[7 March 2007]
Not since the Cubs blew their chance in 2003 had I been so depressed after watching a Chicago sporting event. I sank further into the cushions of my couch as the final seconds ticked off the clock, my unrealistic hopes fading away and the Gatorade baptizing Tony Dungy. I buried my face in my hands and rubbed my eyes as if I could wipe away what I just saw. Adding to the loss was the cruel meteorological prank of sub-zero temperatures that have been keeping Chicago Bears fans frozen in melancholic shock, unable to thaw and move on.
But I did somehow manage to rise from the couch and turn off the TV just as Peyton Manning was beginning his celebration speech. My wife already left the room before the Gatorade drenching. I was now alone.
You see, much of my childhood hood memories are filled with memories of spending Sunday afternoons in artic temperatures shouting “Green…Bay…Sucks!” I have my dad—a season ticket holder through my high school years—to thank for that. Add to that being a die-hard Cubs fan and I can testify to the following: Chicago sports fans suffer from a chronic self-induced nostalgic obsession, passed down from generation-to-generation, which destroys any chance for realistic expectations. And when those expectations are not met, the Chicago fan turns brutally nasty, heaping all vicious forms of his or her frustration usually onto the unfortunate soul who is, more often than not, fully responsible for the team’s loss. (This year’s version just happens to be wildly inconsistent quarterback Rex Grossman.)
I asked myself, “Why do we Chicago fans do this to ourselves?” Why do we continually set up ourselves for the greatest disappointment and then live in frustrated shock that evolves into public lashings of a single player? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have expected the Bears to win, but why do we get so obsessed, so self-destructively nostalgic about the ‘85 team that, weeks after winning one of the most dominated Super Bowls, was quickly dismantled? Do I have to get myself so worked up about winning, to such dramatic heights of hoopla, hype, and galactic grandiosity? Is this what being a Bears fan is all about? Not necessarily, but sports does offer more than just a physical engagement.
After watching two polar opposite performances—the Bears romping through the NFL in ‘85 and then flopping on the main stage in ‘07—I was forced to experience similarly polar opposite emotions, left to figure out why being a Chicago sports fan is often so much more depressing than uplifting. For me, this past Super Bowl’s emotional conundrum can be traced back to circa early January 1985:
My dad rushes into the house jumping around and screaming, “We got ‘em, we got ‘em!” “Got what?” I ask as my mom races to grab both the white envelope holding “them” and the bottle of champagne under my dad’s arm. “Them” was the two Super Bowl tickets my parents won in the season ticket lottery. After that moment, the plan was for me and my siblings to stay in Daytona Beach with the grandparents while mom and dad went to Louisiana for the Big Game in the Big Easy.
What I’ve realized is that my memories of the ‘85 season were so strong that, like most Chicago fans, I still wanted to relive—however detached it might be in 2007—the New England Patriots crumbling under the force of the iron-clad and fear-instilling “46” Bear defense and the Fridge rushing for a touchdown. Ultimately, I want to never stop running the perpetual highlight reel of that entire 1985 season in my head. On a deeper level, a certain part of me wants the ‘85 team to take the field each year, just so that I can experience repeatedly all the personality, charisma, style, and class of that squad. It’s this desire that drove me to feel the way I did as I sat in the couch and sulked myself into oblivion
There was also a part of me that didn’t want to face the facts that these teams on paper were not the same. Their differences were so stark that my disappointment was inevitable. But what logical Chicago sports fan wants to honestly admit that their current team is nowhere near the same as the ‘85 Bears? My cataclysmic disillusionment lies in the fact that the 2006 defense was tops in the league for most of the season and, like ‘85, helped the team to win most of the games by creating turnovers and stopping opposing offenses dead in their tracks. But the 2006 Bears defense—although lightning fast and dominating when it wanted to be—didn’t have the fierce, absolute domination of ‘85.
Honestly, especially late in the season, I struggled to believe that even a winning season was possible.
Still, being a Chicago fan for the last 28 years, I’ve learned one thing: winning—even having a chance to win—doesn’t come around too often. So, like most Bears fans, I took every possible opportunity to blissfully enjoy the Bears’ momentary ride back to the Super Bowl, trying my best to ignore the voice telling me that they very well might lose. Now, in the days following the Super Bowl loss, I’ve discovered something very important about how I had taken in the first Super Bowl victory, and how that experience—and all sports—has vitally impacted my life.
Moments like my dad and mom jumping around in the family room over Bear tickets have confirmed for me that sports play a bigger role in our lives than I’d like to admit. But our cultural connection with sports is a part of our human reality, an opportunity for most of us to pretend vicariously that we can do what we see supremely gifted athletes do on the field. And during that odd—but very real—false sense, we bond with family and friends. At a certain level, that’s an extremely unique and rare communal event.
My rearing on Chicago sports has come full circle and I’d be lying to you if I told you I didn’t enjoy reminiscing about the Super Bowl Shuffle, the 46 Defense, and all those times during my childhood I would show up to class on Monday morning with a hoarse voice—lost to screaming from the stands at Bears games that my classmates would’ve killed to be at. Those times were amazing, and understanding the past is important to making sense, here in the present, of a fan’s reaction to their team imploding on one of sport’s biggest stage.
There’s also clarity in this context. Recalling my emotional connection to the ‘85 Bears reminded me of the event I witnessed just two days after their Super Bowl victory. My siblings and I were staying with my grandparents as my mom and dad arrived after their trip home from New Orleans to join us in watching the Space Shuttle Challenger take off, only miles from my grandparents’ house. The tragic explosion and crash was one of the most terrifying moments I experienced as a youngster. Still, I never saw it impacting my emotions as I sat depressed on the couch after this most recent, wrenching loss.
Now this may seem a little to Freudian for sports talk, but I think many fans go through a similar experience instantly, without even being aware. In our culture, many life experiences—good or bad—occur with some sporting event as the backdrop, or vise versa. The contrast of emotions—the triumphant ‘85 Bears victory juxtaposed with experiencing the Challenger explode in the sky above me—was so drastically unsettling that it confused me and stayed lodged in my memory. Years later, watching the Bears in this Super Bowl reminded me again of both the jubilant and the tragic, simultaneously sending me into a depressing gridlock.
I’ll always remember Devon Hester’s blazingly brief Super Bowl glory and Grossman’s final loafed intercepted pass of the season. But beyond the game, this Super Bowl will go down as one in which I saw sports in a completely new light. Even though there’s a lot of running in sports, I should avoid running from myself and the Chicago fan inside if I’m going to emotionally survive the Bears’ 2007 season, and the Cubs’ World Series run—which is right around the corner.