Rooting for Da Bears
CHICAGO — OK, let’s start here: A few minutes before kickoff between the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans at Soldier Field on Sunday, there was this vendor walking up our aisle selling hot dogs. He had, and I say this only with admiration, one of the loudest voices I have ever heard. He shouted. “Get your hot dogs here!” and I feel sure you could hear him in Minooka. This will matter in a moment.
We — meaning me and our younger daughter, Katie — had been invited to this Bears game by the one and only Jeff Garlin. There is a big bowl of joy that comes with watching a Bears game with Jeff, and I’ll get to that too, but for now I will only say that Jeff called the hot dog guy over.
“Do you want a hot dog, too?” I asked Katie. She had already gotten a chicken fingers platter and a Dr. Pepper, and the game hadn’t even started, but she said that, yes, she would love a hot dog. So Jeff ordered her one, and the hot dog guy handed it to her.
“Can I have some ketchup?” Katie asked the guy.
Now, if you are a Chicagoan — or familiar with the traditions and customs of those creatures of Chicago — you probably know what’s about to happen. But you need to understand that Katie had absolutely no idea what was coming. She has lived most of her life in North Carolina, where ordering ketchup for your hot dog is as common as asking for a spoon for your soup.
“You want ketchup?” the hot dog guy said, very loudly, and the way he said it might have alerted Katie that something was amiss. It’s like there was scary music playing in the background. “You want KETCHUP for your HOT DOG?”
And before Katie had a chance to reconsider, he pulled a ketchup packet from his tray and in a voice that magnified and echoed for 200 miles around, he said. “OK! HERE’S YOUR KETCHUP!”
And with that, boos — not just a few from the seats around, but from all over Soldier Field, the sort of boos that have crashed down on every Chicago quarterback since Sid Luckman — rained on Katie as she covered her head and laughed hysterically.
You don’t ask for ketchup on your hot dog at a Bears game.
“Sorry,” the hot dog guy said with a big smile on his face. “Welcome to Chicago!”
The first time I saw Jeff Garlin cry — really cry — was when the Bears scored an early field goal and the fight song “Bear Down” began to play. It is believed that “Bear Down” was written by the legendary Al Hoffman, who wrote countless hit songs, including Disney classics, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” along with a couple of Elvis songs and “Fit as a Fiddle,” from “Singing in the Rain,” and many other classics, such as “Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea.”
Hoffman, apparently, wrote “Bear Down” in 1941 under the pseudonym Jerry Downs, even though he wasn’t from Chicago and never lived in Chicago and didn’t really strike anyone as a football fan. He was born in Minsk and grew up in Seattle and spent a good while in London. But he wrote “Bear Down” in 1941, shortly after the Bears beat Washington 73-0 in the NFL Championship Game by unleashing a newfangled offense called the T-Formation.
That plays a fairly prominent role in the song.
Bear down, Chicago Bears! Make every play clear the way to victory.
Bear down, Chicago Bears! Put up a fight with a might so fearlessly.
We'll never forget the way you thrilled the nation with your T-formation.
Bear down, Chicago Bears, and let them know why you're wearing the crown.
You're the pride and joy of Illinois! Chicago Bears, bear down!
They play this song after every Bears score, which is either wonderful or horrifying depending on your particular vulnerability to earworms. For Jeff, it is a connection to his father, who sang it to him when he was young. He doesn’t cry every time they play it. But, it seems, at least once a game he will hear it, and he will tear up.
By the way, I am hearing “Bear Down” in my head over and over again.
No, seriously, every single person who talks to me seems to be doing so to the tune of “Bear Down.”
I need some help, is what I’m saying here.
I should add: This wasn’t the only time Jeff cried a little during the game. He cried when passing the Walter Payton statue. He cried at the end of the national anthem. He cried at kickoff. The Bears are an emotional experience for him.
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Then, as we found, the Bears are an emotional experience, period. Jeff, as you might expect, has very good seats, right on the 50-yard line, which means that pretty much every person sitting around us has been a Bears season ticket holder going back to the days when George Halas played all 22 positions, coached the team, sold concessions and cleaned up the stadium afterward.
And they all told us stories, so many stories, about the time they proposed to their wife at Soldier Field, and the times they endured minus-20 degree days thanks to a good friend named Miller, or the way their fathers and grandfathers and uncles taught them how to boo the hell out of Jack Concannon or Bobby Douglass or Bob Avellini.
Boos with love. Always with love.
