Report from Chicago Bears training camp in Bourbonnais, Illinois

Ladies Day is a lie, and other things I learned at Chicago Bears training camp

August 01, 2014 / by / 16 Comments

Ladies Day at Chicago Bears training camp in Bourbonnais, Illinois isn’t quite what you’d expect.

Whether due to lack of proper marketing or the fact that most women watching goal-line drills at Bourbonnais’ Olivet Nazarene University’s football fields weren’t drawn 60 miles south of the city by the lure of an on-site salon and spa service, it was immediately apparent that most of the attendees in question were about as interested in Ladies Day as Roger Goodell is interested in having a nuanced discussion of the role of gender in contemporary society. Rather, it’s safe to say that the fine ladies of Bear nation came to Bourbonnais last Wednesday for one reason and one reason only — the same as any other fan in attendance at training camp: To watch football.

Chicago (in my biased opinion) has some of the greatest fans in the world, and they traveled from all over the state, the midwest, and in some cases the country to plop their lawn chairs down in the middle of fertile Illinois farmland to watch their team run drill after drill in the no-nonsense midwest sun. For a few weeks in summer, Bourbonnais draws a diverse crowd in the truest sense of the term: Old and young, black and white and in between, lawyers parking their BMWs next to families unloading their beat up Ford Windstars, all the various representatives of the vast swath of people who tune in to watch the Bears every Sunday are here.

On your way from the grass parking lot to the football complex you see old women smoking 100s, mothers and fathers teaching their kids how to throw a spiral, local driveways chalked-up to celebrate the Bears, and dudes in birkenstocks with long flowing hair sporting Urlacher jerseys, all while a small but powerful cadre of viciously attractive college (I hope) women pass by in Rex Grossman shirts.1 The unemployed, the underemployed, students, teachers, retirees, locals, and your run-of-the-mill football fanatics (or some combination of the above) all came to watch Jordan Palmer tragically overthrow yet another fade route. Kids in Cutler and Forte jerseys play two-hand touch as they dart in between graying men with bellies hanging out of their Payton and Ditka jerseys tucked in to their jeans. Down on the field are coaches in visors or bucket hats with aging muscles drooping underneath oversized dry-fits yelling at men my age kneeling in the heartland humidity where the air on the drive down smells like corn and manure and Ronald Reagan.

“Best case scenario, we go 16-0… wait, I mean 19-0,” says one fan, in between offering his assessment of Alshon Jeffery’s fantasy football projections to his buddies. “Worst case, I’m thinking 10-6.”

That kind of optimism for what could be next season is no stranger to Chicago. Neither is the crippling doubt that arises from the memory of so many crushing disappointments suffered over the years. “We paid Cutler too much — just wait for him to get injured with 6 games to go. Jared Allen is washed up. We’ll find a way to drop four games we shouldn’t.” There’s an inherent self-flagellation built into the psyche of Bears’ fans, the kind that punishes you for loving a team so much it only hurts you all the worse when Chris Conte does Chris Conte things all over the secondary.

The drills on the field barely make sense to a casual observer unaccustomed to seeing the complex sport broken down into its distinct processes, but their importance is palpable. From the intensity of players diving to swat balls out of the air or the way Jimmy Clausen hangs his head in shame after every bad pass, you can tell what hangs in the balance for players jockeying for roster positions or even just a spot on the bench. The beauty of Cutler connecting with Brandon Marshall for a touchdown to cap off a two-minute drill, however, needs no explaining to the hundreds of mustachio’d or sunscreen-clad fans lining the field.

When you watch the Bears at training camp, you realize so many small things that you never could have picked up from TV or a nosebleed seat. Like just how much of a weeny Marc Trestman comes off as, how deep and husky Cutler’s voice sounds when he calls out the snap count, how swiftly Lance Briggs can plug a running hole, or how effortless Robbie Gould appears as he drills field goal after field goal from within the 45. Football on television makes the players seem as mechanized as Fox’s NFL Sunday robot. Training camp helps to restore the human side of our heroes by demonstrating the rigors of practice necessary to achieve the wonder that is, say, Matt Forte tearing up the open field.

Training camp is a bizarre world, one where Dads hoist their offspring over fences to finagle autographs from 22-year-olds about to get cut and where Jared Allen is perceived as a role model without a hint of irony. But training camp is also a beautiful place, a gridironed bald spot tucked into the orderly rows of agriculture and highway exits where all the different structural or petty borders that separate Chicago and its fans are transcended — if only for a few hours — by a pure and simple love for the game.

Now for the love of Walter Payton, let’s get this season started.