Tuesday, January 15, 2013

An Exercise in Self-Flagellation...

So, I guess today was the coldest day in the history of Utah, or something. This, combined with the two feet of snow we had this past weekend, means your humble golf monster has a lot of time off to to write.  Hopefully, I can make it past four posts in 2013! Sundance is coming up later this week, so there will be movie reviews coming up soon, as well as some stories from the near and the distant past. First up though, a look inside the mind of a mildly deranged sports fan. 

Three weeks ago, I left the cold, miserable weather of the Wasatch Front and flew south to sunny Phoenix, Arizona for a wonderful weekend of golf and drinking.  On Sunday, December 21st, my cousin Pete and I plopped our thirtysomething asses into stadium seats to watch our favorite football team, The Chicago Bears, take on the Arizona Cardinals. For me, it was the culmination of over thirty years of anticipation, excitement, elation, frustration, pain and heartache. I know, I know, educated, logically thinking people shouldn't allow a bunch of millionaires beating the shit out of each other in some far away stadium on a weekly basis to tie their emotions in knots. Believe me, I wish it wasn't this way, but as you're going to find out, it's sadly my lot in life.

To quote the great Peter Venkman, "...call it fate, call it luck, call it karma, but I believe that everything happens for a reason." I think I've been a fan of the Chicago Bears since I was in the crib.  Hell, I think it was my first word.  But life as a fan didn't really kick in until I was five years old. Here's the issue though...I grew up in Price, Utah.  Price is miles and miles away from really anything so there was really no such thing as a hometown team to get behind. My family were all football fans, but they were all fans of different teams. My Mom and Dad liked the 49ers, my Grandpa was a fan of the Chargers, my Uncle Mike a fan of the Raiders, my Godmother a fan of the (ugh) Packers, my dad's omnipresent best friend Joe rooted for the Broncos, and everyone on my mom's side of the family rooted for the Cowboys.

I also believe a chubby toddler in Utah is going to make a huge mistake.
Then there was my Uncle George, the youngest in my dad's family.  He was a fan of the Chicago Bears from way back in the Gayle Sayers days. He recognized the spark and for Christmas in 1984 he gifted six-year-old me a full-on little Chicago Bears uniform!  It had pads and everything! It was even #34, the number of my favorite player, Walter Payton! I put a ton of mileage on that thing, crashing my way through imaginary linemen on the way to touchdowns and glory! I even got my first real taste of disappointment that season with my Dad cackling with delight as his 49ers shutout my Bears 23-0 in the NFC Championship game on their way to the Super Bowl XIX title.

What can be said about the 1985 Bears team that hasn't been said already? I could channel my inner Bob Swerski and talk about "Da Coach," Mike Ditka, the gum-chewin, bird flippin' sweater-wearin' stalker of the sidelines. I could speak at length about the legendary 46-defense that demolished their way through the league that year. I could wax poetic about the memorable games like the "Revenge Game" against the Niners, the Monday-night beatdown of the hated Packers, domination in Dallas, and even that dark, dark, Monday night game in which Dan Marino's Dolphins stumbled upon the keys to unlocking the "46" and prevented the Bears from joining them as the only undefeated team in the Super Bowl era. A very dark night indeed. I could go on and on about the tremendous personalities on that squad, the Punky QB known as McMahon, Refrigerator Perry, Speedy Willie Gault, Samurai Mike Singletary and the rest of the "Shufflin' Crew;" who on December 3rd (the night after the Monday-night Miami disaster) recorded a ridiculous rap video, The Super Bowl Shuffle. Somehow that recording ended up #41 on the Billboard chart and raised over $300,000.00 for needy Chicago area families.

Yes that actually happened. From that point on, that team completely laid waste to everything in their path. They shut out the New York Giants in the NFC Divisionals and repeated the feat in a blizzard against the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship game. Holy shit! My team was going to the Super Bowl! My folks would throw one of the biggest parties in town every year and this one was no different. I was counting the minutes to get out of church to run home and throw on my uniform, like I was going into battle along side my heroes. I was a seven-year-old dipshit, but I didn't care. The good guys took care of business that day, dispatching the upstart New England Patriots 46-10, as I played the part of the annoying little shitty kid, running around asking all my parents friends to try and knock me down so my pads could make that awesome POP sound.. I must've hit the (very astroturf-like) green carpet in our family-room a hundred times that day. Collapsing in elation as Coach Ditka and Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan were both carried off the field by their players, I fell asleep clutching my Chicago Bears football with a giant grin and tears of joy in my eyes. Little did I know, my peak as a fan would occur when I was seven goddamn years old.

