Preseason games are a time to knock the rust off, work on the upcoming season’s offensive and defensive schemes, and evaluate potential new talent. For the officials, it is a time to work on new mechanics, new rule interpretations, and get ready for the regular season.
Most of these preseason games are mild (even boring) affairs. But, Pat Haggerty’s crew had to sort out a 1986 preseason brawl between the Chicago Bears and the visiting St. Louis Cardinals that played out in front of a national TV audience.
The Chicago-St. Louis rivalry is mostly a baseball affair between the Cubs and Cardinals. The Blackhawks and Blues have a pretty good hockey rivalry. But, the Bears and football Cardinals never played in the same division after the 1970 merger. So, the Bears and Cardinals played each other every preseason, and sporadically as a cross-division opponent.
By 1986, it was the 15th consecutive preseason game between the two teams. The Bears were fresh off their Super Bowl XX victory and were basking in the glow of national fame. The Cardinals had a new coach, Gene Stallings. Stallings said he wanted his team to have more of an edge and toughness. Incidentially, Stallings was a player and alum of the Junction Boys – the 1954 Texas A&M summer training camp that would get head coaches fired today.
Pat Haggerty (pictured above calling Super Bowl XIX) was the referee for the 1986 preseason game. He was joined by his regular crew of umpire Hendi Ancich, head linesman Frank Glover, line judge Howard Roe, back (now field) judge Jim Poole, side judge Dick Creed and field (now back) judge Don Habel.
CBS Sports was at Soldier Field to televise the August 23 game. This was a tune-up for the number one broadcast and production crew. Verne Lundquist provided play-by-play, substituting for Pat Summerall, who was announcing the U.S. Open tennis tournament. John Madden provided color commentary.
The game started out chippy with rough play and the officials having to beak up angry chatter and pushing the shoving. William “The Refrigerator” Perry picked up Cardinals’ quarterback, Neil Lomax, and dumped him on the ground. Haggerty didn’t call a foul on Perry, but the NFL later fined him for the rough play.
Then in the third quarter, everything went berserk. Cardinals defensive back Lionel Washington landed on Bears receiver Keith Ortego, leading with his elbow that landed in Ortego’s, shall we say, mid-section. Ortego kicked at Washington in protest. Washington stomped back at Ortego. Side judge Dick Creed attempted to move Washington away from Ortego, with head linesman Frank Glover coming in to assist. Bears lineman Keith Van Horne saw this and torpedoed Washington, Creed and Glover.
Creed and Glover went down in a heap and the fight was on.
The worst of the incident happened deep on the Cardinals sideline. As the fight spilled out of bounds, Cardinal players attacked Bears tight end Pat Dunsmore, stomping and kicking him in the groin.
Creed spent the fight getting his wits together after taking a very hard hit from Van Horne and the Soldier Field Turf. The bravest official in the whole fight was Jim Poole. He came in from his position from the opposite sideline, waded into the Cardinals sideline and attempted to rescue Dunsmore. It appears that he was able to pinpoint the Cardinals who stomped Dunsmore and issued ejections.
As the sideline battle wound down, another fight broke out near mid-field. By this time, coach Stallings was on the field trying to get his team under control. He also appeared to berate the officials, and then he told his team to leave the field. Officials Glover, Creed, and Poole seemed to talk Stallings out of that drastic action. The team stayed on the field and completed the game.
When the dust settled, Haggerty and crew ejected four players – Van Horne of the Bears and Washington, Ottis Anderson, and Charlie Baker of the Cardinals. The NFL fined 25 Bears and 26 Cardinals for their part in the fracas. The fines were a NFL record at the time – ranging from $400 to $2,300 for the 51 players.
Several players and Bears head coach Mike Ditka blamed the officials for losing control of the game. Was the crew in preseason mode and got burned? Maybe, maybe not.
It appears to me that the Cardinals were determined to rough up the game and the Bears responded. 34 years after the fact and without the entire game to view, it is hard to determine if Haggerty and crew could have called more fouls before the brawl. And, it is impossible to know whether or not the extra fouls would have curbed the violence.
When teams are determine to fight, there’s not much the officials can do but to engage in preventative officiating and react to the play on the field.
While there have been some major, unfortunate incidents in the following generation, the 1986 Cardinals-Bears preseason brawl still is in the team photo for the worst in the modern era.