Bearing Down for the Off-Season
After 6 long months, the wait was finally over. I woke up the morning of Sunday, September 9th thinking one thing: "Football is back!" In a few short hours the Bears would open up their 2007 season against the Chargers. I was in San Diego that day, cheering them on in their opener, even in the closing minutes when the game had already been lost. This Sunday I was there to support my team again, this time in their season finale at Soldier Field. Once again, I cheered them on for the entirety of the game, even though the season had already been lost. I've always been the kind of fan who defends his or her teams through thick and thin—a trait any Cubs fan with an interest in sanity must acquire. So, rather than bemoaning this season's disappointments, I'm choosing to remember the happiness and excitement the Bears brought me every week, win or lose, right down to the last one; in some ways, particularly the last one.
After tailgating for a few hours, my friend Ryan and I started the mile and half trek to the game. We were running a bit late to meet my other friends, as we'd quite enjoyed the beer and grub at the big Bears bus we'd found. As we power-walked through the mass migration toward the stadium, the sun came out, and I tried to strip off a few superfluous layers. My head halfway out of a sweatshirt, I managed to punt an pot of chili lurking about, marinating my entire right foot. I still maintain that the chili dove in front of me in a desperate effort to get into the game, but without solid visual evidence there's no way to know. Despite the meat-foot (and my friend's powerful urge to stop and turn a darkened corner into a makeshift restroom), we made it to the stadium just in time. A friend of mine that I hadn't seen in years, but who caught up with me after last year's Super Bowl blitz, had offered us three of his season seats for the game. As it turned out, we were right on the 50 yard line, with the most clear, perfect view of the game imaginable. His family had selected the seats with great care…but more on that later.
The game itself was, like last week, a classic Bears effort. Brian Urlacher started things right where he left off last week, intercepting Drew Brees on the Saints' first offensive drive. Chicago couldn't capitalize on the excellent field position with a touchdown, but a Robbie Gould field goal put the Bears on the board first, nonetheless. After another good defensive stop, Chicago used a combination of Adrian Peterson runs and Bernard Berrian catches to advance the length of the field. Captain Neckbeard found Mark Bradley down the middle for the score and Bears fans everywhere wondered where this kind of play had been a month ago. It's hard not to be frustrated by the success the team had in its last two games, but the positive side is that the Bears proved their love for the fans, the city and themselves by showing up and playing with pride. Hopefully, the team can use this last-season push to motivate them during the off-season and next year.
Early in the 2nd, Brees put together a nice drive and found the Saints' second-year stud Marques Colston in the end zone for six. Undaunted, the Bears answered back, this time with a play fans haven't seen all season. The regularly conservative Ron Turner has gotten much more adventurous late in the season when wins are admirable, but meaningless. On 1st and goal from the New Orleans 9, Turner called a halfback option that Chicago ran to perfection. AP evaded a tackle, found space and hit a wide open Berrian in the end zone, showing off an arm that LT would be proud of. Perhaps reveling in the novelty of Peterson's toss, Chicago's defense let up again, conceding another touchdown to Colston. Late in the 2nd quarter, on the second possession of the Bears' drive, Orton found Devin Hester streaking up the sideline for a 55-yard touchdown, the longest of Orton's career. At the half, the Bears were up 24-17 against a New Orleans team fighting for a playoff berth—a superb effort, but fans needed a lot more cushion than that to feel safe.
During the halftime break we went down to the Bears friends and family area for a bit, where I told Lance Briggs' sister I would "fight him" if he didn't come back next year. I then erroneously guessed that one of Israel Idonije's brothers was related to AP (even he admitted that most people think he's Peterson's brother). Everyone in the family area wore the jersey numbers of their respective kin or friend so I told sis Briggs and the brothers Idonije that I was clearly wearing my 34 jersey because I'm Walter Payton's sister. They didn't buy it, but "mini AP" kindly referred to me as "Payton's sis" later, all the same. As we hustled back to our seats we heard the crowd erupt in a roar and immediately knew we'd missed something good. Back at our seats we just caught the replay of Hester's 6th kick return this season—a mark that breaks the record he set last year. We were sad to have missed it live but there were more Hester hi-jinks soon to come. Late in the 3rd, to the surprise (shock? awe?) of the stadium, Hester got the ball and stepped back to throw. Could he possibly add a passing touchdown to his already ridiiiiiculous game stats? No. Hester was sacked for a big loss on the play but if he receives more practice time on offense, few would blink an eye if he was listed as our starting QB by next season.
Down 31-17 in the 4th, it seemed inevitable that the Saints, for a second straight year, would see their season end at Soldier Field. Midway through the quarter my friend explained that our current seats were hand-selected by his father and his father's best friend since childhood: Mike McCaskey. Yes, the Mike McCaskey. Armed with this new knowledge, I followed him upstairs to the McCaskey's box—the Owner's Box—and watched the rest of the 4th quarter while talking shop with the big boss. He was incredibly nice and, upon hearing of my e-bay adventure, promptly took down my name so he could look for it on Google and YouTube. So, as the Bears season came to an end, I found myself standing next to the man with all the answers. Who can the team afford to re-sign and will they? What position is your draft priority? When are you bringing back the Honey Bears? Why won't Orton shave his neckbeard? Of course, I didn't ask him any of these. I thought I'd lay the foundation of a friendship and save the grill session for just a bit down the road, once I've successfully snagged a job covering the Bears. A girl can dream, can't she?
After the game we went back down to the locker room area where I got to meet a couple more of my favorite Bears, including Robbie Gould and Bernard Berrian. There were a lot more players hanging around than during the previous week, when many rushed off for Christmas flights and family time. Spirits were high despite the sobering reality of the team's season coming to an end prematurely. 2008 was just a day away, and the ushering in of new beginnings seemed to foster hope for everyone. Bears fans will have to pray that the promise and heart shown in the season's final two games will return the team to glory in '08. But for now, we'll have to wait…7 months this time.