illness commonly known as ALS and Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a progressive disease that attacks the body’s nervous system
Former Miami Dolphins safety Glenn Blackwood, who played three seasons with McMichael at Texas, said it was sobering to hear the news.
“It does show how you’re not invincible,” Blackwood said, referring to seemingly indestructible athletes who are felled by deadly diseases. “Nobody is. It all makes us face mortality. We’re all statistically going to head to the same place. The statistics are one out of one.”
Blackwood said he “found it interesting” to watch YouTube videos of McMichael talking about his ALS diagnosis in interviews with the media.
“There are moments where Steve is almost gentle when he’s talking,” Blackwood said. “It’s the reality of what he’s facing and it’s humbling. But then he kind of jumps back to the bravado side where he becomes ‘Ah, I can face anything.’ It’s really tough to watch. It’s sad. I feel for Steve.”
Blackwood recalled happier times as McMichael’s college teammate.
“Steve was an interesting guy,” Blackwood said. “We had so many nicknames for him —Manimal, Bam Bam, McNasty. They called him ‘Mongo’ when he was with the Bears.
“Steve was extremely intense. He was just a little bit off center,” Blackwood said, chuckling. “And that made him this guy that you really didn’t want to mess with. He had one thing on his mind, and that was to annihilate the guy in front of him. That made our life easier in the secondary.”
McMichael weighed about 160 pounds in the second semester of his freshman year at Freer in 1973.
“He was getting ready for his sophomore season then,” Roberts said. “You could tell he was a budding tree. He was a sapling when I got to Freer, but he just kept growing and growing. He really grew into a force that I could use anywhere I wanted to put him.”
By his senior season in 1975, McMichael was more than 6 feet tall and weighed 230 pounds. He played every position on the defensive line, “depending on wherever we needed him,” Roberts said, and even saw spot duty at fullback and tight end. He also handled kickoffs and kicked extra points and field goals.
Freer went a combined 30-3-2 in McMichael’s sophomore, junior and senior seasons, making the playoffs in 1973 and 1974 before missing the postseason in 1975. Those were the days when only district champions advanced to the UIL playoffs. The Buckaroos stayed at home with a 9-1 record in McMichael’s senior year.
Two of McMichael’s teammates at Freer, brothers Bill and Jim Acker, also signed with Texas. Bill and McMichael graduated from high school together in 1976 and were defensive tackles at Texas for four seasons. Jim, who was a year behind his brother and McMichael in high school, pitched for the Longhorns before going on to a Major League Baseball career.
Bill went on to a six-year career in the NFL as a defensive lineman. A third Freer teammate of McMichael, quarterback Tres Adami, played the same position at Texas Tech. McMichael was one of the top recruits in the country as a senior, drawing scholarship offers from 75 schools.
“Freer was way off the beaten path, but they (college recruiters) would all come through and they wouldn’t stay long,” Roberts recalled. “It was pretty well cut and dried where Steve was going. He wanted to play at Texas.”
McMichael was a consensus All-America pick as a junior and senior (1978-79). He was inducted into the National Football Foundation’s College Hall of Fame in 2010 and is also a member of the Texas Athletics Hall of Honor.
McMichael signed with Chicago as a free agent after playing his rookie season in 1980 with the New England Patriots. Voted Defensive MVP of the 1979 Hula Bowl, McMichael was selected by New England in the third round of the NFL draft with the 73rd overall pick.
“He didn’t really do that great with the Patriots,” Blackwood said. “The reason he didn’t do great is because the (defensive) system they had and the personality of the team really didn’t fit Steve. But when he went to Chicago, it fit him to a T and he flourished. He became a great player for them. He was surrounded by some tremendous talent. They had some great athletes.”
McMichael quickly became a starting defensive tackle and starred on the 1985 team that rolled to a 46-10 rout of the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. The only loss of the season for the ’85 Bears was to the Miami Dolphins in a memorable Monday night game. Blackwood started every game for the Dolphins that year.
Chicago’s 1985 defense, featuring other legends such as linebacker Mike Singletary, tackle Dan Hampton, end Richard Dent and safety Gary Fencik, is considered one of the best in NFL history.
“Those guys loved Buddy Ryan,” Roberts said, referring to the Bears’ legendary defensive coordinator and architect of the famed “46” defensive scheme.
Chicago head coach Mike Ditka said years later that McMichael, who retired in 1994 after playing his final season with the Green Bay Packers, was the toughest player he ever coached.
In a 1984 interview with Bob Verdi of the Chicago Tribune, McMichael talked about the Bears being a perfect fit for his personality.
“Thank God New England got rid of me,” McMichael said. “Some teams, they want you to have a certain image. Other teams, like this one, they just want you to get down and dirty. I'm really proud to be a Bear.
“The Patriots, yeah, they thought I was a little weird. And I guess I am. But here they don't care, long as you play hard. The town, the coach, the team — it's Steve McMichael. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.”
McMichael proved to be one of Chicago’s most durable players, starting in 101 consecutive games until the streak ended in 1990. He was a first-team All-Pro selection in 1985 and 1987, and made the second unit in 1986, 1988 and 1991. McMichael led the Bears in sacks with 11.5 in 1988.
McMichael was 6-2 and 270 pounds during his 15-year NFL career. One of the most colorful players in NFL history, McMichael was a favorite of Bears fans who liked his wild streak and blue-collar approach to the game. McMichael became a color commentator for pro wrestling matches after he retired from football and also wrestled professionally.
Roberts, 80, remembered the Steve McMichael he coached in Freer.
“He was a great kid off the field,” Roberts said. “He had an outgoing personality and had a great sense of humor. He was just very intense in what he did.”