I loved the Bears. My room was adorned with Bears posters. Bears linens kept my bed warm through those bitter Chicago winters. Bears t-shirts, sweatshirts and coats covered my body throughout the seasons. Finding a Chicago Bear hidden in a package of football cards was always an electric thrill. My younger brother and I regularly played football in the backyard wearing makeshift Bears uniforms.
The Bears weren't very good back then, but they had some incredible football players. A running back named Gale Sayers could run like the wind. The owner, George Halas, had invented professional football. And I was convinced that a linebacker named Dick Butkus was the strongest man in the world.
On Christmas Eve when I was five years old, I was also introduced to Bears' greatest rival, the Green Bay Packers. Even now, I vividly remember sitting around the dinner table listening to a radio report tracking the progress of Santa Claus with my family. The radio announcer had said that his radar lost sight of Santa over Green Bay. My father, ever the teaser, proceeded to tell my brother and I that Santa was probably abducted by the villainous Green Bay Packers. Dad also warned us that we might not be getting presents that year. Fortunately, Santa escaped and our presents were delivered, but my brother and I learned to beware the evil team that wore green and gold.
We moved from Addison in 1970, but my love for the Bears was packed up and brought with me wherever I went. The remainder of my childhood was split between Roanoke (Virginia), Cheshire (Connecticut), Rock Hill (South Carolina) and Southington (Connecticut). In these other places, I stood out as the only kid wearing Chicago Bears apparel and was often ridiculed for my allegiance to a team that rarely won. During this time, the Bears seemed to be preparing me for life's many future disappointments.
After years of unrequited love, a magical thing happened in 1975. The Chicago Bears drafted a running back named Walter Payton. Although he wasn't the biggest, strongest or fastest, Payton quickly became the best running back in professional football. The Bears rarely won early in Payton's career, but the running back stood out for his talent and heart. After years of embarrassment, I finally had something to be proud of.
I read about Payton's brutal training regime in my father's Bear Report newspaper, and saw that his success was a direct result of hard work and effort. This had a profound impact on me, and I tried to apply Payton's example in my own life. When I was running track and cross-country in high school, I often thought about Payton during my workouts. His example motivated to push even harder when I was completely exhausted and strive to reach my full potential. As a result, I was fortunate to set a couple of school records and receive a few all-conference awards.
My brothers and I stood near the player's entrance as the crowd dispersed. A few moments later, the door opened and Walter Payton walked out, asking who did the drawing. Then he thanked me and posed for a photo with my younger brother, Robbie, and me.
I was thrilled! Meeting your hero is great, but when he turns out to be a nice guy, it's even better.
Sadly, Walter Payton passed away in 1999 of cancer at the young age of 46. Although his life was far too short, it was a life notable for his tremendous athletic accomplishments and his impact on other people- including a kid from Connecticut. After his death, the NFL renamed their Man Of The Year Award in Walter Payton's honor. I later made the following painting in remembrance of my childhood hero.
The Chicago Bears have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Through all the joys and all the heartache, they have enriched my life and I will always proud to be a fan. GO BEARS!!!