They could not have been more welcoming or friendly, but I must admit that I felt just a little bit like a stranger at the VFW surrounded by veterans telling war stories. We joined in, cheered like mad, booed Justin Fields, sang along with “Bear Down,” — I’m not kidding, I could really use a quick lobotomy here just to get this song out of my head — but they have scars that we do not. We did not look like them. We did not sound like them.
This is in part because — and I realize that this will sound like a cliché, but it’s a simple truth — each and every one of them looked and sounded like Billy Swersky from the “SNL” “Da Bears” skit. I seriously wanted to ask how they thought the Bears would do against the Texans if they were all 14-inch tall mini-Bears.*
*And have them ask me back: “Wait, it is a mini-Ditka or a regular-sized Ditka?”
Also: The Bears are a haunted team. I don’t know that I ever appreciated that before, but it became clear as we walked through Grant Park on our way to Soldier Field. We were entirely surrounded by people wearing Bears jerseys, which is typical, but almost none of the jerseys had the names of players currently on the Bears. No, the names were of Payton and Butkus, Ditka and Urlacher, Dent and Sayers, McMahon and Singletary. There were A LOT of Khalil Mack jerseys, and a surprising number of Jay Cutler jerseys.
Brandon Marshall jerseys. Tim Jennings jerseys. I probably saw at least a half dozen Cohen jerseys — I can only assume that’s Tarik Cohen, who was a really fun player for a short while (the Human Joystick!) but he missed all of last year with a knee injury and then got released by the team.
I saw one Brian Piccolo jersey.*
*In preparation for this game — and because she now appears to be leaning toward Wake Forest as her college choice — we showed Katie the impossibly sad movie “Brian’s Song.” Unfortunately, she fell asleep halfway through it (it was the end of a long day) and so to her the movie seemed to be a happy romp about what a prankster Brian Piccolo was.
When she woke up she said she wanted to see the end of the movie, which we said would be a good idea. She asked, “Is Gale Sayers still alive?” We told her no. Then she asked, “Is Brian Piccolo still alive?” and we told her she really needed to see the end of the movie.
Yes, everything about the Bears now points to a glorious and tortured past. I did see a few Justin Fields jerseys, though I suspect they mostly belong to those proud few Bears optimists who have closets filled with jerseys that have TRUBISKY and BARKLEY and ORTON and McNOWN and KRAMER on the back.
That glorious and tortured Bears past isn’t in the past at all in Chicago. The loudest cheers of the entire game — louder and more sustained even, I think, than when Roquan Smith stepped in front of a deflected pass and picked it off with 1:14 left in the game — came when Dick Butkus himself appeared on the video screen for a sideline interview.
“What do you want to say to the fans?” he was asked.
“You fans are number one!” he said, and you can imagine how loud the crowd was then.
“What do you want to say to the Bears?” he was asked.
“GET BETTER!” he growled, and the roars grew even louder.
This was another one of those times when Jeff cried, I think.
The game itself was blah until the very end. The Bears jumped out to a 10-0 lead and it looked to Katie and my untrained eyes like it might be easy. Nobody around us thought that. They knew. They’d seen it before. And sure enough, the Texans had the lead midway through the second quarter.
The Texans quarterback is a guy named Davis Mills. I don’t know much about him, but I like people who have two last names.
Anyway, the Bears kept staying in the game, though it was never entirely clear how. That Bears offense is a special kind of frustrating to watch. Their young quarterback, Justin Fields, has obvious talent and can do incredible things now and again, especially as a runner. But:
His offensive line is atrocious
He is capable of making mind-numbingly bad decisions
He plays in Chicago, where quarterbacks go to die
These three facts set up a question that the Bears coaches must ask each other before every single play: “Do we or do we not let Justin Fields throw the ball?”
The answer is usually: No. They don’t want him to throw the ball on first down because the Bears actually have some exciting running backs, such as David Montgomery (who got hurt) and Khalil Herbert (who looks like an absolute star).*
*It should be said here, the Bears ALWAYS have great running backs. It’s wild, you ask any Bears fan about great quarterbacks in team history and they will all say Sid Luckman, who played in those days when players would play both sides of the football and then serve as cab drivers who took fans home. Then they will talk about how Jim McMahon was a winner. And that’s pretty much the end of the conversation.
But running backs? From Red Grange to Bronko Nagurski to Willie Galimore to Gale Sayers to Walter Payton to Neal Anderson to Matt Forte, it has been an embarrassment of riches.
And they don’t want him throwing the ball on second and long because an interception might spark the sorts of boos that he never quite recovers from. They don’t want him throwing on third and long because the team will be expecting it and that won’t be good, but they also don’t want him throwing on third and short because he might get sacked and taken out of field goal range.
