The story making the rounds is that the White House reception planned for the Super Bowl Champion 1985 Chicago Bears was canceled because the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just two days after their championship win.
But there was no White House reception to cancel.
In 1986, White House receptions for Super Bowl champions were not standard practice. In his first six years in office, President Ronald Reagan – a big football fan – never hosted the Super Bowl winning team. He routinely called the winning and losing head coach after the game, and in 1983, he started the practice of having the White House release an official transcript of the call (as you can imagine it was pretty formulaic – the same joke about how the administration could use Player X up on Capitol Hill keeps popping up). The transcripts were released for these calls to the winning coach in 1983, 1984, 1985, and in 1986 Reagan called Mike Ditka (although the transcript for the 1986 call to Ditka was never released, rest assured that there was a joke in Reagan’s notes about how he wished he had the Fridge with him in DC to help his administration).*
Not only were receptions for Super Bowl winners unprecedented in the Reagan White House, there is affirmative evidence that a reception had NOT been planned before the Challenger blew up.
On Monday January 27th, the day after the Super Bowl, Chicago held a ticker tape parade, and Senator Alan Dixon of Illinois sent a letter to White House requesting that Reagan hold a reception for the team.
The fact that Dixon felt he had to write a letter suggests that as of mid-day Monday the 27th, no White House reception had as yet been planned (for certainly the Senator from Illinois – on pretty good terms with the Reagan administration – would have known about it).
The following day (Tuesday, January 28th), at 11:38 Eastern Time, the Challenger exploded. So, not much time to plan a reception.
Also, there’s this – the Bears’ media director at the time said that he did not believe a reception was even being considered before the shuttle disaster.
Now, it is true that the following year – basically out of the blue – Reagan started inviting Super Bowl winners to the White House. Maybe Dixon’s letter reached Reagan and the President filed the idea away for later. Maybe there was some shift in Reagan’s White House staff that made the reception possible. Or maybe Reagan (in the last two years of his presidency) just decided it would be cool to have the Super Bowl champs at the White House. Who knows?
The first team to come to White House during the Reagan administration was the New York Giants in 1987. The Washington football club attended a reception in their honor the following year.