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Goodbye dear friend: A love letter to Soldier Field

Bears historian Jack M Silverstein steels himself for the end of Bears football in the elements.

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The author, far right, and two friends beat the weather at Soldier Field on Dec. 23, 2007, as the Bears wreck the Packers 35-7.

Dear Bears’ Season Ticket Subscriber:

It’s official! The Bears are moving to Soldier Field. This change should be considered as a temporary one as we are confident that a new stadium will be completed in Chicago within the next four years…

— Start of a letter from the CHICAGO BEARS FOOTBALL CLUB, INC. to season-ticket holders about how their Wrigley Field seats will be transferred to Soldier Field, dated May 17, 1971

Everything that Chicago fans like to think about ourselves starts in the elements. Our fandom doesn’t work if confined to the United Center. Not even the chill in the air off the ice at a Hawks game can top an inclement day at Wrigley or the Cell. I’ve been to baseball games in April cold, August heat and standing in the aisles waiting out a rainout, and my Chicago fandom has been tickled.

And that’s only baseball. What brings us all together, the Sox fans and Cubs fans, the hockey fans and hoops heads, are the Bears. While the mental and emotional side of my fandom started at home, the physical side started at Soldier Field. My grandfather was a season-ticket holder, one of the Wrigley-to-Soldier transfers. He got the letter. He made the move.

The Bears’ letter to season-ticket holders about their ticket transfer to “temporary” Soldier Field, May 1971 (courtesy of John and Patrick Conway)

Slowly, my parents and my aunt and uncle went to more and more games, often without Papa. By the late 1980s, in his sixties, Mort Pierce was ready to give up the football Sunday grind completely, so he gave half the home games to our family and half to my aunt and uncle.

Nothing in my seven-year-old world could prepare me for attending a Bears game. You didn’t just dress for the game, popping on a jersey or hat. You dressed for the weather. It was like a sports campout. I guess my parents deemed hitting the bathrooms with children tough enough. No point in adding the concession wait. So we brought snacks. We brought water. We brought binoculars. We brought spare gloves. The name of the game: stay warm, stay hydrated, stay loud.

“I have very early memories of Papa getting dressed with electric socks and a battery around his waist to go to Bears games,” my mother told me recently. That was the standard. My parents spared us the coldest games when we were young (I never saw it but the stories of my Uncle Irv’s full-body snowsuit with helmet are family lore), but even a crisp September day brought the possibility of a cold front and the need for your backup sweatshirt that upon arrival you wedged behind your back.

One time I attended a preseason game so hot that afterward, while we drove out of the parking lot at two miles per hour, my dad tried to buy pops from tailgaters to cool down me and my brother. I went to a game of such freezing wind-whipping cold (’07 Packers) that most fans, my friends and I included, spent halftime walking in the concourse because it was so packed that the bodies stopped the wind. I had sunny Bears games (’95 Vikes) and rainy Bears games (’05 Ravens). I don’t remember hitting a snow games but I hit plenty of be-ready-for-snow games. You had to wear the right clothes.

Unless you wore nothing at all. Let your skin do its work. Nipples in the wind. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Remember how Elmer Fudd would put his rifle in Bugs Bunny’s face, and Bugs would turn the gun around at Elmer Fudd? And then Elmer turned it back to Bugs, who turned it back to Elmer, who turned it to Bugs, who then turned it… to himself. So Elmer Fudd turned the gun to himself, and Bugs turned it back to himself, and finally Elmer Fudd yelled something like “You asked for it!” and shot himself in the face?

That was these Bears fans in cold weather games. These fans, always in their twenties, always drinking beer faster than the beer man could double-pour, seemed to take the Bugs Bunny stance with the weather. If I wear a coat, it’s like I’m scared of the cold. But if I go shirtless, it’s like the cold is scared of ME.

