Credit: Alison Green

The Bears’ 2017-2018 season isn’t a raging Dumpster fire so much as it’s a barrel designated “hot coals only” that someone has tossed paper napkins, plastic plates, and assorted food scraps into, so that the whole pile smolders and smells to high heaven.

And I write from experience, having spent a Sunday morning on week 11 of the National Football League season trolling the parking lots south of Soldier Field for tailgating fans willing to talk about what brought them out in 30-degree weather to grill meat, drink beer, and mingle with like-minded nutcases a week after the Bears had lost at home to their arch-rival Green Bay Packers—in spite of the Pack’s lack of star QB Aaron Rodgers, out with an injury, which made the defeat even more disgraceful.

“I’ve been to 17 Bears games, and I’ve been to 17 Bears losses,” Brad Quellhorst of Canaryville said.

For this admission, he was immediately shouted down by his tailgating pals. “I don’t want to hear that,” grumbled one about the negativity.

“I’m really sorry,” Quellhorst said. “I jinxed today by showing up.”

He figured he had it covered, however, as one of his friends was a fan of that Sunday’s opponent, the Detroit Lions, so somebody had to come out on top. And he had that right, the way it turned out, as the Bears stole defeat from the jaws of an impending tie as Connor Barth missed a last-second 46-yard field goal to lose to the Lions, 27-24.

After being crushed by the Eagles in week 12, the Bears are 3-8 this year and 12-31 overall under coach John Fox in his third season—the worst stretch since tubby Abe Gibron coached the team in the 1970s before the arrival of Walter Payton.

Yet for most of the fans I talked with, the Bears’ record mattered hardly at all, a phenomenon best explained by a friend who recently told me it’s because “tailgating’s a blast, whether the team sucks or not.” Perhaps no local fan base is more loyal than that of the Bears. But what has the so-called “pride and joy of Illinois” done in three decades to deserve such devotion?

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Seeking an answer, I began my journey into fan land by walking across the 18th Street pedestrian bridge to get to Soldier Field. A man who described himself as “Robert L., ticket doctor” was trying unsuccessfully to unload tickets he had for the game. He said they were going for under face value. Asked how that compared with previous years, he gave me his best Charles Barkley: “Turrible,” he said, adding, “It’s a bad year.”

After crossing the Metra tracks and passing under Lake Shore Drive, I arrived on what’s called the Waldron Deck, atop a multilevel parking garage immediately south of Soldier Field. There, I was immediately confronted by a large group of tailgaters blasting, appropriately enough, the Styx song “The Grand Illusion.”

That might be an apt theme for Bear fans, but the racket only forced me to hurry on to the South Lot, a massive expanse of pavement between Soldier Field and McCormick Place able to accommodate 1,500 cars. These are the parking lots Mayor Rahm Emanuel disdained when he was pitching for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which would’ve been placed on the same ground if activists like Friends of the Parks hadn’t chased George Lucas’s vanity project back to the west coast.

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Ironically enough, the tailgating scene on the South Lot was like something out of a Star Wars movie, if not a Mad Max sequel. It was a rocking and roiling, smoke-hazed feeding frenzy, peppered with pockets of fans boozing and talking football and with occasional clearings for games of cornhole. After the ear-splitting Styx experience, I gladly glommed onto a group playing Kendrick Lamar.

“We’ve been coming out here since the mid-80s,” said Ron Owens of River Forest. “We don’t miss a game. And we’ve got the biggest, best tailgate out here.”

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There might be some debate on that, but for Owens there was no debating whether the Bears were worthy of the loyalty displayed by the thousands of fans out cooking in the cold before the noon kickoff.

“I don’t think they take the fans for granted,” he said. “I think they really want to win, and I think they put together a team they thought would compete better than they have.”

Owens cited the injuries to linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman as crippling to the defense, as well as games lost to injury by guard Kyle Long, anchor of the offensive line, and wide receiver Kevin White, who’s never managed to stay on the field after the Bears drafted him seventh overall out of West Virginia in 2015.

“It’s always better at the end of the day with a win,” Owens allowed. “But we still have a good time.”