I swear to god, I thought it would last forever. When you're really young, the good times tend to overshadow the bad to a huge degree. As you get older, that changes. My eight, nine, ten-year-old self couldn't process why the Bears, while still having pretty good teams, would always come up just a little bit short. I mean, Ditka was still there, Payton was still there, Danimal, Mongo, and Singletary were still playing defense. Like a lot of delusional Chicago fans, I thought that team was a dynasty in the making. To my dad's credit, he didn't try to break it down for me, he just let me keep being the fan I was. He didn't tell me that when Buddy Ryan took flight to Philly, the fine tuning of the "46" defense went with him. He didn't gloat when the best quarterback the franchise had since Sid Luckman managed to start less than half the games the team played during the rest of his tenure due to injuries. Hell, I had no idea players could just LEAVE. I had no idea who half of these guys were anymore as they got bounced from the playoffs over and over again in the next few years. But at least they were still on TV on a fairly regular basis, which was a big deal in the pre-Sunday Ticket days. This continued all the way up until the 1989 NFC Championship game where a savage ass-kicking at the hands of the 49ers effectively brought my childhood to a depressing end. It was the last time they would get that close again to Super Bowl glory for seventeen years. I was well into adulthood, by the time I'd experience that kind of feeling again.

The Greatest Of All Time
A quick aside:  I would be remiss of I didn't spend a quick paragraph talking about Walter Payton. In my humble opinion, he was the greatest Bears player of all time. Virtually unstoppable, he was blinding fast in the open field, but never shied away from contact. He seemed to relish it as he bowled over linebackers and DB's alike. Hell, he even had a pretty decent QB rating on halfback option plays. The dude could do it all, and he was pretty much the closest thing I had to a real-life super-hero as a kid. I'm about 99% sure I invited him to my 8th birthday party. I don't think we'll ever see another player like that again, a graceful, yet violent runner that played for 13 seasons and only missed ONE game. But his retirement was the first time I realized what it was like to have to walk away from something because you're just too old and broken down to do it anymore. Off the field he was known as a tremendous humanitarian, and even though it's come out that he was a fairly troubled individual post-retirement, it doesn't sully his image in my eyes. On November 1st, 1999, Payton passed away due to an extremely aggressive form of liver cancer. I had just moved up to Salt Lake a couple months prior to attend college, and I was driving out to the airport to pick up my roommate when the news of his passing came over an update on the radio. I actually had to pull my truck over to compose myself. Outside of close family members and friends passing away, I can't recall anyone's death having that effect on me.

I wouldn't buy a used car from this guy.
The team entered a pretty dark period in the 90's, beginning with the sacking of the last link to the magic of 1985, Coach Ditka. I got the news as I was walking with my dad down to the local Elk's Lodge to take my hunter's safety test. They replaced him with the milquetoast Dave Wannstedt. While the defenses were still good, the offense floundered. Although, I wouldn't know too many of the details because the local TV station pretty much quit showing their games altogether. These were the days of regional coverage so I got a weekly dose of Denver and San Francisco games, two teams I absolutely despised. I REALLY had no idea who these guys were anymore, hell, I doubt a good chunk of Chicago residents at the time could name their everyday personnel. This was probably best manifested in the quarterback carousel of the next twenty years.

Future Hall of Famer and noted dong-pic self-paparazzo, Brett Favre was the only quarterback the hated Green Bay Packers started from 1992-2007, a time period that resulted in almost yearly playoff appearances, two Super Bowls, one Lombardi Trophy, and a very resentful teenager/young adult from Price, Utah. In a similar period of time, the Bears started no less than 24 different QB's between Jim McMahon, and current QB Jay Cutler. Here's the rundown:  Steve Fuller, Mike Tomczak, Doug Flutie, Mike Hohensee, Jim Harbaugh, Peter Tom Willis, Will Furrer, Steve Walsh, Erik Kramer, Dave Krieg, Rick Mirer, Steve Stenstrom, Moses Moreno, Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, Jim Miller, Chris Chandler, Henry Burris, Kordell Stewart, Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel, Jonathan Quinn, Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman. Of the few names of note on that list, they never showed up in Chicago in their primes, they were always on the downhill trend for their careers. But look at that list, just an absolute murderers' row of shitty quarterbacks. There were a lot of 6-10 seasons in there, the team was always godawful, but never shitty enough to get the really good draft picks, and they never got any better. In that same time, I'd given up my childhood dream of being the next two-sport star and settled on golf as my game of choice. But as a fan, I still loved the NFL and I still loved the Chicago Bears. But I will admit, those were dark, dark times indeed.

