It would be impossible for Cade McNown to forget his time in Chicago. He may have the imprints to never allow for it.
The 1998 first-round draft pick, twelfth overall, of the Chicago Bears spent fifty percent, or two of four years, of his tenuous NFL career in the Windy City. There weren’t many ups and more than a few downs, all of which were amplified by the passionate fandom in our football-manic town. Those memories don’t linger in McNown’s head—with four young children and an intense new career, he says there’s not any time to dwell on much of anything—but when he frees his memory, he can clearly recall Chicago Bears fans intensity, often symbolized by one visceral gesture.
“It was the pats on the back,” McNown shared along with a laugh by telephone from his Beverly Hills office. “When you are playing for the Bears, what you don’t realize right away, but you will realize, is you are playing for a team that belongs to those fans. So if I’m playing for their team, I’m kind of like their property. I’m not a big offensive tackle or anything, but with the back slapping, these guys love being physical. It’s like, ‘Hey! wham, wham.’”
There’s not any of that macho nonsense anymore as McNown rides leather behind a desk in sunny Southern California, where, as a vice president for LourdMurray, he provides financial counsel to the well-off. The second career suits the former collegiate all-American who was employed by three NFL teams during his four-year career before escaping professional football with a lifelong shoulder ailment and a lack of glory days. Back in SoCal, where he was the golden boy of UCLA football in the late 1990s, McNown is consumed by his young family—wife and four children, all younger than eight years old—and his demanding job.
McNown’s last football assignment had placed him back to California, where his final NFL paycheck came from the San Francisco 49ers in 2003. He never played a snap for the franchise, another disappointment in a short football career wrought with them (for vastly different reasons to McNown and for fans). His life after football, though, has been a major success because of that, not in spite of it.
Leaving football at twenty-six was a blessing for the former prodigy, who at the time was ripe with energy and spirit.
“I was very lucky in that I had sort of started my post-football professional career at a young-enough age where I was financially strong enough that I could kick a few tires and look into something I wanted to do rather than take anything that came my way and try to make ends meet,” he said, satisfied. “It’s a pretty nice luxury to have. I looked into doing a few different things and making different investments and eventually found my way into this field.
“It was always something I took an active interest in while playing football. It was something I enjoyed communicating to other players and people around me. It was just something I took to.”
A new career was a necessity as much it was a decision. Seeing as the average NFL career is anywhere from three to six years (depending on whom you ask, the NFL Players Association or the NFL itself), a bettor would have put money on the over for the NFL lifespan of McNown, a collegiate star known for his leadership and an NFL selection the Bears traded up to secure in 1999, a few weeks before signing McNown to a five-year, twenty-two-million-dollar contract. Out of a highly touted quarterback rookie class—that also included Tim Couch (first pick), Chicago native Donovan McNabb (second pick), Akili Smith (third pick) and Dante Culpepper (eleventh pick)—McNown, who started all four of his years at UCLA, was a sought-after product after back-to-back record-breaking seasons as a Bruin. UCLA went 20-4 in those seasons, which included a 15-1 mark in the conference and a string of twenty consecutive victories between the third week of 1997 and the eleventh week of 1998. In that time, McNown threw forty-nine touchdowns countered by seventeen interceptions on his way to two three-thousand-yard passing seasons.
Because of the Bears dismal quarterback history and their passionate—overly so—fans, as well as McNown’s explosive statistics and results out of UCLA, the quarterback who was deemed the most pro-ready of the draft was also labeled a savior in Chicago. And the result couldn’t have been more disastrous, for him nor Bears nation.
Things got off to an inauspicious start, at least to McNown, when he missed the start of training camp, while his agent and Bears management negotiated his contract.
“I had very high expectations of myself. Obviously when you are drafted high, the organization has big expectations as well. I remember being very disappointed that I wasn’t able to be into training camp day one,” he said. “… When you hire an agent and say, ‘hey, do the best job you can for me’ and you tell the organization, ‘I want to be there on day one,’ you have one guy trying to max out the contract amount and the team saying, ‘well, he is saying he wants to be here day one.’”
McNown lamented his on-field performance was not up to his expectations, either, as he finished his two-year Chicago career with sixteen touchdowns and nineteen interceptions with a 3-12 record in fifteen starts. His Chicago tenure was punctuated with a shoulder injury, one of seemingly common variety: a separated joint on the left side, McNown’s throwing arm. But the injury was worse than anyone on the outside knew, and it severed McNown’s career in two.
He never took another NFL snap.
