Here in the Windy City, few things are more sacrosanct than the '85 Bears.
Fans talk about that year's team in hushed tones, compare good linebackers to the legendary Mike Singletary, and remember listening to the "Super Bowl Shuffle." It was a time when the Bears name inspired respect, not derision.
After 21 years in the desert, the team is finally winning – and many loyal fans are feeling that old Bears fever. With six games to go in the season, tickets that sold for $150 apiece are now going for three times that. Just a parking pass to Soldier Field costs at least $280. A few starry-eyed Chicagoans are already plunking down thousands for Super Bowl tickets.
This is a city where baseball loyalties are split between the White Sox and the Cubs, where the NHL's Blackhawks are barely followed and the NBA's Bulls gain notice only if they win. But as soon as cold weather hits, the one thing most Chicagoans can agree on is their love of the Bears.
"Everyone roots for the Bears," says Randy Merkin, sports director of the Chicago-based Sporting News Radio. "It unifies. At a time when the weather's cold and the days are shorter, what do you have to look forward to? Sundays at 3 o'clock."
The team is off to a 9-1 start, its hopes for a perfect season dashed three games ago by poorly ranked Miami. On Sunday it travels to New England to take on the 7-3 Patriots. If all keeps going well, the Bears will probably have home-field advantage for the playoffs – and they'll compete in a division and conference with few strong opponents.
All of this – combined with the desperate dreams of fans who haven't tasted victory in a long time – have many Chicagoans drooling over prospects for a Super Bowl berth.
"We've stuck through a lot of miserable seasons. This year we finally have reason to hope," says Dale Lorance, who's had season tickets for 11 years with his girlfriend, Marie Delabre. In all that time, they've missed only one game, sticking it out through the late 1990s when the Bears finished last in their division for four years running.
"As long as everybody stays healthy, I don't see anyone in the NFC that can match them," says Mr. Lorance, wearing a bright orange Bears jersey and watching Monday night football at Junior's Sports Lounge, about a mile west of Soldier Field.
He and Ms. Delabre say the atmosphere has changed this year. People who used to feel sorry for them as season ticket-holders are trying desperately to buy their tickets. When they show up at the stadium at 5:30 in the morning for a day of tailgating before the game, they're never the first ones there.
Columnists and fans started comparing this team with the '85 championship Bears back in October, when the team got off to an undefeated start and seemed to have – like that other team – an unbeatable defense.
Still, even the most die-hard fans admit that this team isn't quite as good as the legendary one of Walter Payton, Jim McMahon, and Mike Singletary. For starters, it lacks a consistent quarterback – a point driven home during the Bears' loss to Miami and an eked-out win against Arizona, which the defense won in spite of six turnovers by quarterback Rex Grossman.
Chicago's reputation as a sports loser – an image that has stuck despite the White Sox World Series victory last year and the Bulls dynasty in the 1990s – causes many fans to brace themselves for disappointment even as they dare to hope.
"People are cautiously optimistic," says Mr. Merkin of Sporting News Radio. But if the Bears do make it to the Super Bowl, he says, "it'll get rid of that tag that's been on this city as a loser city."
At least one player on that '85 team says he's watching and rooting right along with everyone else. "The city deserves a championship," says Shaun Gayle, who played safety, during a relaxed evening watching football at Junior's. "Most of the guys from '85, we know these guys are enjoying it, and they should.... I think their loss to Miami early helped them to focus. I really think they have a chance to get to the Super Bowl."
Like great Bears teams of the past, this one is in many ways a mirror of Chicago: rough and tumble, scrappy and tough. The Bears typically rely on defense more than offense, and the team looks to its great linebackers – from Dick Butkus to Brian Urlacher – more than to its quarterbacks. That may explain why so many Chicagoans identify so closely with the team.
"This is a Bears town," says Lorance, the season ticket-holder. "Twenty years from now, will they still be talking about the '05 White Sox? Probably not. But we still talk about the '85 Bears. That team was feared by everyone in the league."