The Holdouts: Al Harris and Todd Bell
As mind-boggling as it sounds, the 1985 Chicago Bears defense could have been even better. That year, two potential starters held out for more money. While Al Harris and Todd Bell watched from afar, their teammates dominated the NFL and rampaged all over the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Al Harris was born on December 31, 1956 in Bangor, Maine, but soon moved to Wahiawa Hawaii. He starred at nearby Leilehua High School and accepted a scholarship to Arizona State, where he would be named a consensus first-team All-American as a senior in 1978. The Bears liked what they saw and picked the defensive end ninth overall in the 1979 NFL Draft.
Unofficially, he recorded three sacks in his first three years as a pro, but he continued his dominance when the statistic became official in 1982, recording 3.5 sacks in the strike-shortened year. He recorded a career-high six sacks in 1983 and after recording just two in 1984, decided that he needed more money. It was just his luck that a large number of his teammates were thinking the same thing, including rover-back Todd Bell.
Todd Bell was born on November 28, 1958 in Dayton, Ohio. He starred at Middletown High School, making tackles all over the field and earned a scholarship to Ohio State. After scoring the game-winning touchdown off of a blocked punt versus Michigan as a junior in 1979, he was on the NFL's radar and was drafted by the Bears in the fourth round in 1981.
He quickly rose to prominence in Buddy Ryan's complicated system, roving between strong safety and linebacker and haunting the dreams of quarterbacks throughout the league. He quickly gained favor in Buddy Ryan's eyes when he returned an interception 92 yards for a touchdown as a rookie.
Three years later, he picked off four passes, returning one of them for a touchdown and recovering two fumbles on his way to his first and only Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro recognition. That year, the Bears made the playoffs for the first time in seven years and defeated the two-time defending NFC champion Redskins in the playoffs. It can be argued that the course of the game was altered when Bell laid a big hit on running back Joe Washington.
But despite his rise to stardom, there was a sinking feeling rising within Todd Bell's belly. He had only made $77,000 that year and his wallet was growing restless. After some back-and-forth between him and general manager Jerry Vainisi, the two sides were $166,000 apart.
Meanwhile, Al Harris's bank account was growing restless too. He had battled and believed that he had won a starting spot over rookie Wilbur Marshall the previous year. But Marshall had leverage from the USFL, a league that didn't exist when Harris was drafted five years earlier. Seeking a young, effective pass rusher, the Bears gave Marshall a massive contract for that era. What Harris failed to realize is that he didn't really win the job. Buddy Ryan was always tough with his men and strongly encouraged competition within the ranks.
Seeking one last chance at reconciliation, safety Gary Fencik went before Vainisi, begging for a generous heart rather than a thrifty spirit. The conversation was a bust, but as the year went on by, the general manager began to regret settling with the two players before that legendary 1985 season began. Even later in life, with a Super Bowl ring dangling from his finger, he would often call it the darkest moment of his professional life.
The players regretted it too. As Bell watched backup safety Dave Duerson flourish and Harris watched Wilbur Marshall race down the sideline under the backdrop of snowfall at Soldier Field, scoring the NFC-clinching touchdown to send the Bears to the Super Bowl, they each realized what a grave error they had made that offseason. While each would return to the Bears after their year-long sabbatical and would finish their playing careers with the Eagles (Bell in 1989, Harris in 1990) they could never shake the feeling that something was missing from their lives.
Particularly Bell. After his career had come to an end in 1989, he would often call players in the midst of their own contractual disputes, advising them to take what was offered and play with their teammates. At that point in his life, he knew what he could only wish he had known when he was young, that playing in the NFL is an opportunity few are able to enjoy. The money comes second.