PHOENIX — Bears chairman George McCaskey teased a “major announcement” Tuesday at the NFL's annual meeting about the team’s uniform, which could come as early as next week. The Bears are celebrating their 100th season in 2019, so whatever that announcement is, it would seem likely to involve a nod to the team’s history.
While we’ll have to wait to see what new threads the Bears will wear at some point in 2019, we do know this: The NFL granted the Bears the first game of the 2019 season, to be played at Soldier Field on Thursday, Sept. 5 against the Green Bay Packers.
The NFL’s move was unconventional — usually, that Thursday night game goes to the defending Super Bowl champion. But with the NFL celebrating its centennial season concurrently with the Bears, the league had been in talks long before the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl (again) in February.
Perhaps some in Boston will take this as another injustice thrust upon them by Roger Goodell and the NFL. Some other folks in that area of the country probably don’t care. But for the McCaskey family, it represents a special opportunity to celebrate how far their franchise, and the game of football, have come since George Halas founded the team 100 seasons ago.
“We’re looking forward to it,” McCaskey said. “The place is going to be rocking. The 199th meeting. We’re two behind in the series. This would be a good season to even things up, I think.”
The Packers, indeed, lead the all-time series 97-95-6. Their first meeting was Nov. 27, 1921, with the Bears securing a 20-0 win. At one point in the early 90’s — before Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers came along — the Bears had a 24-game lead in the all-time series. It has been, is, and always will be a point of pride for the McCaskey family and Bears fans to beat the Packers.
And with a team that had a worst-to-first turnaround in 2018, led by a dynamic coach, budding quarterback and dominant defense, McCaskey wouldn’t be wrong to feel the tide starting to turn in the Bears’ favor for the first time since Mike Ditka roamed the sidelines at Soldier Field.
“We know what the Bears mean to Bears fans and we're just very grateful for that,” McCaskey said. “I’ve said this before: We put our fans through four years of hell and they stuck with us and they were rewarded to some extent last year. A lot of people have told me I can't remember when I had so much fun watching the Bears.
“7-1 record during the regular season at home. Matt (Nagy) challenged the fans to bring back the Soldier Field home field advantage and they responded. And you could see it building as the season progressed and those late season games against the Rams and the Vikings and the Packers, that place was rocking and that's what we want. We want a distinct home field advantage. We want to be respectful, of course, of the visiting team and visiting team fans, but we want it to be a difficult place for visiting teams to play.”
The first test of that last line will come in the NFL’s first game of 2019. With the league putting on an event in Grant Park, a national spotlight on NBC and an entire city’s attention turned to the lakefront, the Bears can expect a raucous atmosphere to greet their longtime rivals in early September.
As Nagy talked through what would happen — season opener for the league, season opener for the Bears, at Soldier Field — he perked up a bit on Tuesday morning.
“I mean, I got goosebumps just there saying that,” Nagy said. “It's going to be special. We've got to make sure our guys understand the significance of it, but not to make it too overblown to where they don't play fast. I think it's going to be great for the league. I'm excited it's at home. Obviously, playing in Green Bay and that tough loss we had last year (in Week 1). But I'm fired up about it.”
The NFL, of course, is not without its own issues as it enters its 100th season. Those won’t be papered over because of one Thursday in Chicago in September.
But the sport remains the most popular one in the United States, with the NFL making strong in-roads in Mexico and England, too. And decades ago, when Halas had to creatively battle to get football in front of Americans, perhaps an event with massive interest like the Bears-Packers season opener would’ve been something he could’ve envisioned.
“I don’t know that he could have envisioned the explosive growth of our game,” McCaskey said. “But I’m convinced that he knew that professional football was something that America would come to love. And there’s a little plaque in the lobby of Halas Hall, underneath this life-size piece of art of George Halas. And the plaque is written by Bill McGrane, a pretty good writer. There’s a line in there something to the effect of ‘By sheer force of his immense will George Halas demanded that American pay attention to professional football.’ I think that’s what has happened.”
And Now, A Story
We’ll end this with a story by McCaskey about why he doesn’t wear his Super Bowl XX ring anymore.
McCaskey estimated this story happened in the early 1990’s, though the Bears first played the Cincinnati Bengals in a preseason game after winning the Super Bowl in 2000. The Bears played at Cincinnati in 1986 and 1995 during the regular season.
Anyways, here’s the story:
“So I think it was a preseason game in Cincinnati and I had my ring on for the trip and we flew out of the airport, which is in Kentucky, on the charter. And at some point on the return flight I realized that i didn't have my ring with me and I was sick to my stomach.
“And Bob Laskowski who at the time was our United Airlines rep and since came to work for the Bears and has been with us for many, many years tore the plane apart for me. I was very embarrassed and our doctors were looking under their seats and the overhead bins and the seat backs and the pockets — It couldn't be found anywhere.
“Well, the fact of the matter was it wasn't on the plane and I thought it was hopefully lost. I don't remember how much time was passed, but I got a call from a firefighter with whatever the local fire department is that services that airport and he said, 'Hey I was on a vehicle on the jet-way and we're trained to look for debris on the tarmacs that could be sucked into a jet engine, and I've got your ring.
“… He returned the ring. He didn't want any money, didn't want any reward, he wound up coming to a Bears game or going to a Bears game, I don't remember what the details were.
“But the ring was smashed, it had gotten run over by one of the airport vehicles. So, since then (laughs) I don't wear it all the time. And I've got my dad's ring from 1963 so they're both in a safe place.”