One day after the Bears’ 1984 season concluded with a 23-0 loss to the 49ers in the NFC championship game, Terry Schmidt walked up the stairs in old Halas Hall and turned right, passed the reception desk and took a seat in the office of defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.
The conversation was blunt, as most conversations with the late Ryan were.
Schmidt: “Hey coach, how’s it going?”
Ryan: “Have you started planning your retirement party yet?”
Schmidt: “Well, no.”
Ryan: “Schmidty, I think it’s time.”
And so instead of becoming an iconic 1985 champion, the cornerback went on a quest to replace what he had been for the previous 11 years. He knew how he would spend his time. He had already had been studying to be a dentist at Loyola in his offseasons. But replacing football was about more than finding another job. It was about finding a purpose.
In 1996, Schmidt and his wife Nancy were members of Cornerstone Community Church in Waukegan. Their pastor was leading a mission trip to a Guatemalan village to help with a construction project and help translate the New Testament to the native tongue of the Tz’utujil Indians. Schmidt, who had graduated from dental school first in his class and was working at VA Medical Center in North Chicago, volunteered to go along to perform dentistry.
In Guatemala, Schmidt met people whose existences made six-week training camps with three-a-day practices look like resort living. Schmidt reached into their mouths and extracted teeth with the same steady hands that intercepted 26 NFL passes.
Since then, he has been on close to 30 missions to far-away places he previously imagined only through the grace of National Geographic. He has made approximately 2,000 patients better.
Most of his patients never have seen a toothbrush. In many of the countries he has visited, parents put babies to bed with bottles of sugar water, and pacified teething toddlers by letting them chew on sugar cane.
There are challenges. Most of the clinics are set up in schools or thatched huts. No doors, windows, screens or fans. Dirt floors. Cracked walls. Dogs and chickens.
Schmidt has worked in a medical center in only one of the places he has visited — Togo. And there, he estimates the technology is about a half century behind what he is accustomed to.
The village Schmidt visited in Bolivia did not seem to be of the same world as Lake Forest, where Schmidt worked every day when he was a Bear.
When he was in Haiti, one sip could lead to dysentery. And it seemed like so long ago when he was playing on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Out in the bush in Togo, bathroom accommodations were an afterthought. So a hole was dug, palm fronds were cut, and everyone did what they had to do.
In Guatemala, the translation has to go from English to Spanish to Tz’utujil to Spanish to English. Schmidt subsequently learned a few phrases in Tz’utujil.
“Open your mouth,” sounds like “Ta ca a che,” with short a’s and a long e.
Schmidt’s crew packs a generator because not all locations have electricity.
He also brings upper, lower and anterior forceps for uprooting teeth, forceps elevators, which resemble little chisels, curettes for scooping out tissue, root tip picks to remove roots, cryer elevators to remove broken roots, rongeurs, which are dental pliers to trim bone, scissors, syringes, disposable needles and local anesthetic. And then there is a healthy supply of four by four gauzes to clean up the mess.
These are the instruments with which Schmidt makes the world a better place.
Schmidt’s life might have been very different had he been part of the 1985 Bears legend. While his former teammates were rolling over the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, Schmidt was back home in Chicago. He had classes at Loyola the next morning.
“One of my great regrets was missing the Super Bowl by a year,” Schmidt said. “But I was happy for the guys. There were a lot of guys who were there when we were struggling. For them to win the whole thing and come close to a perfect season, I was really happy for them.”
Schmidt doesn’t have many other regrets about his football life. He had quite a run. He was Ball State’s most valuable player in 1973 and a fifth-round draft pick of the Saints in 1974. He had four interceptions in his first five NFL games, and was voted to the all-rookie team. He was cut by the Saints going into his third season, and claimed off waivers by the Bears. He played in Chicago for nine seasons and started 95 games.
“I got to play with several players who made the Hall of Fame, and that was pretty cool,” Schmidt said of Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton and Richard Dent. He also played for Mike Ditka, another Hall of Famer.
His fondest memory is from Dec. 16, 1979. On that snowy morning, he and his teammates learned president Mugs Halas had a massive heart attack and died at 54. The mood was somber, but the Bears had work to do. If they could beat the Cardinals, and the Cowboys could beat the Redskins, and the combined margins of victory could be at least 34 points, the Bears would make the playoffs as a wild-card team.
Mugs’ death ended up being an inspiration, and the Bears wiped out the Cardinals 42-6 in the early afternoon game. In the late afternoon game, the Redskins took a 34-21 lead on the Cowboys. Then Roger Staubach threw a game-winning touchdown pass with 39 seconds remaining for a Dallas victory.
“We were down under the bleachers at the old Soldier Field listening to the game on radio,” Schmidt said. “Everybody was so excited to go to the playoffs, and we were excited for Doug Buffone, who was in his last season.”
By 1983, Schmidt could see his own career coming to an end. Teammates had taken to calling Schmidt “Coffin” because he kept coming out of his coffin to make the team. The Bears had drafted a parade of cornerbacks, and in the second round that year they secured his replacement, Mike Richardson.
