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Former Bears "Hit Man" visits Region

By Bill Koester
On January 15, 2012

  • Lindsey Whitcomb attempts to get possession of the ball in the beginning of PUC's game against Trinity Christian. Nathyn Gibson

Even nearly three decades after his retirement from professional football, former Chicago Bear Doug Plank is still revered among Bears fans.  On Jan. 11, fans from the Region got to see the local legend up close, but without becoming the victim of one of his powerful tackles.

Plank was the guest speaker at the Gary Old Timers Athletic Association's annual banquet on Jan. 11.  Over 800 guests packed Avalon Manor in Hobart for the event.

Plank played football at Ohio State University before being drafted by Chicago in 1975, where he played at safety for eight seasons.  He and teammate Gary Fencik were dubbed "the Hit Men" for their devastating hits on opponents.

In his speech, Plank reminisced about his childhood in Pennsylvania, his years at Ohio State under legendary coach Woody Hayes, and his time with the Bears, speaking highly of then-defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.  He also talked about his life after playing, which included stints as a broadcaster and a coach in both the Arena Football League and with the NFL's New York Jets in 2009.

Plank is known in football circles as the inspiration behind the famous "46 Defense," which was named after his jersey number.  Though many players would consider it an honor to have a scheme named for them, Plank and his teammates did not see it as much of an achievement at first.

"[Ryan] referred to nobody by Xs or Os, or name," Plank recalled.  "It was always your number.  All these numbers were up on this board, and he went through and described what each of us was going to do.  And at the end of that, Otis Wilson I believe asked 'What are you going to call this, Buddy?' And he said we're going to call this the 46 Defense.

"No one came over to me and clapped me or patted me on the back because Buddy was putting in coverages, defenses, blitzes, all the time, and almost every person on our team had a blitz coverage or front named after them, so this 46 was like no big deal.  Now there would be guys who would kill to have that defense."

Planks career ended in 1982 when he suffered a spinal concussion.  Despite being known for his association with the 46 defense, he was not around when the scheme reached its zenith in the Bears' historic 1985 season, when the team won Super Bowl XX.

"It would have been nice to have been associated with this Super Bowl team, although I realize physically I really had just come to the end of my road," Plank said.  "I didn't have three more years in me to go out there and get more concussions, more separations, more body parts getting damaged."

The 46 Defense is still used today, notably under Rex Ryan, the son of Buddy Ryan and the head coach Plank served under with the Jets.  Plank takes pride in being remembered for something so enduring in the game of football.

"Even though Doug Plank did not participate in the Super Bowl, the 46 defense did, and that is going to live longer, I believe, than one team winning the Super Bowl," Plank said.

Being known for his hard-hitting play on the field, Plank spoke his mind on the NFL's increased emphasis on player safety in recent years.  He feels he would not have been the same player under the league's current rules regarding vicious hits.

"They would have prohibited Doug Plank from ever getting to the NFL, maybe even college," he said.  "Think about the nature of football.  A player is running with the ball, or he's catching the ball, and your job is to hit him and knock him off his feet on the ground.  How soft and kind does that sound?  It doesn't.  You're going to try to do it as violently as you possibly can.  At least up until these rule changes started taking place.

"You can't turn football into something it isn't.  It's a physical, tough sport.  And the choice is, do you want to play it or not?"

Such hard play has taken a toll on Plank's body.  He has had joint replacements on both shoulders and one knee, and will have to have his other knee and both hips replaced in the coming years (he joked that he is "going for the triple double").  Still, he has no regrets of his experiences as a player.

"I was not a victim, I was a participant," Plank said.  "The injuries, the collisions I got involved in, they were my choices.

"I wish I could have played longer, that's about the only thing I wish I could have done differently."

Plank also stated that even after more than 25 years, Chicago's enthusiasm for the 1985 Bears is unlikely to go anywhere, at least not until the franchise wins another Super Bowl.

"When I came to the Chicago Bears in 1975...I heard ''63, ‘63, '63!'"  Plank remembered, referring the team's 1963 NFL Championship season, their last title before Super Bowl XX.  "That's just the way business is.  Until you redo it again, until you go back to a championship, you're going to hear about those same teams year after year after year."

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