Short of the Jaws of Life, it’s very difficult to think of something that could loosen the Bears’ grip on Chicago.
And by grip, I’m not talking about attendance at Soldier Field — though that rarely has been threatened in a sustained way, despite long periods of losing. It’s the psychic hold the franchise has on the city that seems unbreakable. The Bears can be up or down, good or bad, blue or orange, and it doesn’t seem to matter. On Sunday mornings, a massive army of fans wakes up anticipating a football game on their TV sets. On Monday mornings, those same fans wake up either irritated or with a spring in their step, depending on whether the Bears won or the head coach proved again that he should have followed his true calling and been a Subway sandwich maker.
A cynic would say that gambling is the lifeblood of the NFL and that the Bears’ popularity is simply a product of humans’ need to wager. Come to think of it, a realist would say the same thing. But we’re celebrating a franchise today, and I’ll give 2-to-1 odds that you’ll want to take part.
The Bears would seem to be up against issues that could bite into their popularity — the dark cloud of brain injuries over the game; national anthem protests; byzantine rules; too many replay reviews; and, most immediately for our local franchise, bad football. In the end, though, the Bears will still be standing, with a crowd of fans around them. That’s not to minimize those issues; rather, it’s to look at the entirety of the past and recognize that some things are immoveable objects. The Bears’ popularity is one of them.
But why is that? Why doesn’t the team’s profile fade?
Deep down, Chicagoans like to think of themselves as tough, hardworking, gritty, eye-blacked and big-shouldered. And if all those elements could be embodied, enlarged, padded and squeezed into a uniform, you’d have yourself a Chicago Bear.
Bears fans see themselves in new Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher, as relentless a linebacker as there has ever been, and they see themselves in talented and snake-bitten offensive lineman Kyle Long, who keeps getting up despite injury. They saw themselves in tough-guy Olin Kreutz and in big-hearted Walter Payton. It’s probably instructive that they never see themselves in a backup guard, a punter or an assistant defensive line coach. They like stars.
When Gale Sayers ran around defenders, when Mike Singletary sprinted with malice in his eyes, when Dick Butkus snarled at the world, when Mike Ditka threw a wad of gum at an opposing fan and when George Halas soberly adjusted his hat in preparation for game-day battle, Chicago said, “That’s us.”
When the Bears have four straight seasons of 10 losses or more, as they do now, Chicago grumbles: “That’s not us. Not even close.”
The McCaskey family might own the Bears, but the team belongs to the fans. They care deeply about what direction the franchise is headed. For all the threats of boycotting games these past several miserable seasons, fans have stuck with the Bears. Often against all reason.
Some did give up during the Phil Emery-Marc Trestman era, but many, many more performed their civic duty and let ownership know that the two-ring circus was not acceptable. And a change was made. Why should the fans have to leave, they reasoned, when it was their team?
They can give up on the McCaskeys, but they can’t give up on the Bears. A united front is what we have here.
It’s really not complicated. The baseball vote in town is split between the Cubs and the White Sox. Michael Jordan was here and then he was gone. The Blackhawks have brought the city three Stanley Cup titles since 2010, but hockey doesn’t grab as many hearts in the city as football does.
Chicago deserves a football team worthy of its fans, but that hasn’t happened in a long time. Those fans complain about it, a lot, but despite the issues pressing in on the NFL and the franchise, they don’t give up on their team.
It’s the Bears, always. Perhaps that allegiance will be rewarded someday. What a day that would be.