Like most Chicagoans who entertain an interest in the city’s sporting events, last Sunday morning we rolled out of bed, turned on the television, and watched the end of the Chicago Marathon. We stayed near the television, because the marathon course no longer runs through our north-side neighborhood. It used to be we’d wake up, throw on some typically loose and scruffy Sunday-morning clothes, and walk down to the corner, where we’d wait for the leading runners to pass. There was something about that experience that felt, well, like a marathon; there’s no other way to describe it. Just as the sound of vendors hawking scorecards is an essential part of a baseball game, and just as screaming through the national anthem is an essential part of a hockey game at the Chicago Stadium, gathering at the corner with other neighbors became what the experience of watching a marathon was about.
There were singles, couples, and families, in groups and apart, some carrying radios or, in recent years, portable televisions, so that someone always knew where the leaders were and when they were expected to pass. There’d be cops at the corner, mildly interested in keeping the street clear, waving traffic through, and of course the first police car with its flashing blue Mars lights, way out in front of the runners, so that it would go by and then there’d be the long wait–nothing behind the squad car but open road. We’d lean over the corner to peer down the street, as if waiting for a train on an el platform, and there’d be nothing coming, as if the runners had taken a turn just to fool that police car out in front.
Finally, however, another, slower police car with its flashing lights would come into view, and behind it the first runner, ushered in stately and businesslike–even for all his huffing and puffing–by the clapping that led him slowly down the street. Later, when the great mass of runners came plodding along, the crowds along the streets would disperse and the traffic would back up as people tried to get somewhere, having forgotten the marathon just as some people forget the time change (strange how those events always seemed to conjoin). Throughout the day, we’d hear complaints here and there about how difficult it was to get from place to place, but we never paid them much mind. Here these people were, running more than 26 miles, and some fellow sitting in a car was upset because they were in his way.
So it’s a disappointment that the marathon organizers altered the course this year so that it still meandered through much of the near south side, but then stuck strictly to Lake Shore Drive in its later moments up north, with the runners facing the boring prospect of having to run up to Belmont on one side of a line of cones and then turn around and come back on the other side. The long-distance runner, we are told, leads a lonely life, but this must have been loneliness in the extreme, plodding down a four-lane highway between two sparse lines of fans, then circling back to chew up the miles like a snake devouring itself.
The Chicago Marathon is reported to be in dire straits, with the altered course, changed to lessen its impact on the city, just one symptom of its diminishing stature. There’s been criticism of the organizers, who are said to have no feel for dealing with runners or their agents, and criticism of the main sponsor, Old Style, which isn’t ponying up enough money to lure today’s professional amateurs to the city. At this point, it’s quite conceivable that the marathon could perish if no new sponsor is found. If any single race was capable of saving a marathon, though, it had to be last Sunday’s.
Dionicio Ceron, a Mexican distance runner competing in his first marathon, was highly touted and led when we tuned in, about three-quarters through the race (right about when we would have gone down to the corner in previous years; instinct is a strange thing). Behind him, however, lurked Martin Pitayo and Antoni Niemczak, dressed alike in red and pounding away like a pair of teammates long used to challenging one another. They were so similar in their dress and style, in fact, that it came as a complete surprise that Pitayo was a Mexican and Niemczak a Pole, the two utterly unacquainted. They reeled in Ceron on the southbound rise to the bridge at the Chicago River on the Drive, and they went on in stride from there. When they turned at the Field Museum to once again head north, toward the finish line on Columbus Drive in Grant Park, Niemczak was the first to kick, but Pitayo went past him. Niemczak speeded up again, however, and regained the lead, but Pitayo somehow rallied again and won at the wire by less than a second. The marathon is a long and brutal battle–mostly with oneself–and doesn’t often produce photo finishes. If this was one to remember, we hope we don’t have to enshrine it as the last Chicago Marathon.
The rest of the day went by the routine. We joined friends midway through the afternoon to watch the Bears, where we finally got the clapping and yelling out of our system–it’s why people watch the Bears in groups–as Chicago went up 28-0 in the first half. One woman–a New England transplant attending because she’d heard this was the thing to do on Chicago Sundays–turned to us and said, “Now isn’t this boring,” and we turned back and said simply, “No.”
