From Bear Down and Get Some Runs
A legendary weekend of Chicago Sports
PART II: Bears-Ravens at Soldier Field…and a salute to Sweetness
For Part I, click here
On January 19, 2002, I was home from Bloomington for the Bears-Eagles playoff game, the Bears’ first home playoff game in ten years. On that same day, Michael Jordan was playing at the United Center for the first time since Game 5 of the ’98 Finals, though this time as a member of the Washington Wizards. Needless to say, it was a big day in Chicago. There was a feeling that even though some were at Soldier Field while others were at the UC, everyone was united, so if you were at either game you were watching it for anybody else who couldn’t be there. As it turned out, the Bears and the Bulls both lost…and of course Michael Jordan won, but what else is new?
This past Sunday had a similar feel, the Bears taking on the Ravens at Soldier Field as the Sox prepared to play Game 2 at Comiskey. There was almost no way anybody was going to reasonably attend both games, and so all of us at Soldier Field were representing for all the Sox fans who (understandably) chose Game 2 over Week 7. And all of us were there for the many fans watching both on TV.
Before Dad and I left the house to pick up Meghan and Don, I gave Sven a call, because around the time when we would be leaving Soldier Field, Sven would be heading to The Cell.
“You excited for tonight?”
“Definitely. Weather doesn’t look good though.”
“Not for baseball.”
“You’re going to wear your shorts still, right?”
“It’s gonna be cold.”
“Well, I might put some pants on under them, but that’d be it.”
“You’re going to the Bears game?”
“Yeah. We’re leaving in twenty.”
“Sweet. Have fun.”
“Yeah, you too bro. Bring home a win.”
“Let’s hope so.”
Dad drove the four of us into the city. We parked in the underground lot at Grant Park, and instead of taking a shuttle to Soldier Field, we walked. It was a cold day with a relaxed wind and a sky that was threatening to drown us at any moment. Still, the walk to the massive stadium was nice, and as we got closer we were near more and more Bears fans, until finally they were all around us, all of us headed in a sea of navy and orange to Soldier Field to watch our Bears take on the Baltimore Ravens. We were all pumped for the game as Bears fans always are, but with Game 2 up ahead there was an additional level of excitement. Outside the gate, FOX’s baseball sideline reporter Chris Myers was standing around talking to somebody, and as we passed him the two guys walking in front of us had the following exchange:
Guy number one: “Hey man, who was that?”
Guy number two: “That guy?”
Guy number one: “Yeah. Isn’t that the guy from FOX?”
Guy number two: “Chris Myers?”
Guy number one: “Yeah. Was that him?”
Guy number two: “I think so. It looked like him.”
Guy number one: “Cool.” (thinking) “What an asshole.”
As we got to the park, jerseys were everywhere. I was in my ROBINSON 88, and there were others like me, stuck in old jerseys. SALAAM 31, THOMAS 35, and KRAMER 12 were around, as were the current ones, most notably URLACHER 54, BROWN 30, TILLMAN 33, T. JONES 20, and KREUTZ 57. There were even a few ORTON 18’s. But the Sox gear was also in abundance, as any Sox fan who couldn’t be at Comiskey wanted to make sure that everybody knew where his heart was.
Before the game began I went into the bathroom, where, as always, the moods were palpable. “Go Bears!” chants were still outnumbering “Go Sox!” but it was only about three to one, and there was as much anticipation for later as there was excitement for right now.
“Marcus Robinson?” I heard from behind me as I rinsed my hands. “When did he last play for us?”
“Hey, you wanna buy me a new authentic jersey, be my guest.”
But he didn’t hear me.
Our seats were up in the north endzone, around the same place where I sat for my first Bears game at New Soldier Field, and as I sat I thought about that day. It was, in many ways, the same situation: I was in town from Indiana, I was at my first Bears game of the season, I was up in the north endzone, and a Chicago baseball team was playing a playoff game later that day. After the players were introduced, the captains for both teams met at midfield for the coin toss, and I was delighted to see the honorary captain and guest coin tosser: Connie Payton, Walter’s widow.
Every time I see Connie Payton, before and after Walter’s death, she is smiling, and as she walked out to midfield and waved at the crowd, the fans in the stands went nuts. It was a true show of respect for her and for her late husband, a man who gave us everything he had. We settled into our seats, cheered madly as Jerry Azumah pumped up the crowd for the opening kick, and began watching our Chicago Bears.
Then the rain came.
It was a cold, almost blistering rain, not too hard or too much to start, but certainly enough to let us know who was boss. Still, that’s part of what I love about football, and Bears football in particular: you have to be a fan to dig it. Gone is the college crowd, the kids who show up at Wrigley to hang out and drink. Gone are the college girls, the ones with their new Cubs hats and new (yet a year late) Sosa jerseys, the ones who couldn’t tell you when the Seventh Inning Stretch was. Gone are the business men, the suits who show up to the United Center with a client and leave in the middle of the fourth to beat the traffic even in a close game. There’s nothing cute or fun about forty degree rain and a swift wind. There’s nothing socially impressive about being outdoors in a Chicago October, even when it’s not raining. Bears games are for Bears fans, and Bears fans only.