Cousin Pete and I during the famous "Dorm Days"
I got really lucky with my first roommate in college, Big Nick. He was a Bears fan as well, and with my cousin Pete, I finally had a support network with which to commiserate as a fan. It's bad enough when your team blows the meat whistle, but when it seems like you're the only fan you know of said team, it's a lonely existence indeed. With the draft of Brian Urlacher in 2000, things finally started to look up a little bit. In the Fall of 2001-Winter of 2002, a quarterback by the name of Jim Miller (oddly enough the first QB ever suspended for banned substances in the NFL) along with a revamped defense propelled the Bears to the last ever NFC Central Division title and their first playoff appearance since I was in junior high! I even won a couple bucks from my Godmother in our annual Packers vs. Bears bets for the first time since I was mowing lawns for money. Just our luck though, as a good friend of Big Nick and mine got married the day of the playoff game, sparing us the horror of a 33-19 drubbing at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional round.  It really felt like they were getting close, but it would be another four years before they would get back to the playoffs again. But hey, at least they were on TV once in awhile again!

By 2005 I was long out of school and working as an Assistant Professional at the University of Utah Golf Course here in Salt Lake. A combination of new head coach Lovie Smith, Kyle Orton, Rex Grossman, and a stifling defense got the Bears back into the playoffs. It was around then, that I started experimenting with the concept of karma. and during this season, the concept for the official "Chicago Bears Drinking Game" was born. I would absorb the brunt of their punishment for mistakes on the field. For every turnover, touchdown or just generally stupefyingly bad play the Bears gave up or made on the field, I would take a shot of whisky. I really should've gotten this sponsored by Jack Daniels. I figured, maybe I could buy the team a little good karma and turn things around, or get so blitzed that I'd be numb to the atrocities they'd commit on the field. The drinking game got its first test run during the Divisional playoff loss to the Carolina Panthers, the unintended consequence of which ended up being an unexpected post-game phone call from my Grandmother, mother, and sister in Oregon. Not sure how I held it together on the phone in my "altered" state, but I think I managed.

The following year, behind an even better defense than the year before, a blindingly fast and shifty kick returner, and a surprisingly competent Rex Grossman, the Bears once again recaptured some of that late 80's spark. For the first time in almost twenty years they were able to build on the successes of the previous season and come back even better than before. I was also able to perfect the Drinking Game and it actually seemed to work, as I remember virtually nothing from the 2nd half of the incredible Monday Night Football comeback against a frisky Arizona Cardinals squad.  I just know that they won. And they kept on winning, time and again, eventually defeating the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game in a blizzard that gave me flashbacks to that '85-'86 win against the Rams. Two weeks later, I threw the biggest Super Bowl party that I could afford with well over a dozen close friends packed into my tiny house, as well as multiple phone calls to my Dad, Cousin Pete in Phoenix and my friend Carla in Chicago. Devin Hester, savior of that Cardinals game, took the opening kickoff to the house which prompted me to "run down the sideline" of my living room with him. Some say that was the fastest any of those folks had ever seen me move. That would be pretty much the last highlight of the game for me. The Bears kept it interesting, but eventually lost 29-17 to the Indianapolis Colts. Prince's incredible halftime show was pretty much the last thing I remembered from that game. I spent the bulk of the second half sitting on my old toybox, now converted into a place to stack my shoes, in a Jack Daniels induced haze with my head in my hands, save for what I've been told were several humorous drunk dials.

That pretty much brings us up to present day. The Bears finally upgraded their quarterback, although, and this is really shocking, he hasn't quite lived up to his promise. It's a familiar story. They even made it back to the NFC title game a couple years ago, a football armageddon if you will against their storied rivals from Green Bay. Again it ended badly. I eventually retired the Drinking Game for my own health, although my buddies convince me to bring it back out once a season. That's my limit. I'm pretty sure I'd have one foot in an early grave otherwise. This year brought something unusual, a ten-win season that didn't result in a playoff birth and the subsequent dismissal of Coach Smith. They're on the hunt now for a new coach, so who knows what the future will bring? Actually, I have a pretty good idea, but I'll never let my cynicism ever get in the way of being a fan. Even though, they've let us down over and over again. As a guy that feels like sports bigamists are the scum of the Earth, I feel good hanging my now battered hat on the fact that I'll be a fan of that team literally from the cradle to the grave.

Oh yeah, and that game I went to a couple weeks ago? They actually managed to win in the ugliest manner possible against a pretty shitty opponent. But it was an incredible feeling being in a stadium with 65,000 people, 45,000 of which, like me, were rooting for the visiting team. The camaraderie was incredible! We drowned out the home crowd with "LET'S GO BEARS!" chants and we even sang the fight song at the top of our lungs when Charles Tillman ran an interception back for a touchdown! It truly was unbelievable, and if you're not a sports fan, there's really no good way to explain that feeling of being part of a crowd like that. But I will tell you this, if you ever end up in that situation, you'll be hooked for life!
That dude in the background might've been the last Cardinals fan there that day!

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