Gary Fencik ’76 did not know what he was getting into in the fall of 1985.
The Chicago Bears’ All-Pro safety had been asked by his teammate, wide receiver Willie Gault, to join nine Bears on a rap song they were making for charity. Fencik agreed, thinking he was simply taking part in a goofy stunt to promote a team dashing to a 12-0 start.
But the Bears kept winning. Despite an early December hiccup against the Miami Dolphins that dashed their hopes for a perfect season, Chicago dominated the NFL like no team before and no team since. In the playoffs, Fencik captained a defense that gave up only 10 points in three games as the Bears went on to win their first and only Super Bowl.
And the record to which Fencik agreed to lend his voice became a little bigger than he expected. The “Super Bowl Shuffle,” as it became known, went gold, almost cracking the Billboard Top 40, and the video went platinum. The “Shuffle” was nominated for a Grammy, barely losing to Prince and the Revolution’s “Kiss.”
After pulling down more interceptions than any other player in Bears history, Fencik became a successful banker. Today, he is a Northwestern MBA who works as a top executive at one of the largest investment firms in Chicago. His philanthropy in Chicago has been widely recognized, and he was asked by Illinois Republicans to consider a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2004.
But even with all his accomplishments, perhaps the most famous image of Fencik’s career remains the sight of a musically unschooled Yale graduate trying to rap. And with Sunday’s Super Bowl in Detroit marking the 20th anniversary of the Bears’ victory, Fencik’s moment of glory has returned to the spotlight.
“I hear about the ‘Super Bowl Shuffle’ and that I couldn’t sing and couldn’t dance just about every week of my life,” Fencik said in an interview this month from his office in Chicago.
An unlikely path
Fencik’s spot in the NFL — let alone his part in one of the league’s most famous pop culture moments — was far from guaranteed when he graduated from Yale in the spring of 1976.
Although Fencik’s pro career came on defense, his exploits on Yale’s team came on the other side of the ball, as a receiver. When Fencik joined the varsity team as a sophomore, the team needed a wideout, and Fencik soon became one of the top offensive players in the Ivy League.
But his quarterback at Yale, Stone Phillips ’77, said that while Fencik was a “quarterback’s dream,” it was clear where he wanted to play. Whenever Phillips threw an interception, Fencik relished the chance to “just unload” on a defensive back, he said. That aggression, Phillips said, led his teammates to believe he might have a pro career in his future.
“Not only was there a fire within, but there was a supreme confidence,” said Phillips, now the primary anchor for NBC’s “Dateline.”
After losing his final game to Harvard — with the Crimson’s 10-7 victory attributed largely to a game plan designed to contain Fencik — the wideout prepared to enter the pros. Former Yale head coach Carm Cozza suggested to Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula that Fencik might fit in the NFL as a defensive back, and Miami drafted him in the 10th round.
But by Labor Day, Fencik believed his career was over. In training camp, he suffered a collapsed lung, and was released. Fencik was just about ready to begin a job training program with Citibank when he received a call from his hometown Bears. A week later, he was in a Chicago uniform.
“I was a scrub,” Fencik said. “I was on the kickoff team and the punt coverage team, all the non-thinking positions where you have to run like hell.”
He was not a scrub for much longer. After a more conventional preseason in 1977, Fencik soon earned the Bears’ starting safety spot. In 1980 and 1981, he was named to the Pro Bowl team — an honor no other Eli graduate has earned since.
Fencik’s reputation in the NFL was encapsulated in a phrase John Madden coined “Clean Dirt.” Fencik was known as one of the nastiest tacklers in the league, but he was also a Yale grad who attended business school classes at Northwestern in his free time.
As Fencik’s reputation grew, the Bears slowly improved as well. In 1982, a former Bears tight end, Mike Ditka, took over as coach. Along with defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who Chicago had retained at the insistence of Fencik and his teammates, Ditka molded the Bears defense into one that ranks among the best of all time.
But the team was not just dominant — it was, in Fencik’s words, a team “of strong and memorable personalities” with nicknames like “Sweetness” (running back Walter Payton), “Samurai” (linebacker Mike Singletary) and “Refrigerator” (300-plus-pound defensive lineman and fullback William Perry).
Local businessman Richard Meyer conceived the “Super Bowl Shuffle” as an effort for charity and enlisted his friend Gault to organize it. Fencik and nine of his teammates signed on, thinking the song would be little more than a small-time fundraiser.
But in a city crazy about “Da Bears,” the Shuffle immediately caught on. And its chorus (“We’re the Bears Shufflin’ Crew / Shufflin’ on down, doin’ it for you. / We’re so bad we know we’re good. / Blowin’ your mind like we knew we would.”) is still instantly recognizable to a generation of football fans, while a “Shuffle” video recently posted on the Web site iFilm.com has already been viewed almost 170,000 times.
“Even the children of the parents that were there come up to me singing the shuffle,” said Meyer’s widow, Julia, who also played the bit part of a referee in the music video. “I have six-year-olds who shuffle for me.”
Asked to engage in a bit of textual analysis of the song, Fencik pled ignorance. The players who agreed to do the shuffle were given lyrics prepared for them, and while they could change them as they wished, Fencik said he sang them as they were originally written. (When asked whether he had any musical training, Fencik immediately replied, “I think that part is obvious.”)
Fencik’s moves earned mixed reviews: in a piece on the Shuffle for ESPN.com, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Brian Murphy reminisced about the sight of “white men dancing awkwardly (remember Gary Fencik, a Yale graduate for God’s sake, and his spastic rhythms?)”.
In his defense, Fencik said he did not even realize there would be a video involved when he first agreed to help out. And he is still surprised he and his teammates possessed the bravado it took to call a song the “Super Bowl Shuffle” before the playoffs had even begun.
Since he left the league after the 1987 season, Fencik’s resume has extended beyond Pro Bowl selections and Grammy nominations. Shortly after retiring, he entered the world of investment banking, and now serves as the director of business development for a Chicago-based firm that manages billions every year. He hosts a weekly radio show on the Bears and coaches his son’s flag football team, which went undefeated last season.
His Bears did not quite accomplish that feat, but with a series of events this year meant to commemorate the 1985 Bears — including a resolution that unanimously passed the Illinois General Assembly last week calling the squad “the greatest football team of all time” — Fencik said he has enjoyed the chance to celebrate his championship season. But he said he still has his doubts as to whether his brief musical career was a good idea.
“Twenty years later, had any of us known this would be memorialized the way it has become, we would have been more careful,” Fencik said.