I was in awe. Soldier Field wasn’t a sporting event — it was a sporting expression. Fans sang more at Bears games. They cheered more at Bears games. They swore more at Bears games. I learned how to cheer by watching Rocky, a lifer a section below us in the yellow seats, the east side of the stadium. Rocky wore a custom #1 Bears jersey that said “ROCKY” on the back and led fans in chants with his megaphone. I’ve only recently learned his name was Bob Meehan. I always suspected he had a real name. But when you’re standing behind him and he’s leading you in “Bear Down,” “Rocky” is all you need.

A “Rocky” wouldn’t work the same way at Wrigley or the Cell. There are cheerleaders but it doesn’t hit as hard. They’re more like squatters lacking real authority. At a Bears game, “Bob Meehan” is the name in quotes. Everything is heightened. You walked into Soldier Field knowing this was it: THE home game for the next few weeks. Every Sunday took a mythic air. In 1995, my dad took me, my brother and my buddy Luke to a Bears-Oilers game. By chance, at halftime, the team was celebrating the 10th anniversary of the ’85 Bears.

Ten years later, my dad and I attended a cold, rainy game against the Ravens. Game 2 of the World Series was at the Cell that night. The Sox led the series 1-0 and the Bears had a chance to get back to .500. The city was brimming with a united sports vibe. And sure enough, once again in a surprise to us, the ’85 Bears were honored at halftime!

1985 was a special year for Chicago, and that made it a special year for Soldier Field. A stadium doesn’t really feel like home until its home to a winner. The ’85 Bears made Soldier Field our forever home. Those hallowed grounds returned the favor by giving us snowfall just as Wilber and the Fridge ran back the exclamation point.

And 21 years later, Soldier gave us snowfall again in another NFC championship game, the flakes falling as a deep ball fluttered to a lunging Bernard Berrian, the George Halas trophy presented to Virginia under the snowy lakefront sky.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

As sports fans, we all want punctuation. When the scene around you is changing as you sit and cheer your team, that punctuation comes with texture of all five senses. I’ll never forget sitting in the bleachers watching the Cubs punch a ticket to their first World Series since World War II, just as Papa never forgot sitting in the stands for a Bears-Cardinals game at Comiskey on Dec. 7, 1941, and getting word of an attack that would send the U.S. into World War II. When he described it to me in high school, he described the air. The cold. The wind. It’s part of the story. As Chicagoans, weather is always part of the story.

At some point this decade, the Bears are likely giving up that weather. Their “temporary” home at Soldier Field in 1971 became a series of controversial, high-priced, often last-minute leases, the latest of which we signed in 2003 for 30 years upon completion of the spaceship. Today, the good money is on the club finally consummating its longstanding flirtation with the suburbs with a move to a new stadium in Arlington Heights. Kevin Warren is officially team president as of this week, and among his top credentials in a sterling resume is the work he did to bring a new stadium to the Vikings.

“[We’re] continuing to focus on Arlington Park,” Warren explained last month. “We purchased the land. And that’s one of the things I’m looking forward to, to go to work on that. That was a big step. It showed our commitment to doing the right thing, especially solving a stadium solution.”

The new stadium will have a dome. The Bears will own it. They’ll host the Super Bowl. They’ll play 21st century indoor football. They’ll control the weather.

“I do envy the clubs enjoying new stadiums which give comfort to fans and pride to players,” George Halas wrote in his autobiography in 1979 about the pros and cons of Soldier Field. “But if I had to choose between loving fans and a luxurious stadium I would stay with the fans.”

It’s a nice sentiment from Papa Bear, but ultimately we’ll go wherever we can have a winner. I’ll miss the old girl. All things must pass. And one day, I’ll bring my children to a December Bears game in Arlington Heights, snow plastering the windshield on the drive to the park, and I’ll sit with them in our stadium seats in our luxurious 70-degree controlled environment and tell them, with an odd, perhaps ridiculous pride, once upon a time, we were cold.




Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.

Salute to Josh Frost, Ari Goldberg and the 4th Phase.