British pop star Phil Collins, with his son, Simon, chats and gets an autograph from Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton during a Bears workout in London two days before they would meet the Dallas Cowboys in the inaugural American Bowl.
On Sunday, the Chicago Bears take on the Oakland Raiders at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London to kick off the NFL’s 2019 International Series. It was 33 years ago when the Bears, having just shuffled themselves to a Super Bowl XX win, first visited London to play the Dallas Cowboys in the inaugural game of the “American Bowl” — the precursor to the NFL’s International Series.
Stroll down memory lane with Bears head coach (1982-92) Mike Ditka and Bill Smith, who served as the Bears’ staff longtime photographer until 2018.
Young British NFL fans try to stay dry under a U.S. flag before the American Bowl on Aug. 3, 1986, pitting the reigning Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears against the Dallas Cowboys. In the years since, the Bears last visited London back in 2011, defeating Tampa Bay 24-18, while the Cowboys beat the Jacksonville as recently as 2014, 31-17.
Bears head coach Mike Ditka: “The fans were terrific. They were very receptive to the game. They have that soccer mentality and really got into how physical it was.”
As he led his teammates to the end zone so many times during his Hall of Fame career, Bears running back Walter Payton points the way to the buses on their arrival in London. Payton rushed for 1,333 yards and eight touchdowns in 1986. He would retire after the 1987 season.
Ditka: “Since it was a preseason game, I remember I was pretty lenient on the curfew, maybe by 10 pm. But they never ever told me where they went! Sure, Walter might have told everyone where the buses were, but he took a limo to the hotel.”
During the week leading up to the game, players were able to be tourists and do a little sightseeing. Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett (left) and wide receiver Tony Hill take in London’s Buckingham Palace.
Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders offer up their trademark smiles and All-American flair, but this British Royal Horse Guard remains stoic, as is custom with all of the Royal Palace guards.
Ditka: “Dallas brought the cheerleaders, but because they were all soccer fans, our kicker Kevin Butler was a hit..'”
Re-creating the iconic Beatles album cover, Bears (from left) Keith Van Horne, Jim McMahon, Dan Hampton and Kevin Butler cross Abbey Road. True to form, McMahon mimics Paul McCartney’s barefoot stroll while Butler’s white trenchcoat represents John Lennon’s white suit.
Former Bears photographer Bill Smith: “On the plane ride over to London, Dan Hampton suggested that it would be cool to shoot a photo of four players crossing the famous Abbey Road across from Apple Records Recording Studio. He recruited Jim McMahon, [Keith] VanHorne and Butler to participate. Most Londoners didn’t recognize the ’85 Bear players, so they were quite aggravated as we temporarily blocked traffic trying to get the shot just right. We had even brought an Abbey Road CD with us for reference!”
With the British Union Jack flying high from one of the stadium’s towers in the distance, players work out at Wembley Stadium. In 2002, the original stadium was torn down to make room for the current version of Wembley Stadium.
Ditka: “Unlike [Sunday] , this was a preseason game, so the preparation wasn’t like getting ready for a regular season game. It was pretty loose. I saw this as like a reward by the league for us winning the Super Bowl and I think the players saw it that way, too.”
Before photobombing was a thing, Bears quarterback Jim McMahon listens in on an interview with Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry at the Crystal Palace sports center in London.
Larger than life William “The Refrigerator” Perry was all laughs during a practice session in London. The Bears were full of personalities, but none bigger than the Fridge.He would go on to score a touchdown in the London game — the only touchdown scored in London — but teammate Walter Payton once again did not, a repeat of the Super Bowl XX debate.
Smith: “One of the surprising things about the London trip was how popular ‘The Fridge’ was with the English fans. The stars of that team were Payton, [Jim] McMahon, and [Richard] Dent. But the rock star to London media and fans was undoubtedly Perry. They didn’t understand much about American football in 1986, but they all knew ‘The Fridge.'”
Landry was known for roaming the sidelines on game day wearing his trademark Stetson hat while Ed “Too Tall” Jones was one of the fiercest defensive ends in the NFL. In London, Landry and Jones couldn’t help swap headwear with the local policemen known colloquially as “bobbies.”
Ditka: “Coach Landry was one of my mentors and favorite people I’ve ever met. I owe him everything. He enjoyed himself out there.”
McMahon scrambles in first-quarter action with Cowboys defensive tackles Jim Jeffcoat (77), and John Dutton (78) in hot pursuit. It was a soggy defensive struggle.
Ditka: “It was interesting. The fans were really cheering loud, but I don’t think they knew when to cheer or when to boo. They DID do ‘the Wave’, though.”
Despite the rain, a sellout crowd of 86,000 watches McMahon fade back to pass. The Bears went on to win 17-6 and helped evolve the popularity of NFL football from curiosity to mainstream sport. But it’s still got a long way to go.
Ditka: “Let’s be honest. Football is a U.S. sport. Basketball, soccer even baseball to a certain extent, are universal sports. I think it’ll be hard for football to become as universal as that.”