The Bears played marvelous football in the first half, and football the way the Bears play it has to be watched closely, with an eye on the blocking and playing off blocks. There’s no fancy-pants Joe Montana throwing to crisscrossing Jerry Rice or John Taylor; this is football, played in the pit, on the line of scrimmage. The Bears, in the first half, were equally as impressive as in their last game against the Los Angeles Rams two weeks ago. William Perry continues to get better; early on, he was firing off the line at the snap of the ball just as quickly as his younger, leaner brother Michael Dean Perry of the Cleveland Browns, who is perhaps the quickest defensive lineman in football. The Refrigerator was stomping the run and pressuring the passer, and the Bears’ defense was simply following his lead.
On offense, the guards again led the way, with Mark Bortz having an especially fine game. He and Tom Thayer are both–it can be said now, at mid-season–having career years, but Bortz is playing at just an exceptional level. He led the way on Neal Anderson’s second touchdown run, a sweep to the left that was executed so well that Anderson went in untouched. And fullback Brad Muster had a career-high 99 yards on the day, much of it coming on a play that has become one of the Bears’ new favorites. It’s a quick-opening fake draw trap in which both Bortz and Thayer pull out and cross behind the center. The defensive line and linebackers, taught to follow the offensive linemen, are left utterly confused. Right tackle Keith Van Horne crosses in front of the center, taking out anyone in the area, and from within this organized confusion erupts Muster with a full head of steam, hot off the handoff. It’s a wonderful play, and it worked time and again against the 3-4 defense of the Phoenix Cardinals.
The most enjoyable play of the day, however, again had the Fridge on offense. He came in with the Bears on the Phoenix one-yard line and was set up as the decoy on the second Chicago touchdown. Quarterback Jim Harbaugh took the hike, faked the handoff to Perry on a dive into the line, and dashed wide on a sweep. It was the old triple option–the staple of the wishbone offense in college–and with half the defense concentrating on Perry it fooled the Cards completely. As intended, the play produced Harbaugh and Muster out wide with only one defensive player to guard them; he couldn’t cover both, and Harbaugh cut inside and dove for the score.
Harbaugh’s ability to run also triggered the first touchdown. He stepped back to throw, but the receivers were covered. He looked to Anderson out of the backfield, just over the line of scrimmage. Whether by design or instinct, Harbaugh stepped up as if to run, attracting Anderson’s defender, then tossed over the defender to Anderson, who, with no one anywhere near him, went 41 yards into Phoenix territory and scored three plays later.
Yet unlike most Chicago football fans, we were not completely won over by the Bears’ performance. Many commented afterward that this was the game that shook their doubts, that made them believe again. It was just the opposite for us. In the second half, while the Bears were coasting to what would eventually be a 31-21 victory, they couldn’t muster a pass rush. Donnell Woolford went down with an injury in the first half, and the Cards picked on his replacement, Vestee Jackson, relentlessly. The offense grew too conservative and went flat, and Harbaugh threw a stupid pass for an interception–his one real mistake of the day–that could have put the Cardinals within a field goal in the fourth quarter. A lucky call by the officials–ruling that the Cards’ quarterback Timm Rosenbach was sacked when he easily shook off Trace Armstrong and threw for a completion–and then a penalty on the Cards for arguing the call ended their scoring threat and forced them to punt. The Bears, granted a reprieve, kept the ball on the ground after that and ran out the clock.
Others are confident, but we are worried. The Bears are 6-1 now, and they figure to be a shoo-in as the winner of the Central Division of the National Football Conference, but they have yet to beat a team with a winning record. The combined mark of the teams they’ve defeated is 14-28. The Bears are the Nebraska of professional football, building up a big reputation by intimidating wimps. Which shouldn’t cause concern as far as the Bears making the playoffs goes; at this point, they’re slated to play only two winning teams the rest of the regulation season, and one .500 team, the 4-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, twice. Yet it is a cause for concern for getting anywhere afterward. The Bears have made us love them once again, but they’re a long way from convincing us they’re Super Bowl contenders.