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Road to Canton: There's more to McMichael than 'Mongo' persona

In Part 2 of's 5-part series on Steve McMichael ahead of his Hall of Fame induction in August, senior writer Larry Mayer reveals that there's much more to McMichael than his beer-swilling, hell-raising reputation. Read Part 1 here.

“What a lot of people don’t know about Steve is that he’s a very intelligent, very bright guy.” Bears Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary

During his Hall of Fame career with the Bears, Steve McMichael displayed the charisma of a rockstar and the savagery of a wild animal. A true Monster of the Midway, the native Texan hunted rattlesnakes in the offseason and quarterbacks on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights.

McMichael's persona earned him two fitting nicknames during his playing days in Chicago: "Mongo," after the character played by Alex Karras in the classic movie "Blazing Saddles," and "Ming the Merciless," a ruthless tyrant who rules the planet Mongo in Flash Gordon comic books.

McMichael certainly embraced being Mongo—a beer-swilling, hell-raising, intimidating force of nature on and off the field. He continued to lean into that personality after retiring from football and becoming a professional wrestler. But those closest to him then and now know that there's so much more to the former All-Pro defensive tackle.

"What a lot of people don't know about Steve is that he's a very intelligent, very bright guy," said Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary, McMichael's Bears teammate from 1981-92. "I sat down and talked to Steve about a number of things, and I was blown away by his ability to articulate any subject matter. I would say: 'Steve, why don't you talk like this all the time?' He'd say: "Because I'm a football player!"


Bears Hall of Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton shares a similar perspective. The two have been close friends since becoming teammates in 1981.

"Steve's mother was a schoolteacher," Hampton said. "The whole 'Mongo' thing, we laughed about it and he ran with it, but Steve was very, very smart—not only in football IQ, but just in every day parlance."

McMichael is known for his sense of humor, but there was nothing funny about the way he battled in the trenches.

"While Steve had this bombastic personality, he was a very serious player on the field," said former Bears safety Gary Fencik, McMichael's teammate from 1981-87. "There wasn't a lot of what you might think he'd be saying or doing. He was a real pro, and he took great pride in being on a great defense."

In honor of Steve McMichael being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2024, take a look at photos of the former Bears defensive tackle over the years.

Former Bears cornerback Leslie Frazier remembers reciting bible verses with McMichael during and long after their NFL playing days.

"He knows a lot more about scripture than he would ever want the public to know," said Frazier, McMichael's teammate from 1981-85. "But that is part of him. Someone, somewhere along the way was talking to him about God. Someone had read the Bible to him or talked to him about the Bible."

After McMichael revealed in April 2021 that he had been diagnosed with ALS, he was bedridden but still able to talk when Frazier visited him along with former Bears Jim Osborne and Wendell Davis.

"I told him: 'I know you know scripture because you used to talk to me about scripture. If I said a verse wrong, you would correct me,'" Frazier said. "He smiled and he gave me a verse."

"I got Steve to go to church with me a couple of times," Singletary said. "Talking to Steve about church, God, Christ, very, very deep conversations. I was blown away by his ability to articulate the Bible and really his thoughts about Jesus, what he thought about God, what he thought about life, what he thought about pain, what he thought about family, all those kinds of things."

"People don't know that his degree is in theology," said Betsy Shepherd, McMichael's longtime publicist. "He always had a Bible quote for every situation. Whether it was a football game or a personal matter of whatever he was talking about, he would quote the Bible."

Mongo was also an automobile aficionado.

"He liked cars," said former safety Doug Plank, McMichael's Bears teammate from 1981-83. "I once asked him, 'Why the red Cadillac?' He went on and on and on about engine size and longevity. I was like, 'What?' He sounded like a car manual. I would not expect him to know that much detail about an automobile."

When McMichael asked Shepherd to be his publicist in 2000, she consulted with former Bears coach Mike Ditka, who urged her to work with him.

"I said, 'Well, he kind of scares me,'" Shepherd said with a laugh. "And he goes, 'He's just a big teddy bear like me and he needs you.'"

Shepherd quickly discovered that McMichael was not only a teddy bear but one who was incredibly generous with his time and money.

"He's the sweetest, sweetest guy," she said. "Even when times were tough, he'd want to give you the shirt off his back. He raised millions of dollars for charity. He never said no to me for any of my events, especially for first responders. And he loved the police."

Betsy Shepherd and Steve McMichael
Betsy Shepherd and Steve McMichael

McMichael connected with any group he visited, whether it was nuns at the Catholic Charities Golf Classic, residents at the Belmont Village Senior Assisted Living facility or military personnel.

"He could read a room and would tell stories," Shepherd said. "I remember going to a Jewish men's club and he had them rolling [with laughter]. It was amazing. He knew exactly what to talk about. It was just something."

Former linebacker Jim Morrissey attended several golf benefits with McMichael, his Bears teammate from 1985-93.

"He was always giving back to the fans," Morrissey said. "On the field, he was all business. He was definitely a leader. He demanded the best out of you. He was a different guy off the field, and when he retired, he became even more of a fan favorite. He gave back to the community. He gave back to his fans. He was always willing to talk to anybody that would approach him. We all know and love him as the guy who played football and was tough as nails, but he was a fan favorite even more after football."

“He was that [Mongo] character, but when you spend hours and hours with him behind the scenes, he’s just an incredible human being and no one ever looks at him like that.” Former Bears guard Tom Thayer

McMichael always has had a soft spot for kids.

"We'd be signing autographs and he was so genuine and big hearted the way he treated kids because he saw himself in those kids," Frazier said. "The kindness and the affection that he would show just showed you his heart. Those were things he didn't always want the public to see, but it was there."


When guard Tom Thayer joined the Bears in 1985, he already knew about McMichael's rare strength and ability as well as his unique personality. Thayer had received intel from someone he played with in the USFL who had been McMichael's teammate and roommate with the Patriots in 1980.

"I was forewarned about the character Steve McMichael, and that's the player and the Sunday guy that I came to have an astronomical amount of respect for," Thayer said. "But also the guy behind the scenes that I got to know was an incredible, multiple athlete. He was a [talented] baseball player. He was an unbelievable racquetball player. He was just the guy that you'd want to be best friends with."

Thayer won't ever decline the opportunity to talk about his friend—especially following the conversation they had after McMichael was diagnosed with ALS.

"He said, 'Tommy, if you ever get the chance to talk about Mongo, I want you to tell them the truth,'" Thayer said. "And the truth about Ming is he is one of the smartest, most considerate, most well-thought, most congenial … all the adjectives that you want to use to talk about a quality teammate and person.

"But he never wanted to be looked at like that. He wanted to have this perception/reputation that he was that character. And he was that character, but when you spend hours and hours with him behind the scenes, he's just an incredible human being and no one ever looks at him like that."

Steve McMichael and Tom Thayer
Steve McMichael and Tom Thayer
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