As to be expected, it was a slug fest, both teams playing with backup quarterbacks. Ours is Orton, a fourth round rookie. Theirs is Anthony Wright, a journeyman who led Baltimore to the playoffs in 2003 but is still a middle-of-the-road option. Great defenses and terrific running games all around, and if there is any way that this weather was perfect, it was as a compliment to those football elements.
By halftime, the rain was pounding, hard and consistent, and the Bears had played a solid half of football, leading 7-6 on an Orton to Marc Edwards touchdown pass. I was going to walk around the stadium and try to buy some gloves, but as we headed down the aisle, the p.a. announcer began talking about the ’85 Bears, and all of a sudden every living member of that team who was available was walking onto the field to thunderous applause. It turns out that they were celebrating the twenty-year anniversary of that great team, and we were there to see it. This was a delightful surprise and a funny coincidence, as ten years earlier Dad and I—along with MJ and Luke (at his first ever Bears game)—had seen the ten-year anniversary during a Bears-Oilers game, and like this one, we did not know ahead of time.
Many players attended that ten-year anniversary, and the twenty-year one was the same. Each player received cheers from the crowd, and each one had a smile on his face. Connie Payton walked in place of Walter, and she was given another big hand. After everyone was announced, Dan Hampton was introduced specifically as the most recent Bear to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Fans yelled loud for Hampton, quieting as he addressed the crowd. He began talking about that great team, about all the support they received from Bears fans. He talked about his teammates, and about his coaches, and then he talked about their leader, a man beloved in the city, a man who they wished was here today. He talked about Walter Payton. And as a video ran commemorating Payton and his wonderful career, the entire stadium stood and applauded, screaming and yelling in joy for Walter, saluting Sweetness, number 34. It was a true sports moment, one not about yards and touchdowns, but about memories.
We’ve had some amazing players and coaches in Chicago. Papa Bear, MJ, Sayers, Butkus, Banks, Hull…these are names renowned not just in Chicago, but around the leagues in which they played. But none of them left a mark the way Walter Payton did. On the day the Bears used the fourth pick in the 1975 draft to take the little-known running back from Jackson State, Payton delivered a quote that only he could make good on: “When I’m done, they’re going to love me in this town.”
That might sound cocky, but everything I know about Payton tells me it was a simple honest assessment. And you know what? He was right. Nobody else combined skill and character like Walter Payton. Nobody else captured our imaginations and our heads and our hearts the way he did. Michael may have been the greatest basketball player of all time, and certainly we love him for what he did, but he never connected with the city the way Walter Payton did. There was a disconnect with Michael, as would be expected with a guy known and loved throughout the world. Not Payton, though. He was always ours.
Walter was joy, as a player and a person. He was love, happiness, beauty, truth, exhilaration, and hope in the form of a football player. He was grace, power, speed, and balance. He was hard work, dedication, and desire. He was an incredible solo performer who was committed to his team. He was great when the Bears were bad, and he was great when the Bears were great. He was the best and most beloved player on the best and most beloved team in Chicago history. He was a part of the ’85 Bears, yet in his own way he stood above them. Among all of the star players on that team, Walter’s legacy is the one least tied to it. There was only one blemish on the 1985 season, and it wasn’t the loss to Miami. It was Walter not scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl. I don’t get too hung up on it though; in fact, I’m almost glad it played the way it did, because it makes him that much more special. The outrage of fans over that decision speaks to the love and respect we all have for him.
In a way, it was a metaphor for his life and death, because when Walter was having kidney failures in the late ’90s, he didn’t use his celebrity to jump ahead on the donor list. He could have, but he didn’t. Instead, he lived his life, and when he died on November 1st, 1999, it was truly a sad day in Chicago. I remember hearing about it. We knew it was close, but when it happened…I broke down and cried. And it wasn’t because a man who rushed for an NFL record 16,726 yards had died. It was because Walter Payton gave everything he had to the Bears and our city, not just his skill and talent, but his heart, his soul, his love, his respect, his time, his patience, his courage, and his care. We felt every last bit of it. Walter performed for us, entertained us, fought hard on the football field for us, and he did it in such a distinctive manner with such a high level of talent, that there was nobody else like him.
He was only 45 when he died, yet he lived as full a life as he could live, and because of that he will live forever in the hearts and minds and imaginations of Chicagoans. On Saturday November 6th, 1999, the day that I turned 18, a public memorial service was held for Walter at Soldier Field, and before I went out to C.J.’s to begin my birthday celebration with my family, I sat at home and watched the service and celebrated the life of a man who was as much a hero as any athlete I’ve seen. He didn’t battle racism like Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, or Hank Aaron. He didn’t use his athletic status to affect social change like Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown. And he didn’t overcome cancer like Lance Armstrong or Mario Lemieux. He just played, hard and true, with class and character, with humor and humility, with pride and personality. All he did was play football.
And we love him for it.
Copyright 2005, jm silverstein