I was slow, I was short, I was white, and I could catch.
I was made to be a Tom Waddle fan.
People seek heroes who confirm their own identity. This is especially true for sports fans who view themselves as outliers within a given sport. Black hockey players become fans of black hockey players, short basketball players become fans of short basketball players, and as a burgeoning Bears fan developing my own fandom, I became a fan of Tom Waddle.
I think a sports fan really comes into his or her own at age 10. I turned 10 in the middle of Waddle’s breakout 1991 season. The undrafted wideout from Boston College caught three passes for 40 yards during his first two seasons, and then caught 55 passes for 599 yards and three touchdowns in Year 3.
The Bears went 11-5 that year and earned a wild card berth and a home playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys. On that day, my Waddle fandom was complete. So was John Madden’s:
The Bears lost 17-13. Yet in a game with Michael Irvin and even Alvin Harper, Tom Waddle was the best receiver on the field, leading all pass catchers with 9 receptions for 104 yards. He also scored a late touchdown.
From then on, whenever I stepped onto a football field (and when you’re a kid, the back yard is a football field) I was Waddle. I called myself “Tom Waddle” when I played. I started signing my name on all documents “Jack M. Silverstein #87.” My parents even ordered me a customized Tom Waddle jersey.
In 1992, Waddle again finished 2nd on the Bears in receptions (46), yards (674), and touchdown catches (4). In 1993, he led the team with 44 receptions and 552 yards, plus a touchdown. That same season, on a weekend when the Bears had their first of two bye weeks (ah yes, the season with two byes), the 22nd-ranked Boston College Golden Eagles came to Evanston, Illinois, to face my hometown Northwestern Wildcats.
Remember how I said that for a child, a back yard is like a football field? Well if you grew up in Evanston before the Rose Bowl season of 1995, the football field at Dyche Stadium was like your back yard. The park was left unlocked throughout the week, and kids would go inside and play pickup games on the field, or ride bikes up and down the ramps and through the tunnels.
We knew every inch of that stadium, and my friends and I were there that Saturday in September of 1993 to see the ranked Golden Eagles take on our 0-1 Cats. I had another plan: I suspected that Tom Waddle might attend the game to see his alma mater play in his new hometown, and I wanted to see if I could meet him.
The day went our way. NU pulled out its second win over a ranked opponent since 1971 by scoring a touchdown while trailing 21-14, and then deciding what the hell, let’s go for two, picking up the conversion and winning 22-21.
The win was such a big deal that Sports Illustrated covered it in its college football wrap up section, the first time I’d ever seen Northwestern football mentioned in S.I. We didn’t need S.I. to validate the win; when the clock struck zero, Northwestern fans charged the field. The magazine reported 31,086 fans, but my friends and I were part of a group that did not have tickets and actually watched from just outside one of the giant gates that led into the stadium.
When the Cats won, the gates opened and we stormed on, with someone bigger helping to boost me onto the goalposts before police whistled us all to get down.
As we often did, my friends and I took advantage of our stadium knowledge mixed with our squirrelly speed and size and dashed into the bowels of Dyche Stadium to the laundry room where players dropped off their jerseys. We would often go there to talk to guys, and on this day, Bears running back and Northwestern alumnus Bob Christian was in the house.
We talked to Bob. He broke the bad news.
“Waddle was here,” he told us, “but he left. Just couldn’t take it,” he said with a laugh, which I’m sure is partly true and partly a joke. I was disheartened but also appreciative: I’d received first-hand knowledge of the whereabouts, actions, and perhaps even the state of mind of my favorite Chicago Bear.
I’ve still never met Tommy Waddle, but I’ve also never lost my fandom for his great, gritty play. Since I am a fan of receivers, I next became a diehard Marcus Robinson fan, getting his jersey too, and later cheered on a range of receivers, namely Marty Booker, Bernard Berrian, Johnny Knox, Devin Hester, Brandon Marshall, and now Cam Meredith, who became the first undrafted Bear since Waddle to lead the team in receptions.
The wide receiver love springs from Waddle, who nearly broke my heart when he signed with the Bengals in 1995. I knew even then that it wasn’t his fault. The NFL was a business, I told myself, and Waddle made a business move. Selfishly, I was glad when he retired before playing with them, not because of concussion danger (which I only later understood and which Waddle has discussed) but because I couldn’t bear to see him in any jersey but the Navy & Orange.
To me, Tom Waddle is a forever Bear. When I go to Soldier Field even now and see those WADDLE jerseys, I know I’m not alone.
Jack M. Silverstein #87