Demoted to nickel corner, Schmidt tried to make the best of his role. In the second game of the season, the Bears and Bucs were tied at 10 in the fourth quarter. Bucs quarterback Jerry Golsteyn was under pressure and tried to throw a ball away. Schmidt broke on the pass and intercepted it, running 32 yards before diving into the end zone with 10:46 left to play. The Bears won 17-10, and Ditka gave Schmidt a game ball.
Even then, Schmidt was different from many of his teammates, according to the recollection of former teammate Doug Plank.
“He was soft-spoken and always in control of his emotions,” Plank said. “Football was just a piece of his life, not his whole life. Terry played very consistently. You knew exactly what you were going to get from him each game. He was great at communication and being in the right place at the right time. He did not need to play like a maniac, because there was plenty of other Bear players willing to do that. I always respected him and knew he was going to perform every week.”
Connections to the Bears remain for Schmidt. When Ryan passed away last year, he joined many of his former teammates at the funeral in Kentucky.
When one of his former comrades hurts, he does too.
“It breaks my heart that Dave Duerson didn’t have anyone to reach out to and he shot himself in the chest because he wanted his brain studied,” Schmidt said. “We were teammates and I enjoyed his company. We talked about what he needed to do after football.”
Other than a cranky hip, Schmidt is in good health. He might get a little forgetful now and then. But what 65-year-old doesn’t? He has had a baseline neurological test taken, and given his children instructions on where to send him should he suffer severe cognitive impairment.
He still remembers what a good defense looks like, even though he has not seen one in Chicago for awhile.
“It’s always been the heritage of the Bears to have an outstanding defense,” he said. “Being an ex-defensive player, to see the defense go south has been very disturbing. I was hoping with [John] Fox being there as a defensive coach they would start getting better. I think they are getting better, but they are kind of thin at corner.”
The Bears could use some Terry Schmidts these days.
As could the rest of humanity.
In one Brazilian village, Schmidt and his fellow missionaries finished their work ahead of schedule. They decided to look for another village that could use help. They packed and boarded their spartan vessel and cruised further down the Amazon River. They docked by another village unannounced. The trip leader disembarked and met with the village chief by one of the huts on stilts to see if they were welcome. The village chief’s response stunned them.
“We received your letter and we couldn’t wait for you to get here,” the village chief told them.
“What letter?” the trip leader said. “This wasn’t on our itinerary and we didn’t send you a letter.”
They looked at each other, shrugged, and the missionaries began to do God’s work.
“We knew then,” Nancy Schmidt said, “that we were where we were supposed to be.”
Her husband says he has found his niche.
“It’s part of my Christian walk,” said Schmidt, who pays for his own transportation but is otherwise funded by Christians for Worldwide Evangelism. “We are called to take care of the underprivileged. We need to take the talents we have and share them with people who are less fortunate. I get more out of it than what I give. The people are so gracious, so thankful. To see people who live like they do and be so happy gives me great perspective.”
There are some similarities to the work he does now and the work he did then. At its highest level, football is a very selfless game. It requires sacrifice, trust and respect.
“The thing I miss the most about playing is the friendships, the camaraderie,” said Schmidt, who now works at Mountain Home VA Center in Tennessee. “But you develop the same kinds of friendships on a mission trip. So in a sense, this has helped me replace what I miss.”
The missions have been more gratifying because they have been shared with his wife of 26 years. Nancy has no health care background, but participates as her husband’s dental assistant.
“I get to see a part of him I normally never would get to see,” Nancy said.
The Schmidts’ world was shattered in 2008 when Nancy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Three surgeries and four bouts with chemo later, her body remains at war. She had to miss two mission trips, but is hopeful she won’t miss any others, including the next trip, which will likely be to Cameroon, Honduras or Haiti.
There is much to look forward to — friends to meet, lives to change.
Wearing a Super Bowl ring would be rewarding for Schmidt. Maybe not as much, though, as saving a man’s jaw.
On one trip to Guatemala, a villager named Manuel Juan came to Schmidt. One of his teeth had been pulled six weeks earlier, but part of the root had remained. A severe infection subsequently set in. Schmidt removed the remainder of the root, but feared Manuel Juan might lose a large portion of his mandible if he didn’t get to an oral surgeon to treat the remaining infection. Schmidt and the rest of his group put up the funds to send the man to Guatemala City to see the specialist.
One year later, Schmidt returned to the village. A healthy, happy Manuel Juan was there to greet him, as relieved and thankful that somebody had cared about him as he was that his pain had ceased.
Another Guatemalan, Maria, was frantic. Her seven-month-old had fallen and broken a baby tooth, and could not nurse as a result. She was distraught about the possibility the child would starve to death.
Schmidt, at the right place at the right time, removed the broken tooth. Within five minutes a joyful mama was nursing her child.
This is what it’s about.
“I found my passion outside of football,” Schmidt said.
After Schmidt breathes his last breath, the obituary headlines will identify him as “Former Bear.”
He is so much more than that.