CHICAGO -- If the Chicago Cubs ever win the World Series, it would be the biggest national sports story of the decade. It would lead every newscast, top every website, trend in every city. It would dominate the national conversation; you can imagine a president joking that if the Cubs can win the World Series, you can solve anything, from the Middle East to health care to global warming. The Cubs manager, whoever he may be, would instantly become the most sought-after speaker on the corporate leadership lecture circuit in history. You'd hear stories of Bill Murray showing up screaming about the Cubs on every golf course on Earth. The party would go on for weeks. It would be a crossover story: It'd be too massive for mere sports to contain it.
But there might be one place where it wouldn't be the biggest story of the year: Chicago. Because as much as the rest of the planet might associate the city with the Cubs, and Wrigley, and Harry Caray, that's just the outsider's view. Almost across the board, nearly every single person I've talked to says that as big a deal as the Cubs winning the World Series would be … a Bears Super Bowl victory would mean so much more. "People would lose their minds," Jeff Joniak, the play-by-play broadcaster told me while giving me a tour of the Bears' Halas Hall facility in suburban Lake Forest. "Virginia McCaskey [the Bears' principal owner] said that 'baseball divides this city. The Bears unite it.' Nothing against the Cubs, but they couldn't touch it. This is a Bears town."
When radio stations need to boost ratings, they steer the conversation toward the Bears. When websites need to pump up pageviews, they do a Bears story. This is generally true of the NFL everywhere, of course -- it's the reason people like this guy are allowed to exist and even thrive -- but in Chicago, the Bears are the reliable beacon. When in doubt, you always have the Bears. The Cubs have the national romantic storyline, the Bulls have the Jordan years, the Blackhawks have those two shiny new Stanley Cup titles, the White Sox even have the White House. But let there be no doubt: The Bears are the company in this company town.
"The Bears are the way Chicagoans see themselves," Joniak tells me. A quick look at the employment statistics in Chicago shows that the place isn't necessarily any more or less industrial or blue collar than any other major American city. (I am still waiting for someone, anywhere, to tell me, "Here, we're mostly layabouts and ne'er-do-wells. We prefer flash to substance and enjoy sports teams that reflect that fundamental fact about ourselves.") But there's no doubt that the connection between the Bears and their city is based in a shared view of being no-nonsense and quietly badass, a taciturn "I don't start fights, I just end them" sort of attitude. When a Chicagoan imagines his or her best self, it's Mike Singletary, staring past the line, intense, gaze scoping, ready to strike.
You can see it, mostly, in which Bears teams the citizens embrace. Every city claims to love defense more than offense, but Bears fans take this to the extreme. Jay Cutler could throw for four touchdowns a game and still won't sell more jerseys than Brian Urlacher. Even Joniak could barely choke down a sneer when I brought up this year's team, which went 8-8 but gave up nearly 500 points. "The NFL is all about offense now, so you gotta score," he said. "But we know what the Bears are. The defense is what's important. If they're not good on defense, they're not what the Bears are all about." This is a city where "throwing the ball all over the place" is a pejorative, an old man complaining about all the iPods. You worry about an offensive savant/milquetoast like Marc Trestman; it's easy to imagine a press conference in three years featuring some roughneck fellow replacing him, growling about "getting back to Bears football."
The Bears clearly benefit from being more involved in the community than other teams in town. It's part of the whole organization's structure, which goes back almost three decades. The Jordan Bulls, when they were the traveling roadshow that brought giddy madness every city they visited, were intentionally removed from the city; they always talked about how they loved being back in Chicago because that was the only place with the wherewithal to make sure they were left alone. (The city basically built a private moat around them.) The '85 Bears, though, were integrated into the city by design. They lived in the same apartments and houses as everybody else, they would randomly show up in public places the days before games, they closed bars with fans. In 1985, more than half the Bears fans already looked like Steve McMichael anyway. When Chicagoans talk about the Bulls, they talk about "them," but when they talk about the '85 Bears, they talk about "us." The Bulls were gods; the '85 Bears were regular people, which made them exponentially more beloved. Much of this came from the example of Walter Payton, whose accessibility was famous. "Friendliest guy I ever met," WGN sportscaster Dan Roan told me. "When someone like that is the best player on the team, everyone just follows him."
Of course, the Bears are one of the NFL's most historic franchises, but this is a league that increasingly doesn't worry so much about history. It evolves so quickly that holding onto the past is an occupational hazard, the fastest way to die. (And by the past in the NFL, we mean "a year ago.") In this way, the Bears feel like a throwback. Halas Hall is full of memorabilia, from George Halas to Dick Butkus to Singletary and Payton, but as impressive as it all is, it still feels removed somehow from the current game, faded photographs in an age of high definition. They're all Tough Guys in a league that's trying to get away from that image, that's trying to make the game look less tough, less menacing. In many ways, the NFL's history is something it runs away from, rather than embraces; the Bears' whole thing is their history. A conflict seems inevitable.
Of course, the best way not to focus on your history is to win a championship now, and it really is sort of surprising that is has been nearly 30 years since the Bears won their Super Bowl. (And that team probably should have won more than one.) The Bears are obsessed with their past -- and their city's self-image -- in large part because their past is better than their present. If the '85 Bears would have been a flashy offensive team that put up 450 points, would fans embrace Trestman and Cutler? (Cutler actually seems like a larger issue than one column can capture.) What matters more than anything is not how your team wins, but whether they do at all. Bears fans love thinking of themselves as hardscrabble defensive tough guys. But they love thinking of themselves as winners more. Someday the Bears are gonna win another Super Bowl. And then we'll all see, clearly, what kind of town Chicago is.
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