The grill was attached to the rear of a 32-foot RV adorned with a painting of a bald eagle and an American flag above the words "Support our troops past and present" and "God bless America." On the side was a Chicago Bears logo, an image of the Chicago skyline, and, in orange, "Monsters of the Midway." The RV's co-owner Jerry O'Drobinak cleaned the grill while other members of his party dutifully made preparations for "Packers Day." It was 8:19 AM on week ten of the NFL season. O'Drobinak and company were among the many Bears fans getting situated in McCormick Place Lot B off 31st Street to enjoy one of the rites of fandom: tailgating.
As "Start Me Up" by the Rolling Stones blasted from a neighboring vehicle, Sam Condes, who co-owns the RV with O'Drobinak, and the rest of the group set up folding tables on which they placed bowls of pretzels, Jack Daniel's-infused chocolate chip cookies, and other snacks. They hooked up the propane tank beneath the grill and laid out raw beef tenderloin, meatballs, and apple-smoked sausage. They unwrapped cigars, lit them, and smiled, enjoying the cool morning air and the smell of the warming grill after driving from Whiting, Indiana.
Up to four hours before kickoff, Bears fans gather in parking lots near Soldier Field to barbecue, drink, and generally get themselves—to use the words of the late Bears linebacker Doug Buffone—lathered up and ready for football. Lot B is one of three tailgating-allowed lots that fans can enter on game days with cash as opposed to prepaid coupons.
"This is the first time we've ever done this," Adam Frye said at 7:45 AM, fifteen minutes before the lot officially opened. He and his wife Nikki were both wearing Bears jerseys—his Dick Butkus, hers Brian Urlacher. The couple has always parked in the lot after making the four-hour drive from their home in Swartz Creek, Michigan. On this day, though, they parked in Michigan City and took the Metra to 27th Street Station, then walked to the lot and waited for friend-of-a-friend Mike Snedden and his daughter Lexi. For $20 a person, members of the Snedden tailgate got access to a spread of home cooking plus drinks before everyone headed to the stadium.
The Bears entered the day 3-5, hosting the 4-4 Packers. With the drought-breaking championships of the White Sox in 2005, Blackhawks in 2010, and Cubs in 2016, and of course the many titles of the Jordan-era Bulls dynasty, the Chicago Bears—"the pride and joy of Illinois"—hold the city's longest active futility streak among the so-called "big four" sports. And yet enthusiasm abounds due to rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, drafted second overall, along with running back Jordan Howard and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, and some play-making youth in the secondary. Adding further excitement about the day's game was that Aaron Rodgers, an all-time Bears slayer, was sidelined with a broken collarbone, marking the first game since 1991 that the Packers faced the Bears without either Rodgers or Brett Favre at QB.
Throughout the lot Bears fans kept themselves happy with plenty of food, drinks, and plenty of daydreams of a Trubisky-led championship somewhere on the horizon. Condes, a season-ticket holder since 1971, was enthused about the young quarterback, though not as excited as he was after the Bears selected USC quarterback Vince Evans in the 1977 NFL draft. He loved Evans. Trubisky? "Not as hopeful."
That opinion was rare. Most fans saw Trubisky as worth both the hype and the controversial trade up in the draft the Bears made to ensure he would come to Chicago. And there were other reasons to celebrate. In O'Drobinak and Condes's group, Lisa Harretos, 46, was about to watch her first live Bears-Packers game thanks to her new season tickets for which she'd been on the waitlist for 17 years. She'd brought along her eight-year-old son and 70-year-old father, both named Jake. It was enough to keep father Jake—last name Latiak—delighted in spite of the absence of his beloved RV, dubbed Da Coach II, which didn't make the trip due to scarce parking passes. When Latiak stepped out of O’Drobinak's RV around 8:20 AM, he looked me dead in the eye, smiled, and said, "Game time."
Tony Resendiz, 37, and friends, it turned out, came just for the tailgating, something they've enjoyed for 15 years, even on days they don't have tickets. Their initial plan was to tailgate while watching the game on a pair of TVs they'd brought. That was squashed when they arrived and learned that fans aren't allowed to tailgate outside during games. What Resendiz and other fans interpreted as rule changes were actually just old rules finally being enforced, said Barnaby Dinges, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns McCormick Place.
The sudden imposition of tailgating rules and the sad state of the team did little to bring down the mood of the lot. Even at 3-5 and having gone without a championship for 32 years, fans' optimism remained high.
Mike Snedden, 55, has been a season-ticket holder (and tailgater) since 1982. Daughter Lexi, 22, started coming to games with dad when she was two years old. She knows the drill just as he does. Behind Snedden's Chrysler Aspen was a five-foot long steam table with four compartments heating potatoes, chili, green beans, and pulled pork that Mike started smoking at 9 PM the night before.
"Try this pork," Mike ordered. He placed a bun on a paper plate, and handed it to Lexi, who scooped the meat onto the bread.
Before I could take a bite, Mike stopped me. "Gotta do this right," he said. He grabbed the plate, removed the top bun, reached a serving spoon into the pork tray to collect some juice, and gingerly poured it over the meat.
"This is the way I've grown up," Lexi said. "I’ve never known anything different. Any time I go to college tailgates, it is nothing like this. I've been ruined for all other tailgating. This is everything to me. Tailgating is life."
With everyone pretty well into the food, Mike and Lexi prepared for a 10 AM Bears "rally shot." This ritual didn't offend the Packers fans in the midst of the Snedden group. Dave Kreuster of Madison is a hardcore cheesehead who has never feared a Bears quarterback but was deeply afraid of Brian Urlacher ("I thought that at any moment, he was going to bust through the line and take out our quarterback for the rest of the year"). Chet and Cathie Bullinger of Mokena, meanwhile, are "a couple divided," with Chet an ex-Bears fan and Cathie a Bears fan who now appreciates the talents of Rodgers and Jordy Nelson. Chet was wearing a Packers Starter jacket over a special-edition black Rodgers jersey. Cathie donned a Bears scarf and a blue sweater over a green Nelson jersey. No one in the Snedden group seemed too concerned about Cathie's schizophrenic fandom. Throughout Lot B there was a surprising camaraderie between Bears and Packers fans.
Lexi walked over to the Bullingers with shots poured into small, plastic shot glasses.
"Fireball or Jager?" she asked.
"Fireball," Chet said. Cathie took one too.
Mike Snedden addressed his partygoers.
"Even with all the problems with the parking lot, it still wound up being fine," he said. "Here's to another beautiful day tailgating.”
He lifted a shot skyward. The group did the same.
"Let's go Bears!"
Though the forecast called for rain by 9 AM, it didn't begin falling until around 11 AM. By then, fans were packing up and beginning to head to Soldier Field. Over at the RVs, O'Drobinak was inside his vehicle cleaning the pan he used to cook a dish he called "Scrambled Yankee Eggs"—a mix of eggs, bacon, and ham. The Bears-Packers pregame was playing on the TV. Trubisky was discussing his first Packers game. Condes was outside folding up tables.
"You hungry?" he asked. "It’s cold, but I can get you something."
He made up a plate of beef tenderloin, apple-smoked sausage, a bun, and a few of the Jack Daniel's cookies, courtesy of Freddy Stasny, who infuses the batter with a cup of his whiskey of choice.
Outside, Stasny watched while friends set out for Soldier Field. As the designated RV watcher, he'd stay behind.
"Are you going to miss watching the game?" I asked.
"I'll be OK," Stasny said.
"Of course he will," Mike said. "Have you seen that TV in there? He's got the best seat in the house."
Jack M. Silverstein is the Bears historian for Windy City Gridiron and author of How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.