SANTA CLAUS, Ind. - Oh, gosh. You would think the fine comic farce could not improve. You would think it already too much manna that we get to spend recent autumns seeing a guy quarterback the Chicago Bears while a subgroup of fans believes the guy smiles too infrequently and frowns too often and fails to resonate perpetual gratefulness.
Already that lunacy should suffice, that this theme happens to play out of Chicago, a city a notch more surly than sunny, a city with one of the most artful collective frowns going. Beyond the many fans who don't really care about the frowns and just want excellence and are seething at the 8-6 moment, shouldn't a tough town like Chicago savor a good grimacing quarterback? Already you might hope that in the NFL theatre, Jay Cutler might sign on for more years in Chicago in the role of the opaque non-smiler, providing further scowls and pouts while maybe just omitting that part about admonishing any offensive linemen.
(I love offensive linemen and don't enjoy their admonishments.)
Already the Cutler story had become another cautionary tale of being famous, of how complex human beings can get pegged for one trait and, if commendably uninterested in burnishing their brands to override that, can get stuck with one trait. Already this story promises further autumns of good sideline pique, as good sideline pique can help us get through the days.
But then - then! - if you travel the 364 miles south down through Indiana, if you go beyond Indianapolis and down past Bloomington, if you actually see Cutler's hometown of Santa Claus, if you start to see all the Santa Claus replicas here and there in front of shops and restaurants and the town welcome sign, one or two of them so large they appear to be on some sort of Santa Claus HGH . . .
Well, even while admiring this town of just 2,300 for its plucky Santa Claus gumption, you might be laughing all the way - past the Santa Claus Museum, past Santa's Candy Castle, past the ginormous The Christmas Store, past Frosty's Fun Center (with its miniature golf), past Holiday World (the water-amusement complex that clogs the summertime road through town), past the Christmas Lake Golf Club (with its big golf), past Santa's Stables and the Lake Rudolph Campground and RV Resort and Santa's Lodge and the Jingle Bell Rock Family Sports Pub and all of it.
The famed frowner from Chicago hails from here.
Nonfiction trumps fiction again.
You can hear about a town to which children around the world send their Santa letters, but until you see a town and the strip-mall post office with the Santa out front to which children around the world send their Christmas letters, you don't get the full brunt of this marvels of this storyline.
The city history says the town got its name on Christmas Eve in 1852, when a congregation gathered and bells rang outside and a child exclaimed that it must be Santa Claus. That town lived on to produce some excellent football players, five of them getting professional turns, including the former NFL tight end Ken Dilger and the good quarterback who went to Vanderbilt and then to Denver and then to Chicago, where TV cameras caught his turns of surliness and turned him into a TV character. Through what alchemy of tweets and video and non-smiles does it happen?
"He was a great kid, a great kid, very disciplined, highly competitive, not ever a problem at all," said Bob Clayton, the coach who went 320-74 in 34 seasons through 2011 at Heritage Hills High School. "Really a coach's dream, talented, came to work every day, worked hard. You know, he's one of my players, and I care very deeply for him."
So yes, the curious Cutler saga has bothered them a bit in Santa Claus where, over there just beyond the overpass of Route 231, 12 years ago, Cutler quarterbacked Heritage Hills High to its first 3-A state title, passed for 2,252 yards and 31 touchdowns for a team that averaged 51 points in his 15-0 senior year, made nine interceptions as a safety and one touchdown reception from Cole Seifrig on a play called "Ace of Spades Right, Quarterback Screen," in overtime of the championship game in Indianapolis.
Here, they see the Chicago moments as outgrowths of Cutler's healthy competitiveness and worthy frustration, a fieriness less visible a dozen years back. It's a town where Clayton stayed through chances to leave. It's a town where Clayton spent his first post-coaching season out in his boat on a lake with his wife on Friday nights, listening with a gathering tranquility to the Heritage Hills games on the radio. It's also a town accustomed to strangers passing through, even if a police officer did roll up on the side of the highway behind an improperly parked car to check out a visitor just in case, his radio conversation audible through the window.
"Other voice from office: What's he doing?
"Police officer: Looks like he's just taking pictures."
Back up in madcap Chicago this fall, a subset of fans got peeved because Brian Urlacher shook hands with a former teammate and opponent after that former teammate and opponent's interception. A subset of fans got peeved because a player tweeted his dinner plans after a defeat. (Clearly he should go home, sit alone and sulk.) And one day in an interview on ESPN's "Mike and Mike in the Morning" program, Cutler discussed his place as a figure whose body language provokes mass readings:
"You know, I'm becoming more and more aware of it. Parts of me just say, 'Hey, forget it, just play your game.' The PR people are always in my ear, 'Camera here! Camera here! Watch this! Watch that!' So it's a mixed bag."
You could rank that passage among the most depressing of the 21st century in the PR era that has snuffed much of the verve and humanity from sports, in a country that wants its quarterbacks to be part-prince. You also can take it as a further turn of Chicago's grimace pageant and laugh. Hearing of it, Clayton laughed, as perhaps should we all, serially.