We’re only a few weeks away from the start of the 2016 NFL preseason, and even typing that initial statement out made it feel dated. The start of training camp is an exciting time, but it combined with the preseason is arguably the most boring part of the year if you don’t count the post-Super Bowl/pre-Draft doldrums from early February to late April.
All that waiting and here we are, another football year to get excited about, or if you’re like me, you have the team you follow and a general scent of the league (some teams more than others), but aren’t jumping for joy and throwing confetti in the air. The NFL season is nigh, and this fan is looking forward to it. Kind of.
It’s been my passion, pleasure, and misery watching the Chicago Bears since I was a rail-thin, snot-nosed teenager that was exiting years of loving the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and suddenly finding myself absorbed by the team that was on my local Fox affiliate every Sunday afternoon.
The team was rarely good, but there was just something about it. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I had never played football up to that point, wasn’t really big on watching it for more than the occasional Super Bowl, and certainly didn’t care about the NFL Draft. Yet one day I simply watched an afternoon game and said, “I need more.” I woke up the following Sunday and turned on ESPN around 10am and saw the usual Sunday NFL Countdown team already discussing the day’s games hours before they were to start. I suddenly realized there was a TON of ritual involved in this, and it made the stakes of the games I was about to watch even higher. There was so much on the line that all came down to one game, and there was no way I could miss it.
In addition to the circus atmosphere, the NFL seemed like a lot of fun. Guys were breaking down plays on a chalkboard, graphics were all over the screen to indicate who was doing what and why, Fox had a giant robot that was going nuts, and on Thanksgiving players would come to the sideline and eat a turducken while still in uniform.
If that wasn’t enough, they’d cut to the breathtaking and beautiful NFL Films footage where an orchestra would play haunting, powerful pieces over slow-motion plays. This was more than just a game, or sport, or hobby. It was a spectacle.
The Indiana Pacers finished off an incredible run where they fell just short of defeating the Jordan Bulls and subsequently lost in the Finals to a stacked Lakers team. My heart was broken for my hero Reggie Miller, and the team appeared to be steadily heading toward returning to mediocrity (where they’ve been for years and will likely forever remain), so it was time to embrace the navy and burnt orange of the Monsters of the Midway.
I started watching the Bears right toward the fading days of Cade McNown’s short tenure, and got into the team full bore in 2000 when a young Brian Urlacher was tearing it up and one of my favorite quarterbacks, Jim Miller, emerged as a veteran cannon with a big arm, field general savvy, and a penchant for being unable to stay healthy. The regularly-seen backup Shane Matthews had less skill but wasn’t too bad either. Between the two of them they made the 2000 and especially 2001 Bears seasons a grab bag of memories and disappointments, but also likely helped cement Chicago’s love for the backup quarterback as a viable football option.
It still delights me seeing Miller on television doing media work on behalf of the team, and of course hearing him on Chicago sports radio stations from time to time. He’s representative of what I love the most about football players – many of them are traveled guns, have unromantic, unsuccessful careers that very rarely result in moments in the spotlight, much less a Super Bowl ring.
Miller was taken in the 6th round of the ’94 draft, couldn’t find any traction in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, or Jacksonville before the Bears, a team that’s had an extraordinarily disappointing history at the position, claimed him off of waivers. He took over in an early November game against the Packers and was the quarterback of note in a 14-13 victory over their hated rivals. Miller followed that up with a historic Bears performance against the Vikings: In his first start as a Bear, Miller threw for 422 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Bears lost that game, by the by.
The 2001 Bears 13-3 miracle team made me a lifelong football fan. Insane back-to-back comeback wins in overtime against the 49ers and the Browns were some of the wildest moments the team has ever had, and in those games alone Mike Brown became a cult hero. Sure, they lost to the Eagles on Hugh Douglas’ dirty hit on Jim Miler in the second round of the playoffs, but it didn’t matter – I was there for life from that point out.
Every fan has a story, and I imagine all of them are similar to finding their folk heroes or latching on while a particularly romantic team caught their eye during a magical season.
The Bears are in a weird place right now. They’re 2/3rds of the way through a 3-draft rebuild with Ryan Pace at the helm, his head coach John Fox leading a great stable of coaches to shape a roster that’s an odd mix. The depth chart isn’t final, and injuries in training camp are opening up a lot of worrisome holes on the roster that are extremely good reasons to be nervous, but hey – gotta try to enjoy this, right?
We’re another year removed from the ruinous era of Marc Trestman and Phil Emery, and this and last year’s rookie classes give reason to be excited. The Bears have a pretty bad track record of disappointing their fans, and sure as hell at some point this season I’m going to be absolutely disappointed, maybe outright disgusted with some performances. They’ll lose games. They’ll let me down, more likely than not, but there IS a redeeming quality, and that is the ritual.
Getting up early on Sunday to put the coffee on, making some breakfast, and donning the home navy or road whites, wondering which jersey or hat will bring the best luck on this day. Finding some pregame media, whether it’s the local guys on WSCR or ESPN 1000, or maybe turning on the national talking heads on ESPN, Fox, or CBS.
The tingle of hope exists just before kickoff every Sunday, Monday, or even unfortunately sometimes on Thursdays, and it’s going to be fun, win or lose, to experience the 2016 season with the fans online.
I’ll go more into detail about the team in another post, but for now I’d like the small bit of hope and romance that surrounds football linger for just a few moments before the torn ACLs, concussions, or benchings permeate the rose-colored haze.