The first time I walked into Soldier Field, my breath ran ahead of me, squeezing my lungs like a relative hugging me too hard. The painted gridiron I had seen so many times on television — it was right there. It was the set of my favorite movie or like walking through a chapter of my favorite book. Orange and blue, the colors that always grab my attention when together, were everywhere. At last, I was surrounded by people with the same passion for the Chicago Bears. My eyes welled up, as I began to weep. I ducked into a restroom, and a tear streaked down my face like a Devin Hester punt return. I was 39 years old.
At eight I didn’t watch much of the NFL, until one Sunday Dad asked, “Who do you want to win, the Bears or Rams?” I said the Bears. They did, and then crushed the Patriots to win Super Bowl XX. After a stream of player endorsement deals, Saturday Night Live skits, and even a music video, the ’85 Bears became part of American pop culture and my favorite team. Not my parents’, not my siblings’, or buddies’, just mine. Why weren’t they everyone’s favorite team? They were the greatest right then, but I had no idea my heart was signing a life-long contract.
Every autumn, whether the Bears were on that week or not, Dad and I sat on our worn couch to watch football. The shift of the fall sun did more than cool off the Sunday afternoons. By mid-October, a glare would drag its way across our television screen. It arrived near the end of the first quarter and lasted until late into the second half. Finally, I grew tall enough to drape an afghan across the curtain rod so that only tiny specks of light would pollute the screen. Instead of getting worked up about a game, Dad would lie on the couch, and I would sit across his legs near the armrest. After answering my questions about a rule or a player — or maybe sharing an anecdote about a historical game, he would catch a quick nap. When he woke up and games got close, I knelt by the television serving as the remote.
“Change it to four. Now six, nope commercial — back to four.” There was no internet, and highlights weren’t readily available. Instead, I was at the mercy of NBC’s Ten-Minute Ticker to update me on the Bears’ score while Dad focused on his Browns.
For Christmas my parents bought me a Bears mini-football which my friends and I wore out at recess. Over the years other gifts followed: T-shirts, stickers, hats, posters, mugs, a blanket, a throw pillow (which is still often thrown during games), and other meaningful collectibles.
When I was 15, my mother gave me a Bears sock hat. It’s fuzzy and worn out now, but it stays ready in my closet. She bought it in Chicago while she was there for cancer treatments. It was her final gift to me.
In college, my best friend Eric, who became a Bears fan later in childhood, was able to get a framed, autographed Mike Singletary picture for me. He worked security at a signing in Chicago and knew how much it would mean to me because I tried to get Singletary’s autograph before a game at Cleveland when I was a kid, but the hall-of-fame linebacker didn’t stop. Eric also gave me a Curtis Conway jersey. Out of all of their terrible first-round selections, Conway is one of the worst. Still, it’s my only Bears jersey, so I’ve worn it to every Bears game that I’ve attended. “Conway? That’s a blast from the past,” fellow Bears fans always say. A true fan would remember him, and a true fan still wears the jersey because it brings luck.
While living in St. Louis, I went alone to every single Bears game when they were in town against the Rams. I would always get on the Metrolink, proudly sporting my Conway jersey, an alien in dark blue and orange among a crowd of glaring Rams gold. I was taunted with snickers and boos, and one time even a deaf guy harassed me through sign-language. But on the ride back from the stadium that night, no one said a thing. Just like when I was eight, the Bears beat the Rams.
Football seasons can mimic life in how the good times come and go. There are pathetic years, there are landmark years, but unless the season ends with a Super Bowl victory, ultimately there is letdown. The 2006–07 season was one where Sunday afternoons became the only positive part of my week as the Bears won their first eight games. For three hours, I could forget that I was in an awful relationship sharing an awful apartment with a few awful months left on a lease. And as the Bears clinched home-field advantage through the playoffs, I could forget the previous seasons of disappointment. It was like I was eight again.
Even though they were playing in it, I declined Super Bowl party invitations because it was a game I needed to watch alone. I bought a six-pack and a bag of chips and stayed home. Even the introduction to the game led to a swell of emotions for everything this team meant to me. All of the teasing I endured in the miserable 90’s during high school dripped off my face. The worthless years of mediocrity when someone else was crowned champion could be forgotten. How could I have possibly known what a Super Bowl win meant when I was a child? Now it would mean everything. Could life at least give me that?
The Bears returned the opening kickoff back for a touchdown and the game stayed close. Five beers later in the second half, as the Bears deficit grew after Rex Grossman threw a pick-six, I had to admit the dream season was ending. My current relationship needed to end as well. I called my employee help-line for counseling and said, “I need to see someone. The only good thing in my life is losing the Super Bowl. Everything else is a mess.”
“How’s Thursday at six work?”
The relationship and the lease concluded a few months later at the end of April. I had a lot to pack and move into my own place. In the back of the fridge, I found the last beer from that lonely six-pack that I never finished, so I swallowed the bitterness of the loss once more. But the NFL draft was that same weekend, and it promised a new class of rookies and hope. I resumed packing my possessions for my new home. Buried in the bottom of my closet, beneath the piles of clothes, its fuzzy orange and blue threads barely holding on, was my Bears sock hat. It was warm on that first day of May, but I put it on anyway and finished carrying my stuff out.
That summer I debated moving away from St. Louis, but I met a girl across the river in Illinois. Within minutes I knew that I would love her. I can’t explain why. On our first real date I asked her, “Do you root for the Bears or the Rams?”
“The Bears. Of course.”
My heart signed another life-long contract. Two years later we married on the first day of May.