The lack of confidence the Bears coaches have in Justin Fields infuses everything. He threw a season-high 17 passes on Sunday. To the Bears fans all around us, it felt like roughly 15 passes too many. But, at exactly the same time, it also felt like 15 passes too few. At one point, the scoreboard showed that Fields had an 11.4 passer rating. But he did hit a couple of passes after that, pushing it up to a 27.7 passer rating.
Reminder: If you went 0-for-30 passing in a game for 0 yards and 0 interceptions, you would have a 39.6 passer rating.
As such, the game was a slog. The only truly interesting thing to me — and I apologize if this is something obvious that I have just missed because I haven’t been to a football game in forever — happened when there was a replay review. The public address announcer would say, “That’s a replay review, and it’s time to go under the hood with …” and then he mentioned some company I forget.
But what happened next blew my mind. They showed the official go look at the replay on the tablet — there is no more hood — and then the announcer said: “And now you will share the feed with official so that you are seeing exactly what he’s looking at.”
That’s exactly what happened: We got to watch the exact way the official looked at the play. Like there was one contested fumble so we got to watch while the official looked at the play from one angle and then went back and forth, back and forth, to see if the player’s knee was down before the ball was loose.
And now I have to ask every single NFL television person: HOW IN THE WORLD ARE WE NOT SEEING THIS ON TELEVISION? Why are they always showing different replays with clueless announcers or some retired referee making comments when it is possible to see what the ACTUAL OFFICIAL IS ACTUALLY WATCHING?
I’m not kidding, I was furious when watching this. It reminds me of the Gary Gulman joke about self-adhesive stamps. Why did that take so long? Why did they make us lick stamps all those years? What were they just sitting on the sticker technology? You’re telling me that all these years, we could have been watching the replays along with replay officials, and they just sat on the technology? Enraging.
OK, sorry, back to the game, it was 20-20 in the fourth quarter, and Fields threw a mind-numbingly terrible interception that seemed to give the game to Houston, but then Mills got sacked to take the Texans out of field goal range, and then Fields got sacked when the Bears were closing in on field goal range, and then Houston committed some holding penalty that ended that drive, and then Fields got sacked to pretty much end that drive, and then came the play, just as raindrops began to fall at Soldier Field.
Mills dropped back and tried to throw a short pass over the middle, it was deflected and Roquan Smith stepped in front of the ball and picked it off and ran it all the way to the Texans 12-yard line. Bears fans all at once realized two things. First, they realized that the Bears could run down the clock and kick the game-winning field goal. And second, they realized that this would not require any pass attempts.
It was pure happiness all around us. There’s nothing quite like being in the center of pure happiness.
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Cairo Santos did, indeed, kick the game-winning field goal as the clock expired and people were hugging us from all sides and it was quite wonderful. We began to make our way out with the happy crowd when a chant began, faint at first but growing stronger and stronger as it gained momentum.
And the chant was: “Green Bay sucks! Green Bay sucks!”
At this, Katie was baffled. Why were they chanting “Green Bay sucks,” in the seconds after beating the Houston Texans at the final whistle on a beautiful afternoon in Chicago? Why was this young boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, decked out in full Bears regalia, screaming “Green Bay sucks! Green Bay sucks!” over and over and over again?
There wasn’t an easy explanation except maybe to say that the Bears once owned the Packers, absolutely owned them, from the end of World War II until the late 1950s, the Bears lost just four times to the Packers. The Bears were the class of football. The Packers were a joke.
Then came Lombardi and Starr.
Then the Bears reestablished dominance, the mid-1980s, crushed the Pack time and time again. But then came Favre and then came Rodgers and now the Bears have lost 22 of their last 25 games against the Packers and have not swept Green Bay in 15 years and maybe that is the ultimate symbol of what it means to be a Bears fan now.
And so the chant went on as we walked out toward the Fields Museum and through the tunnel into Grant Park — “Green Bay sucks! Green Bay sucks!” — and Jeff began to add some of his own lyrics to the chant.
Green Bay sucks!
Because they always beat us!
They beat us every time!
And that’s what makes them suck!
Green Bay sucks!
But if Green Bay sucks!
What does that make us?
When they always beat us!
A few people heard him. They smiled and asked if they could get a photo with him. He doesn’t take photographs with people but asked if, instead, they would just like to talk for a while, you know, talk about how great the game was and how great Chicago is and how fantastic it was to hear from Butkus and how awesome a runner Walter Payton was and so on. Some did. Others returned to their meditation about how Green Bay sucks. They are part of a strange and wonderful religion, these Bears fans.