A brief background - I grew up in several cities, but I was born in Cook County Hospital and my family moved back to Chicago in the 60's, when I was 10. A friend over on MHR sent me this link (find it here) regarding some of the most memorable players in history. It's no shock that some of the Bears were first on the list. As these things tend to do, memory took me back to the prevailing 35 mph SW wind, the bitter cold in Wrigley Field and the experiences that I had there. i lived most of my life in Denver and Colorado, but with these being Chicago stories, I hope that you can enjoy them. Peace.
You know, when I was 10, we moved from New York, where we'd been for about 8 years, back to Chicago, the place of my birth. I have memories of several sports venues - the Blackhawks center and White Sox's field, torn down and rebuilt across the street, much as Invesco did to the true Mile Hi stadium, until the areas around both of their stadiums developed issues with crime. Watching the Cubs from the left field bleachers, I joined with the Bleacher Bums (the Chicago baseball version of the South Stands). That city had truly great museums, wonderful schools, an amazing music scene, plenty of theatre and restaurants that were holes in the wall, secrets well guarded that served some of the best cuisine from a dozen countries. And, Chicago had some of the worst weather on the planet. You can't have everything ;-).
However, along with my father's new job, came the perk of a series of seats that got my father, brother and myself into the stadium for some Bears games at Wrigley Field - the move to Soldier Field came much later. I also got to go there later on, but it was the early experience that made me a fan for life.
I got to watch Dick Butkus play - and he was absolutely amazing. Late one season, he was at a party on Saturday night. He was using two canes to hobblingly get around and was in obvious pain - a number of writers were there, including Mike Royko, who I highly recommend (he's passed on now, but his work was brilliant). In one of Royko's columns, he went on to talk about the specifics of Butkus' situation that night, and the next day. If you ever get a chance to find a Royko book in a used book store or site, buy it. It's well worth the read. By the way, Royko hung out at the Billy Goat Tavern under State Street, the place that led to the Saturday Night Live sketch "Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger, No Fry, Chip!" You had to walk down a flight of stairs from the level below the street, and as you walked down, one of the Greek guys screamed at you, "What do you want?!!" "I don't know yet..." "Next!" It really was like the sketch - and there was Royko, settled in on the mahogany bar, taping out his column on an old portable typewriter and listening for every inflection and word around him. No wonder he had such a touch with the common man.
And the old story is true - the owner of the Tavern tried to bring a goat into Wrigley Field. They threw him (and the goat, one assumes) out, and he stood out front and screamed a Greek curse on them, telling them that the Cubs would never win a championship until they let a goat into the games. About 10 years ago, after half a century of failure, they brought in a goat. Hasn't worked yet, though. Still, it was worth a try.
After hobbling around on canes, barely walking the night before, during the next day's game, Butkus made 20 - yep, 20 - unassisted tackles. He was a force of nature. The story about him biting a guys' ankle in a pileup is true - Butkus admitted to it later. It just wasn't in him to lose. Butkus was also the one who told the media that the Bears owner George Halas threw nickels around like manhole covers. Embarrassingly, Butkus had to sue the Bears to get the final surgeries (artificial replacements) on his knees. The judge must have deliberated for about 3 minutes before finding in Butkus' favor.
I also got to watch Gale Sayers - that was just inspiring. Not a long career, but he was a true game-changer. I've never seen anyone move like Sayers did. It's a sad thing that injuries that today could be cured cut short his career. And the story around Brian Piccolo and his relationship with Sayers was one that still tears at the heart-strings. If anyone tells me that they're a football fan and can they sit through Brian's Song dry-eyed, I admire their stoicism but have to wonder about their humanity. I got to see, in person, Piccolo blocking for Sayers, and he, too, was something remarkable to watch. What an experience that was.
The professor that I studied both Oriental Medicine (acupressure, shiatsu, abdominal and pulse diagnosis, etc) and martial arts with took a job for a while as a sergeant in a very wealthy town called South Barrington (there was no North Barrington - don't ask me why). One night he pulled over a guy speeding, going about 30 over the limit. It turned out to be Walter - the cops in that town didn't write traffic tickets on locals, so he and Walter just had a friendly chat, and Payton went on his way.
A couple of weeks later, Sergeant Barber got a call about vandalism on a house in his town. He and a partner went out there to respond, but no crime was being committed. It turned out that Walter had one of his OL over, and they got into an argument. Eventually, to decide it, they had walked off 100 meters from the house and were trying to shot out all the windows on that side of the mansion- with bows and blunt tipped arrows (people use them to hunt small game) - before the glazier got there. Whoever got the most windows won. When Barber arrived, Walter was winning, so Barber stood with them and watched Walter win the match. What a crazy, wonderful, funny guy Payton was.
Walter used to go into the Bears office when it was lunchtime and answer the phone so that the girls could go to lunch. Once word got out, everyone called to talk to Walter Payton. He didn't mind, and would chat with anyone who called. That was just how he was - full of life, love and laughter, and endlessly kind and giving. It's more than passingly sad that his life's string was cut so short. The article touched on all three players, and I had to agree - when you argue about who was the best in running backs, people usually argue for Barry Sanders (who, being in the Bears division, I got to enjoy seeing twice a year as well) or Emmitt Smith, whom I delete for not spelling our name right ;-). But there was something about Payton that was totally unique. Sometime, perhaps I should tell you the story about how his high-stepping, once he broke free, came about. Thanks for the link - that was an amazingly fun journey back to some wonderful memories.
I often hear people talking about how his career was so short. Actually, he was in the league for 12 years, a lot of time for a running back. He scored a total of 750 points, and he was so unique that I've never heard of someone saying, "Oh, yeah, that guy will be the next Walter Payton". There is no 'next'. He was one of a kind.
Thanks again for the link. Be well, my friend.