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Shoeless Jim McMahon plays through pain

Jim McMahon literally gets a feel for the green Tuesday while putting on the third hole in the Tahoe South Celebrity-Am at Edgewood Tahoe.
Jim McMahon literally gets a feel for the green Tuesday while putting on the third hole in the Tahoe South Celebrity-Am at Edgewood Tahoe.

The first thing you notice about Jim McMahon is the bare feet, which the management at Edgewood Tahoe would frown upon had they belonged to anybody other than the quarterback of one of the greatest teams in NFL history.

“It’s how I learned to play,” Shoeless Jim said of his golf game – not football – at the conclusion of his round Tuesday in the Tahoe South Celebrity-Am. “I’ve got bad feet, and there’s no rule that says you have to wear shoes.”

There aren’t any in football, either, which has given rise to the barefoot kicker, although you don’t see many quarterbacks going without them.

How’d his feet get to be so bad?

Simple, McMahon answered:

“Fat (fellows) stepping on them for 20 years.”

As one of the many front men on the 1985 Chicago Bears, McMahon directed an offense that lived off the fat of the land. The defense tore it up like Sherman did Georgia to simplify McMahon’s work. He reveled in the physicality, banging heads with his linemen in celebration. The team went 15-1 during the regular season, wiped out everybody in the playoffs, and contributed an important piece to our cultural landscape as a song-and-dance man in the “Super Bowl Shuffle” video.

Now McMahon’s feet are a wreck, and it doesn’t get much better for him as you work your way upward.

Twelve times, doctors operated on his knees, a seven-five split in favor of the right side. Three times, they cut into his right shoulder. He’ll never forget the time the Raiders ripped apart his kidney in 1984. Put him down for five broken ribs, too.

And who can forget one of the dirtiest plays ever inflicted by one football player on another in 1986, when Green Bay Packers linebacker Charles Martin body-slammed McMahon. The separated shoulder ended McMahon’s season and probably did in the Bears’ chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions.

Then there were the concussions – at least three McMahon said were fully diagnosed, along with an untold number of other blows to the head that were not. In McMahon’s post-retirement years, the pain got so bad he contemplated suicide. When painkillers did more harm than good, he turned to medicinal marijuana and moved to Arizona where he can grow his own.

It’s how I learned to play. I’ve got bad feet, and there’s no rule that says you have to wear shoes.

Jim McMahon, on golfing while shoeless

McMahon signed on as one of the original plaintiffs in the concussion lawsuit that former players filed against the NFL. The list of plaintiffs grew into the thousands, and the league agreed in 2013 to a settlement that could be worth up to $5 million to some players depending on the severity of their neurological damage. It could end up costing the league in the neighborhood of $1 billion.

Although the appeals by a group of players unhappy with the deal appear to be winding down, “nobody’s seen a dime, yet,” McMahon said.

He sat in his golf cart with a can of Coors Light after an 18-hole scramble Tuesday, when his team competed against others headed by celebrities and athletes such as Marshall Faulk, Eric Gagne, Bode Miller and Sebastian Janikowski.

Pain, McMahon said, still represents a line of demarcation in his life. On one side of it, he can still do the things that make life worth living, like playing golf along the deep blue waters of Lake Tahoe and breathing deeply the fresh air that whistles through the pines. On the other side of the divide, there is abject immobility.

“I’ve got my good days and bad,” McMahon said. “As long as I keep my neck and head in alignment, I’m fairly normal.”

McMahon visits a chiropractor in New York City every two or three months to keep everything lined up.

“It keeps the spinal fluid flowing properly,” he said. “But when it gets out of whack, all I want to do is lay down in a dark room.”

Tuesday’s scramble served as a prelude to this weekend’s $600,000 American Century Championship at Edgewood Tahoe. The 54-hole main event gets underway Friday, with 84 athletes and entertainers taking to the fairways. A-listers include singer-actor Justin Timberlake, two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry, former 49ers coach and current Michigan head man Jim Harbaugh, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and retired soccer star and World Cup champion Abby Wambach.

McMahon will be out there again Friday, competing in the charity tournament for the 27th consecutive year.

12 Knee operations on Jim McMahon

On Tuesday, it looked as if his game could use some work. He blasted deep on his drives and looked OK with the putter toward the end of his round, but he let loose with the expletives on several occasions when he hit it fat on the fairways or chipped them hot across the greens.

“I need to take a few days off,” McMahon said. “This Sunday I’m going to be exhausted.”

The self-directed anger of his flubs quickly dissipated. When he returned to his golf cart at the end of each hole, he patiently autographed shirts, caps and programs for dozens of fans. Want a selfie with No.  9? Step right up.

“The fans have always been great,” McMahon said. “It’s fun.”

It’s not always a frolic, though, for yesterday’s heroes. You know they made plenty of money and that some of them are doing just fine. You also know that the pursuit of their craft came with great sacrifice to their minds and bodies, all the way down to their bare feet.

Jim Harbaugh talks about the Michigan Wolverines and the San Francisco 49ers from the American Century Championship golf tournament.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

American Century Celebrity Golf Championship

When: Friday through Sunday

Where: Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course

TV: Friday, NBCSN, 3-5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, Ch. 3, noon-3 p.m.