I have never been an avid football fan, though I do know the rules of the game. Most of my knowledge comes from watching the Chicago Bears play. Growing up, we had season passes to all their home games, and I still try to watch whenever they play, though it’s mostly on television these days.
Many of my relatives had season passes from the late sixties and well into the eighties. There was a limited number of home games, making the tickets relatively inexpensive. Getting the opportunity to buy them was the issue. They were so hard to get at one point, it was necessary to wait for someone to die to get their tickets. My father had two, but there was always the opportunity to bring my sister and me when another relative couldn’t make it. My mother had no interest in football, especially if it required braving the elements to see it.
Though my immediate family lived in a nearby suburb, most of my Italian relatives lived in the town of Melrose Park. We would charter a city bus to take us to the stadium whenever there was a home game. Everyone would chip in a few dollars and we would all meet there at a central park. If there was any money left over, and there always was, we would give it to the bus driver. I think he enjoyed the day as much as we did.
From the 1920s through 1970, the bears played at Wrigley Field where the Chicago Cubs also played baseball. At Wrigley, our seats were in the end zone and very close to the field. We were close enough to talk to (yell at) the players, and for some people (I won’t name names) to throw things at them when they screwed up. Wrigley finally installed protective nets jutting out from the front row wall to prevent flying objects.
I think I might have more vivid memories of the bus ride than the actual game itself. Imagine a bus full of middle-aged and older Italian guys, most of them my uncles and cousins. Almost all were carrying wineskins full of dago red to drink during the 45-minute bus ride downtown and in the stadium to keep warm. In reality, the drinking usually started before the bus even left the park. I can still almost taste the homemade sandwiches many guys brought as well. Sweet peppers and eggs, Italian sausage, meatballs, the list goes on.
One of my cousins was about seven years old and didn’t have a ticket. Our uncles were on the heavy side and would put him inside one of their coats and bum-rush their way through the turnstiles before anyone knew what was happening. Security was lax in those days and the seats were bleacher style, so there was always a spot for a little skinny kid to sit.
Though I can barely name any players on the current Bears’ roster, I can still remember everyone’s numbers from my childhood: Gale Sayers – 40, Dick Butkus – 51, Jack Concannon – 11, Ed O’Bradovich – 87, Brian Piccolo – 41, Mike Pyle – 50. Legends all. Mike was a relative by marriage and once got me a signed ball from the 1965 team. Don’t tell anyone, but when the signatures started fading, I sold it to buy a Les Paul guitar and amp.
On one memorable occasion, when I was in grade school, we were all walking in the parking lot after the game on our way to find the bus. The team had won that day and everyone was feeling great. One of my older cousins brought his wife that week and a very large drunk man made some comments to her. Before we knew what happened, my cousin had punched this giant in the face.
The guy seemed not to even notice but we could see there was going to be a problem and my cousin was not going to fare very well. The giant guy’s friend was apologizing for him and trying to hold him back. It was too late. Some of our bus-riding crowd in the vicinity jumped on this guy and tackled him to the ground where they now began kicking him.
It sounds worse than it was. Not much damage was done as all were wearing large coats with many layers of clothing, including the guy on the ground and the kicking was done to his body with gym shoes. I was already backing away and halfway to the bus. It was over in a flash and everyone headed back, calling out comments such as “did you get any kicks in Joey?” directed at me. I did not but kept quiet as everyone was giving each other congratulatory slaps on the back.
Kicking guys when they were down seemed acceptable, if not encouraged, but there was one event I never heard the end of. For me, even in my high school years, the bus ride was boring since I wasn’t drinking and everyone was older than me. I happened to be in the middle of a great book and decided to bring it along on the bus. Even now, forty years later I still get ribbed about that. “Hey, Joey! Remember the time you brought a book on the bus?”
I was dating an attractive older girl at one point (okay, she was one year older) and I brought her along to a game on the bus. Strangely, no one remembers that at all, but the book they will never forget. Who knew? As a side note, it turned out she was just using me to see a free Bears game, so she’s best forgotten anyway.
One of my uncles had a beautiful pair of binoculars he would use when the Bears were on the other end of the field near the opposite end zone. Whenever I borrowed them the comment was always, “hey Joey, are you watching the game or the girls?” The Honey Bears cheerleaders were active during those years. The odds that my binoculars might be pointed away from the field were 50/50.
My sister and I still remember when the lyrics to the Chicago Bears’ fight song were distributed to the entire stadium and we all proudly sang along. We learned that the song was originally released the year after the Bears won the 1940 NFL championship. They defeated the Redskins 73-0, the largest win margin ever in the NFL
Thinking back, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. Bear down, Chicago Bears indeed. You’ll always be a part of my childhood.