COMMENT: Going back to Soldier Field

Wednesday, October 14, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

I can't believe that it's only been a year.

I watch the throng of orange and blue move down this slightly less magnificent mile of Michigan Avenue, and I can't stop thinking about being here with him. And about what can make a year feel like a lifetime.

He's been gone for a little more than four months, and as I sit on the edge of adulthood, it seems that the more I need him the further away he feels. So here I am, going back to Soldier Field, the place that had become ours.

But this time I'm alone.

And I'm looking.

For a chance to rediscover how a team and a game can bring joy.

For a few answers to the questions that aren't going away.

For a chance to feel close to him again.

January 1986

My dad had been in Chicago for four years when the 1985 NFL season began. He was an Air Force brat who had made a dozen moves before coming to Chicago to marry my mom. For most of his life he was a man without a town, and it made him a man without a team.

By the end of that season the Chicago Bears were Super Bowl Champions, and he had found his football love.

Mike Singletary's eyes. Walter Payton refusing to duck out of bounds at the end of a run. Wilbur Marshall knocking out opposing quarterbacks.

This was football. And when I was born, I quickly learned.

I was weaned on those legends. My grandpa had a tape among the videos in his basement documenting that historic year. I remember watching it every chance I got.

In a couple years, my dad got season tickets. We went to a few games a year. I was still young. A lot of the specifics escape me. I remember the occasional tailgate and getting breakfast at Kitty O'Shea's. I remember Halloween night against the Packers, and a Monday night game in a rainstorm against the Cowboys.

But what I remember most is Sunday afternoons with him. I could listen to him talk all day. And what better place than in Soldier Field on Sunday? I loved that place. And I loved it because it was ours.

June 2008

It was less than a week after my dad had a tumor removed from his brain.

We were headed to Soldier Field for the Bears fan convention. That morning I walked in on him and my mom fighting. Both of them were crying. I found out later that they were arguing about whether or not to tell me.

Just before we left my mom stopped me in the kitchen.

"Make the best of today," she said. "Make the best of all the days."

September 2008

He gave me that look as he handed me the sweatshirt he'd worn under his jacket. It was that look that said 'I told you so.' The same one he always used before he'd let me know how he was right more often than he was wrong. There was a late September breeze off the lake. He had told me to bring a coat.

The Bears were playing the Eagles, and friends had pooled their money to get my dad and I tickets. A minute or so after I slipped the sweatshirt over my head, we stood for the national anthem.

I looked over at my dad and I saw that I wasn't the only one crying. We both know this would be our last game together. Our last trip to our place. And with every opportunity to say something transcendent and lasting and comforting, he said what he was supposed to say.

“This is some shitty stuff, man.”

I looked at him and started laughing. He shrugged and started laughing too. What the hell else was there to do?

It's the way he handled everything. Eleven months of chemo, hair loss and fatigue, and he never once complained. When there was a serious moment it was usually to remind my brothers and I that he had a great life. And that he didn’t have any regrets. And I hoped he believed that it was true.

But mostly there were jokes. He joked about needing things like he needed a hole in his head. He joked about my mom using the life insurance money for plastic surgery to snag a new husband. The orderly wheeling him to his MRI tried not to smile.

We laughed whenever we could. We laughed until we couldn't anymore. We laughed until it was time to say the things we didn't want to leave unsaid.

It was a Friday morning when I sat down on the chair we kept next to his hospital bed in our living room.

“Hey old guy,” I said.

“Hey young guy,” he said in a barely audible whisper. In a few days he wouldn't be able to respond at all.

I cried as I held his hand. I had tried so hard to prepare myself. How do you say goodbye to your dad?

I told him that I was proud of him. I told him that we appreciated how hard he had fought for us.

I told him that everything was going to work out. I told him that I was going to do everything he expected me to. I told him that I would take care of my brothers. I told him that we were all going to be OK.

"I know," he said. "I know you are."

And I hoped that he believed it was true.

