I’ll never forget those early mornings, waking up as the sun just started to kiss the sky. A Bears camp morning. I would shower, throw on Bears gear, pack up a bag with a sharpie, stack of cards and a football and pack in the car to go to camp.
I was 10 years old when Bourbonnais became the summer home of the Chicago Bears. And they were abysmal their first few seasons at Olivet Nazarene University. But that didn’t matter.
Every summer, the opening of camp sparked a fresh glimmer of hope. A strong grasp of mental gymnastics, especially for an elementary student, were required to determine what was going to happen that would allow the Bears to turn things around.
Even when they didn’t, hosting one of the most prestigious franchises in the world was a thrill. Whether it was the excitement of getting some penmanship on my Mike Brown card or contently settling for Henry Burris’ John Hancock for the third time in four days, the fact that a professional athlete — a Chicago Bear — was giving ME his autograph always tickled the mind.
Nothing was ever as exhilarating as when my friend’s mom took a few of us to dinner after a day of Bears camp and backyard football and seeing Brian Urlacher sitting with a few teammates. Still wearing my number 54 jersey from camp earlier in the day, nothing could top him spotting it, waving us over and having the host seat us next to them.
Being a young Bears fan in Bourbonnais was the greatest thing in the world.
But then high school came. By the time the Bears reached the Super Bowl my freshman year and came back to record-setting camp attendance that following summer, I had my driver’s permit and was nothing but annoyed at the traffic.
I was too old for Bears camp to still be the youthful treasure it was, but not old enough to understand how fortunate I was to have something of that magnitude in my community.
Once I became of age, having professional athletes around town could be a fun thrill on the night. There was no shortage of entertaining characters for those who dabble in people watching and if you were out on a lucky night, a more affluent player may buy a round or two.
But for the past three years, I’ve regained the childlike appreciation for the Bears calling Bourbonnais home for three weeks. As much as I love the communal aspect of covering our prep sports, having the chance to cover an NFL team, let alone the one I grew up rooting for, isn’t always comprehensible.
I had a starstruck moment my first camp, while I was serving as an intern for a former area newspaper in the summer of 2017. My first trip to a post-practice podium featured none other than Mark Sanchez. He may have been a shell of himself as a player, but the college years brief bandwagon Jets fan in me during Sanchez’s back-to-back AFC title game era couldn’t believe whose interview I was recording.
Friends, local student-athletes and their parents often ask me what it’s like to rub elbows with some of the league’s most well-known personnel. And it’s definitely something I never imagined doing in any capacity, but it’s also a job. A great job, but not one that is allowed to be much of a fan during the action. That has to wait until they head back to Halas Hall.
The daily interactions are neat, don’t get me wrong. I am more than fortunate to watch living legend Khalil Mack hone is craft. Watching Matt Nagy implement his wrinkle-filled offense is just nuts.
But the best part is seeing the smiles on those faces across the ropes. Kids standing where I once stood, watching their heroes go to work. Celebrating brief glimpses of shared experiences with the same person that is found on their phone’s lock screen.
This all came back to me last week when the Bears celebrated Community Day. I stood around a group of Kankakee Eastside football players as their eyes beamed open at Mitch Trubisky’s arrival with a pen in his hand. In an area that has seen those from outside its walls oftentimes throw backhanded compliments and unnecessary digs, seeing kids have the opportunity to take in something of this magnitude melts my heart.
And who knows, maybe one day one of those youngsters will also be fortunate enough to cross the rope, whether on the sidelines with a notepad or camera in hand or with a helmet and set of pads on.