Credit: Alison Green

That was the reigning attitude among tailgaters. Strolling through the lot, I overheard northwest Indiana resident Randi Kass say with apparent resentment, “It’s 80 degrees right now in Arizona,” but it turned out she was among the strongest defenders of the Bears in general and of tailgating in particular.

“I’m a big Bears fan,” said Kass, home for Thanksgiving from Arizona, where she attends college. “I could be out here until I die if I wanted to.”

That’s a commonly held opinion, and many fans back it up with hard cash. In addition to the seat licenses and other fees Bears season-ticket holders can be forced to pay just for the privilege of attending eight home games (and, don’t forget, two must-purchase exhibition games before the start of the season), they can also enter a parking lottery to get into the South Lot. Those lucky enough to “win” the lottery get to spend $100 a game to park there in what amounts to ground zero for tailgating, which brings the total just for parking to $1,000 a season.

“The South Lot has the best tailgate,” said Theresa Price of Lakeview, who’s had tickets going back to 1962 and has been in the South Lot with her group the last six years. She said it’s much to be preferred to the more remote tailgating lot at 31st Street, or even the Waldron Deck, which she said can be hard to get into.

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Other fans, however, find ways to economize, as with a couple I found hanging around an extensive tailgate party complete with an offset smoker. They said they parked in a remote lot, then ambled over to join their pals (reminding me of the old Robert Stone line that the only thing better than owning a sailboat is having a friend with a sailboat).

The Waldron Deck has its defenders, though. Warming herself at a portable log-burning fire pit, Andrea Darnhart of Norwood Park said she and her husband had the tickets and, with little interest from anyone else, they brought their kids and got there early to park on the deck. “A family day,” she said. “Four kids, two parents—we’re good.”

Darnhart too said the Bears’ record is unimportant. “Bear fans are Bear fans, just like Cub fans,” she said. “We’re all the same.”

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It wouldn’t take a Cubs fan or a Blackhawks fan or a Bulls fan or even a White Sox fan, however, to point out that all those major Chicago sports franchises have won a championship, if not multiple championships, since the Bears last did with the 1985 team, the reborn Monsters of the Midway coach Mike Ditka squandered with assorted missteps over ensuing seasons.

While the Bears still have a season-ticket waiting list that can take years to clear before a fan finally gets the right to buy seats—sort of like waiting for tickets to the old WGN TV Bozo Show—large-scale fan apathy is nonetheless reflected by no-shows, or what the NFL calls “unused” tickets. Even for the relatively anticipated contest against the Packers at Soldier Field, the Bears reported that more than 5,600 tickets went unused, and after that loss the figure almost doubled to more than 10,000 no-shows for the home game against the Lions. No wonder “Robert L., ticket doctor,” called the scalpers’ market “turrible.”

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“The Bears expect the fans to put in before they do,” Price said, adding that she absolutely believes the Bears take their fans for granted.

For all that, she said with a sort of resignation, “They’re our team,” and the one team Chicagoans can agree on over the tribal squabbles between the Cubs and Sox in summer and, to a lesser extent, the Bulls and Blackhawks in winter.

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It’s a Bears town, no doubt about it. The team dominates newspaper sports sections and TV sportscasts from the moment training camp opens until the end of the season (whether it comes in December or in January or, not for a while now, in February). The question is whether the Bears can retain that hold with their rebuild yet to gain purchase (notwithstanding star second-year running back Jordan Howard and the great white hope of rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky) and with the NFL’s deepening decline in popularity over the concussion issue and its effect on chronic brain damage.

“I already paid for the tickets, so I have to show up,” said a fan who described himself only as Jay from Elgin as he whipped up a batch of chicken wings on a hand-welded wok seated atop a bed of white-hot coals. “Tailgating makes it,” he added. “It’s still good. It’s fun. I like to socialize.”

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Jay said he’s been going to Bears games going back to when they played in Wrigley Field (which ceased in 1970), and has been tailgating outside Soldier Field since the Bears moved there in 1971.

“I guess we’re treated about the same way every other team treats their fans,” he said, adding that the fans’ allegiance to the team wasn’t in question now, but “if ticket prices go much higher it might go away.”

The Bears utterly aside, Jay said there was one more reason that kept him coming out and tailgating even with the team in the dumps and the weather now in a parallel decline: “My wife won’t let me eat chicken wings at home.”   v