My fiancee's great uncle died last night. He was 89 and, as far as I know, not much of a Bears fan, having been born out of state and spending much of his life out of the country.
But his death has me thinking about the importance of Bears pride.
2013 to 2014 was arguably the roughest two-year stretch Bears fans ever endured. I was in my sports fan prime in 1997 and 1998, back-to-back 4-win seasons. That was statistically worse but emotionally tolerable. We knew those teams were bad.
I've heard all about the Abe Gibron years and Jim Dooley's 1-13 debacle in 1969, and I'm sure back-to-back losing seasons under Papa Bear in 1952 and 1953 were no walk in the park.
But Trestman & Emery turning a 10-6 near-playoff club into a sluggish 8-8 squad and then a burning-building 5-11 walking nightmare tops them all.
The issue wasn't just the losing, or even, as Rashied Davis called it, the regression. It was the sense that as those 32 games wore on, players did not want to be part of it. Like they were arrestees on a perp walk shielding their faces from gluttonous cameras.
The worst moment of the two years -- and this is saying a lot -- came during the 2013 season finale, when the Bears had a chance to make the playoffs by knocking out Green Bay, and the defense allowed the Pack to score on an offensive fumble recovery because they seemingly decided that, Eh, this play is dead.
What hurt most for me wasn't just the seven points (in a game we lost by five) but the image of the Bears defenders standing listlessly around a live ball. It was shocking, since we so often see players scoop what is obviously a dead ball and run it more than 50 yards to cross the goal line even after the whistle has chirped repeatedly.
Watching ex-Bears tweets that day (and WCG commenters), I wasn't alone.
@aotheprince93 @JerryAzumah @spiceadams best thing Lovie instilled in us who played D for him, pick up the rock! The ball is the game!— Mike Brown (@21MB30) December 29, 2013
I run the gamut of emotions on that play, but guess what: that would NEVER happen to a Lovie Smith coached defense. #Bears— Hunter Hillenmeyer (@hthill) December 29, 2013
Whether the guys on the field for that Boykin play -- including Julius Peppers and Lance Briggs -- lacked at worst pride and at best awareness, it was a play that epitomized the disintegration of structure. No matter what else happened with the Bears from 2004 to 2012, fans always knew that a Lovie Smith-coached team would bring the heat defensively.
We would create takeaways (Lovie's preferred term -- not "turnovers"). We would hit with ferocity. We would, in the immortal words of Bill Cowher, rush the quarterback.
In other words, we would take pride in the basics. We lost that the past two years. We've got it back now.
I wrote two weeks ago about "hinge games" and "vision games." Hinge games are games upon which a season rotates -- losses and wins that determine your finish.
Vision games are games through which you see the future.
Time will tell if these past two weeks, a 2-point loss to Denver and a 4-point win over the Packers, were hinge games, but they were most certainly vision games. And what I saw was not simply talent, competitiveness and coaching, but pride.
That pride filled this tweet from Kyle Long, psyched up about the importance of playing the Packers:
Got dressed at Halas Hall, ate dinner at Lombardi's Steakhouse. Tomorrow the Chicago Bears play the Green Bay Packers. Football.— Kyle (@Ky1eLong) November 26, 2015
And after the game, the pride rang in the words of first-year Bear and captain Pernell McPhee, who took umbrage with the Packers scheduling the Bears for Brett Favre Night:
"This game, it can get real personal. When you (win), it's all fun, and when you lose, it's very personal. ... (Rodgers) said he loved beating up on us. Who does he think we are? We ain't that team of last year or two years ago, three years ago. It's 2015 Chicago. A lot of guys took it personal, especially when somebody said 'I love beating up on your brother.' I ain't going to let nobody come beat my little brother up."
The pride was there in the locker room, as the Bears celebrated not just a W but a W over the Packers, as evidenced by these IG's from Christian Jones and Josh Bellamy:
Those two videos feature the 60-year-old John Fox up in the mix (As Bellamy wrote, "We Got Coach Fox Wit Us"), dancing with his ecstatic team. As Dane covered after the Packers game, (and as Adam Jahns details here) this really is Fox's team.
It's also a team that is 5-6, with an outside chance to make the playoffs. Yet even if they watch the 2015 playoffs from home, this will forever be remembered as a restorative season. I know we have five games to go, and anything can happen -- including, mathematically, another 5-11 year. Perhaps they'll make me eat my words.
Somehow I doubt it. From Pace on down, this team feels different, certainly than the last two years. I love the new vets on defense, all of them leaders, McPhee and Rolle and Porter and Acho. I love Cutler's smarts and Forte's resilience. I love Langford's speed and Zach Miller's surprises. I love Robbie Gould's steady greatness and Kyle Long's leadership and Willie Young's enthusiasm and Alshon Jeffery's everything.
Not every season ends in a championship. Hell, in Chicago, we've gone 30 years without one.
But every week, the players play and the fans hunker down to root-root-root for the home team, and hopefully when we meet our end, wrinkled 89-year-olds with passion to spare, we'll recall not just the seasons that gave the city a trophy but seasons that gave the city life. And we will sit, smiling, quiet, cheering, ready to go, and say this was our team.