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Wilber Marshall deserved better than what he got

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Thirty years ago, one of the greatest teams in history rolled through the 1985 regular season, the playoffs, and then the Super Bowl. The Chicago Bears reached Super Bowl XX by winning their two playoff games by a combined score of 45-0 before crunching the New England Patriots 46-10.

Next Sunday in Super Bowl 50, the Carolina Panthers will try to match Chicago’s 18-1 record of that year and become only the fourth team to win 18 games in a season. San Francisco (1984) and New England (2007) are the other two.

The 1985 Bears had both characters and character. They rolled over most opponents, but survived some close games as well. For example, Chicago was forced to overcome double-digit deficits in both games against the 2-14 Buccaneers that year before finally prevailing.

Among the more flamboyant Bears were guys like quarterback Jim McMahon, defensive tackle Steve McMichael, wide receiver Willie Gault and safety Gary Fencik. No adjective other than “legendary” defines Walter Payton.

There were others who did their talking on the field. Among those were defensive back Dave Duerson and linebacker Wilber Marshall. Neither were part of the famous “Super Bowl Shuffle” video.

Marshall was a spectacular football player at every level. He went from Titusville Astronaut High School to the University of Florida, where he was a two-time consensus All-American in 1982-83.

Statistics are unnecessary, so just know this: He is one of only five players in the Gators’ Ring of Honor. Steve Spurrier, Jack Youngblood, Danny Wuerffel, and Emmitt Smith are the others. Marshall was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.

Marshall was the 11th player selected in the 1984 draft by the Bears and was a major force in Chicago’s linebacker corps. He is best remembered for picking up a fumble and rambling 52 yards in the snow for a touchdown during the 1985 NFC Championship Game against the Rams.

In Chicago’s Super Bowl XX rout of the Patriots, Marshall and his teammates completely shut down the New England offense. He forced one of the four fumbles recovered by the Bears that day.

While the Bears would not win another Super Bowl, Marshall did. Six years later he was part of the Washington Redskins defense that intercepted four Buffalo passes in a 37-24 victory over the Bills. In 1992, he was the NFC Defensive Player of the Year.

Since his retirement following the 1995 season, things have not gone well for this Gator legend. The toll from playing at such a high level has left him with two battered knees, one shoulder and a spinal injury.

In 2002, Marshall filed for bankruptcy, casting much of the blame in the direction of the Bears.

“I had a guaranteed contract and the Bears were supposed to pay $72,000 for 19 years,” he told Hogs Haven, a Redskins fan publication. “They reneged on a guaranteed contract (after) I deferred my signing bonus to help them out.”

In 1997, Marshall filed for disability with the NFL, but was denied. So began an 11-year legal saga that saw him up against the NFL and the players’ union. In 2008, he finally prevailed and was awarded total disability payments.

With all of his financial and physical problems, Marshall is still in a better place than his Super Bowl XX teammate, Duerson. Years of trauma and concussions damaged Duerson to the point where he took his own life in 2011.

Today, Marshall resides in the Washington suburb of Sterling, Virginia.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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