Da Bears Fans Hit the Road
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. It is 6:15 a.m. Sunday, and the skies are still dark as Roy Taylor leads a three-car caravan out of the Chicago suburb of Carol Stream, pointed south determinedly, as if on a religious pilgrimage.
Everyone aboard is a member of that singular subculture of humanity known as Chicago Bears fans, and their rallying cry for 2002 is "Road trip!"
Normally, Soldier Field serves as the holding pen for Bears fans. But that 78-year-old structure is undergoing more than $350 million worth of renovations. So for eight Sundays this season devoted fans like the Taylor entourage must make a 2&frac_one_half;-hour drive to the Bears' temporary home, at the University of Illinois.
Missing is Taylor's neighbor, Dave Dillon, who fell ill just hours before with a kidney stone.
In mock disgust, Taylor asks, "Can you believe that excuse?"
Taylor and his friends would mesh neatly into one of those Saturday Night Live skits that made "Da Bears" a national catchphrase.
By day he's a software executive for the Thomson Financial Co., but his passion is his BearsHistory.com site. His home office is adorned with a childhood picture of himself next to former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon. Also posted is the quintessential photo of former coach Mike Ditka, gesturing menacingly at the press, with his middle finger significantly extended. Then there's the plaque that declares Taylor the Bears Fans of the Year in 2000.
"The Bears were 5-11 in 2000," notes Taylor. "I'm proud to say I was Fan of the Year when they (were bad)."
For entertainment during the ride he pops in a tape of himself, at 12, posing a question in his high-pitched voice to former Bears linebacker Doug Buffone on a sports radio talk show.
The case can be made that Taylor's mania is genetic, which makes sense in a metropolis where many fans rate their sports fanaticism by how many generations it spans. Taylor describes his father, Gerald, as a stoic man who bottles his emotions, yet who cried the day Ditka was fired.
Father and son witnessed about 140 games side by side, starting when Taylor was 8. But that partnership was broken when Ditka was fired after the 1992 season, and for five years Gerald made good on a vow not to attend another game.
In the back seat of the Ford Explorer sits a close friend of Taylor's, Brian Grabowski. His presence is deemed highly important.
"You know we need a Grabowski," intones Taylor, who at 30 has matured into a baritone. Quoting one of Ditka's many memorable, blue-collar lines, Taylor says, "Some teams are Smiths. Some teams are Grabowskis. ... We're Grabowskis."
This Grabowski's first name was a parental homage to Brian Piccolo, the Bears running back whose death from embryonal cell carcinoma at 26 inspired the movie Brian's Song.
Although these Bears fans have been friends more than a decade, Taylor will show Grabowski no mercy this morning. About an hour outside of Champaign, as Taylor is maneuvering through empty back roads lined by fields of corn and soy beans, Grabowski announces he has a bladder issue developing.
"We're pretty close," lies Taylor, repeatedly refusing to pull over.
Even upon arriving at the Illinois campus and seeing his friend emulate Walter Payton in his prime while dashing to a Porta-Potty, Taylor grumbles, "I can't believe we're getting here at 9. At Soldier Field, we're always there by 7 a.m. I'm embarrassed to be rolling in here this late."
Same old rituals
The first person to greet Taylor is Don Wachter, the 1999 Bears Fan of the Year. He is better known as "Bearman," for the stuffed bear head he wears on field while waving a Bears banner after each Chicago score.
"I like to tell people it was my pet, and we used to watch games on television together, but I could never take him to the stadium, and now I can," Wachter says.
That's clearly a joke, yet you wouldn't bet serious money it's not true.
Next to drift by are Illinois members of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity that Taylor belonged to at Illinois State. Through the frat grapevine, they have learned that if they can find the guys who fly the giant No. 34 Payton flag, they also will find free beer.
The group also has packed six coolers, two tents, a slab of Italian beef, a bowl of pasta, a bucket of dip, a television, a VCR and CDs of the 1985 Bears singing The Super Bowl Shuffle. But, alas, no sunscreen on a blistering day when on-field temperatures in this windless city hit 118 degrees.
When Grabowski's earlier angst arises in conversation, Mike Milinac responds, "He should have had the Bladder Buddy." That's a reference to the condom-tube-and-pouch device Milinac really did design to avoid trips to Soldier Field's restrooms, where the lines were often 50 people long. This, the group roundly agrees, was the biggest reason Soldier Field needed an upgrade.
No one in the group is happy about the drive, but all agree the one-year hiatus couldn't be avoided.
"They could do minor improvements, and no one would be happy," says Todd Hughes, an American Airlines pilot. "Or they could shut it down for a year and do it right."
Playing in central Illinois also is something of a homecoming for a franchise that began in 1920 as the Decatur Staleys. And Bears founder George Halas was a three-sport letterman at Illinois, then adopted the school's orange and blue colors for the Bears and later drafted a fairly tough Fighting Illini linebacker named Dick Butkus.
"You have to be here," says Taylor, one of 63,266 in attendance. "Just slapping high fives with total strangers, it doesn't matter that they're total strangers. You're all part of the same thing."
As the Bears rally from 10 points down to win 27-23 on a touchdown with 28 seconds left, Taylor and Grabowski will prove that as they get slap-happy with every fan within reach.
"I thought our fans were fantastic," Bears head coach Dick Jauron said of a crowd that was louder at Illinois' sound-containing Memorial Stadium than it would have been in Soldier Field's low bowl. "It was really an electric atmosphere."
The parking lot here is more spacious than at Soldier Field, allowing for more tailgating and for a more immediate departure instead of the 90-minute wait for traffic to unsnarl.
So, having done his part yet again, how exactly does Taylor feel about that "Da Bears" image the world has of him and his pals?
Well, he says, "There are definitely some old school fans who fit that stereotype."
Yes, there definitely are.

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