Man’s Great Equalizer
Revised for an IDS column, Sept. 5, 2003
The joy of watching good playoff football usually comes with the pain of knowing that your team isn’t good enough to get there. And when you watch the Chicago Bears, the pain of knowing that your team isn’t good enough to get there is augmented by the pain of knowing that maybe your team would be good enough to get there if only management knew what they were doing. Most of the Bears teams of the past fifteen years have been teams that suffered from the same problems: an inability to win close games (coaching and quarterbacks), and an inability to run a team and evaluate talent. What really impresses me about this current edition of the New England Patriots is the way that they have instilled the team concept into every part of their organization, with Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady embodying that concept with everything they do. If the Bears were only as eager to mimic the Patriots’ success as they were to mimic the 2000 Ravens’ success, when they went out and signed two massive d-tackles to clog the middle…
Unfortunately, this is not the case. The Bears may have had a promising 2004 in some respects, but we’re a long way away from being the kind of team that can make the postseason a yearly event. And so each year as the NFL playoffs come around, Bears fans reminisce on the seasons gone by and think about our time in the sun. This is one of the reasons that the ’85 Bears have remained so popular, but while I remember that team in broad sketches, I was only four years old at the time, so my memories come from more recent Bear playoff teams, the last two being in 1994 and 2001. 1994 was a more successful playoff run—we upset the Vikings in Minnesota with a dominant 35-18 victory—and even though it ended without a ring, there’s no shame in a 9-7 Wild Card team losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions, especially when that team is as powerful as the 1994 49ers. But 2001 was the year with more great memories, and that made the playoff loss to Philly even harder to accept.
At the end of the year, the Bears found themselves division champs, and after the Eagles trashed the Bucs, the Bears were set to host Philadelphia for a playoff game at Soldier Field. A few days before the game, my buddy Jake Bressler called me from the University of Illinois with the news that he had an extra ticket. He wanted me to come with him because he couldn’t think of anyone who would appreciate a Bears playoff game more than me. The catch was that I was going to have to drive from Bloomington to Champaign, pick up Jake and a buddy of his, and then drive the three of us to Chicago. Within three minutes of hanging up the phone, I was packed.
When we got to Soldier Field two days later, I was overwhelmed. Dressed in my Robinson jersey over a Bears hoodie and a winter Bears cap, I was as excited for this game as any other in my career. While we waited in line outside the gate, I sung “Bear Down Chicago Bears” with fans I’d never met, and when we stepped inside, I was ready. I knew we were going to win, and I knew that my spirit was going to help contribute to that win.
But somehow, we didn’t win. The Bears made a nice push in the second half with a TD pick return by JerryAzumah and an end-around TD run by Ahmed Merritt, but the game slipped away, and Philly walked out of Soldier Field with a 33-19 victory. Suddenly, the frozen air swirling around the park felt a lot colder. I could feel it on my cheeks, like a slap, like it had been accumulating around me the entire game without my knowledge, and now that the game was over I could finally feel it all. I was surrounded by Eagles fans—all of them yelling and cheering, getting ready for the next game—and all I could do was sit there, cold in my seat. The last game at Soldier Field went by with little fan fare, the season over, our stadium as we knew it gone, and the only thing left was the cold in my cheeks. But then—and I’ll never forget this—something came over me. A calm. For some reason, everything felt like it was OK, like losing the game was not the end of the world. I felt this, through and through, and it shocked me, and it felt good. I could feel the smile growing on my face as my fellow Bears fans walked towards the exits engulfed in what felt like a sea of green, and in this moment of calm, I decided to say goodbye to Soldier Field by using the bathroom one final time.
The bathroom is one of the great equalizers of man. Public bathrooms in particular. Actually, any place with multiple urinals attached to a wall. Hell, they don’t even have to be attached. Just so long as they’re lined up. It doesn’t matter where you are or who’s at the John, around the world it’s all the same. Give me a king, a president, the guy working the overnight at Steak-n-Shake, and a hobo, line them all up at the urinals, and all you’ve got is four guys taking a leak.
Dave Barry once wrote about the instinctive male urinal code that says that men would rather hold it in for a 48-hour period then use a urinal between two other men. For the most part, I agree. Go into a restroom in a bar or restaurant and that code will be silently upheld by every guy there, as we stare deep into the wall in front of us out of fear of accidentally making eye contact with another man in the room.
But go check out the bathrooms at a sporting arena during a game, and there you’ll find guys side-by-side doing their business without a care in the world. Of course, the ultimate in arena bathrooms were the giant troughs at Soldier Field that they had until about six years ago. Is there any better way to signify the kind of basic animal instincts that take men over when we are watching sports than making us piss into a 30-foot half pipe that most horses would refuse to dine at?
The thing about a bathroom in a sporting arena is that inside, the collective mood of every fan grows into an aura of emotions, one you can feel the moment you step in. Let’s say you’re at a Bears-Packers game, and you’re in the bathroom after a Rex interception or an A-Train fumble—you’ll likely see bathroom patrons angrily pissing and cursing, banging on the flush handle and aggressively harassing small children who happen to be wearing Packer gear. On the other hand, if you’re in there after a Marty Booker touchdown or an Urlacher sack, you might see guys singing “Bear Down Chicago Bears,” high-fiving each other and cheering, and gleefully harassing the same small children. This is, as far as I know, the way it’s been for an eternity. I’ll bet in ancient Rome you could find six guys lined up at trees during a Gladiator fight saying things like “Stupid Demetrius. What was he thinking getting killed like that?”
My most memorable time ever spent in a men’s room was also my saddest. It was that trip to the bathroom, after the playoff game against Philly was over. I went to the bathroom, and as soon as I stepped in the door, I was in line. It was packed. I remember the feel of it, the overwhelming mood. Not only had we lost, but Soldier Field had seen its last game: they began the renovation as soon as everyone left. No one said a word for the first two minutes I was in there, until someone in the back of the line yelled, “Ah who cares. Let’s piss on the floor. Not like they’re gonna clean it.” Another guy answered with “The sink looks good to me.” And then, after about ten more seconds of silence, one guy said “It’s been a great year.” It went from there. Everyone reminiscing about the great season, and the game, and cursing Hugh Douglas. This is what sports is about: the moments, both the moments of the season and the moments with the fans. Moments in bars and restaurants, time spent in the bleachers with fellow fans, moments after a huge game when you leave the park and you can feel the city vibrating with excitement and joy, when you hear cars honking and you know why. The bathroom moment after that Bears-Eagles game was one of those moments, one of my moments as a fan. It ended appropriately enough when a kid in front of me—no more than 10 years old—said pretty loudly “Well, it’ll be OK if Brett Favre gets killed tomorrow by the Rams.” The bathroom erupted in celebration. Truth from a child.