September 2009

A year later the Bears are playing the Steelers, and I’m standing alone in a completely packed section, and during the national anthem I’m laughing as I cry, because there's still nothing else to do.

By the third quarter the rain begins falling harder. I slip my hands inside my jacket. The Steelers, already up 14-7, are driving towards another score. I look up at the grey sky. I'm cold. I begin wondering what I thought I'd find here.

His vote of confidence feels like it happened so long ago. I barely feel like the person he gave it to anymore.

Waking up is harder now. I catch myself snapping at the people who are just trying to help. Nine months until I graduate from college. Law school applications are left blank. The happiness that used to be so apparent is so much harder to find.

I feel angry.

Why did he think I'd be OK?

Five minutes would be all I need. He would know what to do. He always knew.

The rain strengthens as the Steelers kicker misses a field goal wide left.

Nine plays and 72 yards later, I leap up with the rest of the fans sitting in the north end zone seats as Johnny Knox hauls in a pass from new Bears quarterback Jay Cutler that ties the game at 14.

April 2009

I remember calling my dad the day after the news of the Pro Bowl quarterback's arrival to the quarterback-starved franchise.

"The Bears finally have a quarterback," I said.

"I'm not so sure," he shot back.

Not even terminal illness and a 25-year-old all-star could get him excited.

It's who my dad was. I'm not sure why. He was jaded, and rarely satisfied.

The team was always terrible. The coach was always an idiot. But every Sunday he was in his chair, watching.

Games on TV usually turned into a yelling match — his doubt pitted against my optimism. At least one person had to sit between us.

After I moved to Columbia, I called him after every game. But I always waited a day. If I called too soon, win or lose, he would always find a way to dampen my mood.

I miss those calls. They forced me to have hope.

September 2009

Another Pittsburgh drive ends with a field goal missing wide left.

The crowd noise builds on the ensuing drive as Bears running back Matt Forte catches the ball near the line of scrimmage and begins to move up field. Everyone has risen out of their seats by the time he's brought down in Pittsburgh territory.

Cutler throws for another first down three plays later as the clock moves under two minutes.

After three straight running plays Robbie Gould has a chance at a 44-yard field goal with only 20 seconds remaining. The rain continues to fall. The sod on the field is new, wet and torn up. I close my eyes. The snap is down. The kick is up. And it's good.

I look up. I raise my arms at my sides. I let myself sing along to "Bear Down, Chicago Bears" for the first time all day.

This is what I came here for.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Andy Carpenter October 14, 2009 | 10:20 a.m.

A fantastic piece of writing. Robert, you did a great job.

(Report Comment)
Dave MIller October 14, 2009 | 12:05 p.m.

Great article. Your dad was a true football fan and I am sure he is still watching all the games every weekend and enjoying the new Bears. So true about his opinions and how everything was kept in a fun side.
Great to see you know how great a guy he was.

(Report Comment)
harriet erickson October 14, 2009 | 5:45 p.m.

Robert, great article, your dad would be very proud! I miss him, he was a great friend. I know what you mean about trying to find familar feelings and joy. Harriet

(Report Comment)
Brett Knight October 14, 2009 | 11:15 p.m.

Great story, Robert.

(Report Comment)
brad michelson October 15, 2009 | 5:21 p.m.

Robert , Without your dad ,you never could have written this! What a blessing to have him as part of you as you travel life's roads. brad michelson

(Report Comment)
Jill Hampton October 16, 2009 | 9:01 a.m.

Robert - How proud your Dad would be of you and how lucky you were to have those wonderful experiences with him. He gave you a wonderful gift and hopefully you'll always remember that all of the answers to your questions are within you. He believed in you and knew you were meant to do great things! I believe it too! Love, Jill

(Report Comment)
Doug Thompson October 16, 2009 | 8:09 p.m.

Robert, what a wonderful article. I can see your dad in your words! That is powerful. You have a true gift. Keep it up.

Doug Thompson

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.