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Flying High: To London And Back With The 1986 Chicago Bears

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.

It was 1986, a memorable year for Bears fans.

I was walking down Michigan Avenue to the train station when I saw a sign in an American Express window: “Fly to London with the Bears, $349 round-trip airfare includes ticket to the game.” The game being the August 3 Bears-Cowboys exhibition at Wembley Stadium.

Like all Chicago football fans, I was in love with our Super Bowl champs. I casually mentioned the sign to my husband, who told me to go. I had four days to organize vacation, London housing, and to try to persuade the University of Chicago—the original Monsters of the Midway—to get me a press pass. I thought it would be a fun story to write about the new Monsters for them, but they wouldn’t bite.

I was a relative newcomer to football mania. I had grown up in one of those “Friday Night Lights” towns. The Lawrence High Lions had been Kansas football champions for years, maybe decades. Probably when General Eisenhower was a boy in nearby Abilene, the Lions had whipped his local team. Perhaps that humiliation put extra steel in his spine when he landed at Normandy.

Attendance was mandatory at pep rallies on game days. As we sat in the gym, drums and shouts driving teenagers into a frenzy, I felt something wilder than a lion running through the gym, a blood-thirsty animal that terrified me. I never went to a game.

My father’s assistant was dating Len Dawson and got him tickets to the Chiefs. My uncles played for West Point; a cousin who played defensive end for Duke was recruited by the Cowboys. Me, I didn’t know a first down from goose down.

All that changed the winter of 1975 when my husband decided to teach me to ski. Courtenay had grown up in Vancouver. He’d skied those mountains with his friends since childhood. Until arthritis destroyed his ankles, he regularly went to the great slopes of Utah. I’d never been on skis; he was going to get me going.

The three-day weekend we chose turned out to be a bitter one. The high temperature was six degrees. I spent an hour on the bunny hill; we retreated to the bar. The NFL playoffs were on that weekend. Maybe it was the glow of hot buttered rum, maybe it was dizziness brought on by cold, but watching Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, and the Steel Curtain, I realized how erotic the game was. Men with slim hips and broad shoulders in laced up skin-tight trousers. Men slapping each other’s butts in the huddle. The great cloaks the Steelers put on when they were on the sidelines. Like President Carter, I felt lust in my heart.

After that, you couldn’t tear me away from the screen. I started buying tickets for Bears games. My husband and I would sit in the endzone, wrapped in down, drinking peppermint schnapps from a flask. It was all good, until the day I realized I’d absorbed the rules, I’d absorbed the tactics, I was screaming at Revie Sorey for not getting Walter Payton the running route he needed.

I walked away for a year, bitter at having lost the erotic thrill of the huddle, but I was hooked. I came back. I’m a Chicagoan; I was a Bears fan through and through. I flew to London with the Bears.

Our TWA flight on July 27 was less than half full: the U.S. had bombed Libya that April, and Americans were scared the Libyans would bomb us back—as, horribly enough, they did two years later at Lockerbie. Richard Dent left his passport at home, thinking that would get him off the hook, but O’Hare called Heathrow and got special landing privileges for him.

The McCaskeys wouldn’t pay for first class seats for the team. Payton and McMahon bought their own first class tickets, but most of the players rode in steerage with the fans and reporters.

My seat was right in front of Wilbur Marshall. Football players have enormous legs, and Marshall’s were big enough to hold a blond on each. He bought bottles of champagne for both, as well as one for himself.

In London, I trailed around after the team for some of their events, still hoping to write up something. I went to a practice one morning at the Crystal Palace, but the scrimmage had only lasted an hour or so. The only people left at the park were a group from a communal home for the physically impaired. They all wore leg braces; some were in wheelchairs and they were slowly making their way back to their bus. I asked which team they were rooting for.

“We were Cowboy fans,” one woman said. “But the Cowboys wouldn’t look at us when they were leaving and we asked for autographs. A man from the Bears stopped to sign a football for us when he saw the Cowboys push past us. His name was Walter Payton. We don’t care about the Bears, but we’re Walter Payton fans now.” I don’t need or want to know anything else about “Sweetness.”

The exhibition game was uninteresting, so much so that the London spectators kept chanting, “Bor-ing, Bor-ing,” during the time-outs. They were used to Rugby and to European football, with their nonstop action. I don’t remember the score; it wasn’t the important part of the event.

We flew back to Chicago that night, landing at O’Hare around five in the morning. A group of schoolboys, around ten years old, was waiting to greet the team, holding out footballs and cards, begging for autographs.

I think it was Dennis McKinnon who stepped away from the team and went over to the boys. “Go home and get ready for school,” he told them. “Waiting around in an airport for a football team is a waste of your time and your talents. Get an education, make the most of your lives.”

Good advice then, great advice now. By the way, I never did learn how to ski.

STORY ART: AP Photo.

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