“I was hurt and that was it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my shoulder was finished in that moment,” he said. “I ended up trying to come back. I didn’t realize it was so bad. It took me getting traded to Miami at the beginning of the following year … to then getting traded to San Francisco, where I finally said, ‘Can we get an X-ray? I don’t think my shoulder has gotten better. In fact, I think it’s gotten worse.’ And so I went in and took some X-rays and they compared them with X-rays taken after I was injured, and I’d lost about an inch of my clavicle.”
The injury didn’t improve with treatments in San Francisco, and McNown filed a career-ending disability policy with his employer. It turned into a complicated process that took three-plus years and a lawsuit to resolve. Nevertheless, McNown is known in Chicago and around the NFL as a bust, a mistake, and a waste of a draft pick by the Chicago Bears, not as an unfortunate player whose promise was derailed by injury.
“I felt like I kind of was never able to take advantage of such a great opportunity because I got hurt and consequently, anybody who has ever talked about me [says] that it was disappointing and I was a big draft bust and all that sort of stuff,” he said. “If you go back and look, I feel like we did a few good things and the team did a few good things while I was there. Certainly not up to the standard I had hoped for, but really it was just a lost opportunity because of an injury that I couldn’t overcome.
“Not that it needed to be told, I don’t have some ego that I need everyone to know that, but that’s really what ended up happening because I just never got healthy to go back and live up to both my expectations and also everyone who drafted me and all the fans who supported me. It was definitely frustrating.”
But there’s no daydreaming from McNown’s office chair. No longing for the game. No delusions of comebacks. There was no joy for McNown when he walked away. With an inoperative left arm, McNown began to disdain his craft, something at which he excelled for a decade. His arm motion became unpredictable. One throw would be fluid and pain-free. On the next, his shoulder would stall during its rotation, forcing throws into the ground or off target. “At a certain point, when you can’t do what you’ve always been able to do, it’s not fun. So you don’t really miss it. It would be like if you enjoy painting all your life and you develop Parkinson’s. You really wouldn’t enjoy painting anymore. Because of that, that was my blessing in disguise. [The injury] actually made it less fun for me.”
The frustration doesn’t hold long on McNown’s tongue. He quickly resets and finds reasonable sentiment. The “volatile,” his own word, period in Chicago fails to swallow his feelings for the city and its fans, both of which he says he greatly admires. In college, the California son was used to a more fence-riding fanbase in college. Diehards aside, LA sports fans “love a winner,” he said. When UCLA dominated Pac-10 (now Pac-12) football in his final two seasons, the star quarterback played for an at-capacity Rose Bowl. The previous two seasons, when McNown was a frosh and soph, however, things weren’t so intense. UCLA was middle of the road, and SoCal fans met the effort with a collective shrug.
Reading that, Bears fans surely tilt their collective head. That’s not acceptable here. McNown found that out.
“In LA … if you’re not winning they just kind of—there are certainly diehards out here—but generally they just kind of don’t show up. They go do something else,” he said. “And in Chicago, the passion is there no matter what. They are either going to passionately love you or passionately get on you. I wouldn’t say hate, but they are going to be passionate in a negative way. … Even when we weren’t doing well, that stadium was full, and they’d just get on you a little harder. That’s probably obvious to everyone there, but to me, that was a big difference.”
The unwavering passion from fans, while surely overwhelming, continues to amaze and charm McNown. But there was also plenty more to love about Chicago, and despite the volatility, McNown’s time was certainly better spent here, he said, than some other cities, especially one Midwest football town he, in an effort of high-road discretion, neglected to mention by name.
“It’s the best. I absolutely love the city of Chicago,” he said. “It is so clean, the buildings are beautiful, the people are fantastic. Folks that come to live in the city of Chicago who tend to come from out of town are coming from smaller towns with a great attitude, that Midwestern sensibility. That all comes together in this beautiful city.
“My wife and I have been there a couple time for business together and she can’t believe how great it is. I was very, very lucky to live in Chicago playing for the Bears. It was a pretty nice treat, especially when compared against a couple of the cities you can end up living in when you play in the NFL—which I won’t mention. There’s certainly at least one I can think of not too far north that doesn’t compare with the city of Chicago.”
Once a Bear, always a Bear, they say, and even McNown fits the mold, finishing his Chicago compliments by proudly recalling his fondest NFL moment: “I will say, one of the things I’m proud of while I was in Chicago was I managed to start two games in Lambeau [Field, home stadium of the Green Bay Packers] and we won them both. It certainly wasn’t because of me, but to be able to do that is pretty cool looking back.
“I don’t think it’s happened a lot.”
Take that to your trivia night.