Today marks 45 days remaining until the first Sunday of the NFL season, meaning that Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff continues with the best player in franchise history to don the number 45, legendary safety and Super Bowl champion Gary Fencik.
Chicago Bears sign Gary Fencik after standout career in Ivy League
Fencik resided in Chicago long before being a Bear. Born and raised in the city, the future star safety attended Barrington High School, where he excelled both on the field and in the classroom. After four years of playing wide receiver, Fencik elected to attend Yale University.
In college, Fencik was a very good receiver in the Ivy League. In his first season, he hauled in 215 yards for two touchdowns on 12 receptions. Over the next two years, Fencik's totals improved to a combined total of 1,220 yards and five touchdowns after 74 catches. In his three seasons of playing time, Fencik helped Yale post a 21-6 record including an 8-1 record in 1974. After being named as an All-Ivy League player and graduating with a degree in history, Fencik entered the 1976 NFL Draft where he was selected 281st overall during the 10th round by the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins elected to move Fencik to defensive back during training camp, but due to injuries and unforeseen circumstances, Fencik was released by the team before the season. Subsequently, he returned home to Chicago, and despite thinking that his career may be over, Fencik was signed by the Bears, who chose to keep him on the defensive side of the ball.
Fencik made the roster as a rookie and appeared in 13 total games where he was able to log his first fumble recovery. The following season, the former Yale receiver became a starter at the strong safety position, joining Doug Plank in the back end of the defense. He finished the season with four interceptions, the first of which came against legendary quarterback Joe Namath. Fencik also helped the team reach the playoffs, where he logged a fumble recovery during his first postseason run.
Gary Fencik becomes All-Pro and Super Bowl champ with Chicago Bears
During the ensuing offseason, the team hired famed defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who implemented the historic 46 defense which brought Fencik and the unit in general to new levels of success. In his first two seasons under Ryan, Fencik logged a total of 10 interceptions and four fumble recoveries in 30 games.
The following season, Fencik took another step up, recording an impressive six interceptions en route to being named to his first Pro Bowl. Fencik matched this total the next season, where he also returned an interception for a touchdown. After the season, he was named to the Pro Bowl for the second season in a row and was selected to the First-Team All-Pro.
Over the next two seasons, Fencik suffered multiple injuries and was available for only 16 games during the span. Fencik was productive, with four total interceptions, but upon a healthy 1984 campaign, Fencik recorded five interceptions en route to reaching the playoffs for the first time since Buddy Ryan's second year as coach in 1979. After a disappointing loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game, Fencik and the Bears in general prepared for the 1985 season. Unfortunately, Plank, who was part of "the Hitmen" - a nickname for the aggressive safety duo - retired during the offseason.
During the 1985 regular season, Fencik matched his total of the previous season with five interceptions and helped the Bears finish with a 15-1 record, largely due to the efforts of one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history. After walking through the NFC side of the bracket, members of the Bears team recorded the famous Super Bowl Shuffle, where Fencik himself made an appearance, dropping a line about the Hitmen tandem. Following the song's release, the Bears would of course go on to dominate in Super Bowl XX, where Fencik and legendary defensive teammates such as Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael, Richard Dent, and Mike Singletary, earned their long-awaited championship ring.
Gary Fencik's retirement and legacy with Chicago Bears
Following the Super Bowl run, Fencik would go on to play in just two more seasons where he logged three interceptions over 28 games before retiring after the 1987 season. Fencik's 38 career interceptions through 12 seasons are the most in franchise history, and Fencik was even the team's all-time leading tackler at the time of his retirement.
Since hanging up his cleats and shoulder pads, Fencik has remained incredibly busy in his next career in the financial industry. After earning an MBA from Northwestern to accompany his Yale degree, Fencik has worked in finance for over 30 years, primarily with Wells Fargo, USB, and Adams Street Partners.
Fencik's career with the Bears is hard to quantify with simple stats (in fact, it is quite difficult to track some totals such as tackles due to when he played), but it is undeniable that he had a strong contribution to one of the league's best defenses both on the field and in the locker room. As a smart, hard-hitting safety, Fencik paired perfectly next to longtime teammate Doug Plank, and the two were a punishing duo behind a set of future Hall-of-Fame defenders.