The Cubs’ bridging of a 108-year gap with baseball’s World Series on Wednesday night has been the obvious focal point for the city and the wider state of Illinois, but the Bears’ unlikely defeat of the hated Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field last Monday evening was another left-field result few would have predicted.
Put simply, ‘Da Bears’ suck. A side with one of sport’s most storied histories, they are the only NFL team in the nation’s second-biggest market and yet you could build a fairly formidable case that, with their measly one Super Bowl title, they are quite possibly the greatest underachievers in modern US sports, both on and off the turf.
Soldier Field, where Ireland play the All Blacks tomorrow, isn’t blameless. With a capacity of under 62,000, it is the runt of the stadia litter in a sport where bigger is always deemed better and its status as a de facto national war memorial makes the money-making option of naming rights a political hot potato.
The Bears are, effectively, imprisoned by Soldier Field. Current Bears chairman George McCaskey has hinted the club wouldn’t rule out the possibility of accepting a large wad of cash for a commercial naming partner but to do that would be to invite yet more invective on him and his family who control 80% of the club and who have been described as the worst owners in American sports. The Bears and Soldier Field have become inextricably interlinked in the public consciousness but the partnership only really began in 1971 when the football team relocated full-time from Wrigley Field. The relationship has been frayed down the years with the franchise threatening to move to nearby Arlington Heights, and even Indiana at one point.
Instead, a decision was finally reached after decades of wrangling between club and city to renovate a ground which legendary former owner George ‘Papa Bear’ Halas apparently detested for its poor sight lines by building modern grandstands over an original framework which included stunning Neoclassical structures complete with Doric pillars. The result was, well, interesting. Dubbed the ‘Eyesore on the Lakeshore’ and the ‘Mistake on the Lake’, some said it resembled a giant egg sitting on a giant eggcup. The Chicago Tribune’s architecture correspondent at the time described the addition of the shiny new cladding on to the Greek-style original as “Klingon meets Parthenon.” That about sums it up and it all chimes with the backstory to a stadium that has always had a flair for the historic, the futuristic and the controversial. The Special Olympics, for instance, was born in Soldier Field in the summer of 1968, and the first mobile phone call was made from the seat of a Mercedes-Benz 380L at the ground 15 years later.
Gene Tunney defeated Jack Dempsey there in 1927 in the famous ‘long count’ heavyweight bout when the winner was given an inordinate amount of time to rediscover his feet after being knocked to the canvas and it has hosted a myriad of college and professional football games, ski-jumping, ice hockey games and even the 1994 World Cup.
But sports have, in some ways, been the least notable of Soldier Field’s moments. If sports stadia really have usurped churches and cathedrals as the modern places of worship then Soldier Field may well be the Vatican. And not just because long- suffering Bears fans continually find themselves beseeching the Almighty to help a team that managed to win just four of their 13 home games the last two seasons.
A crowd estimated at half a million attended Mass in and around the ground in 1926 when the 28th Eucharistic Congress was held in Chicago, six years before the event came to Dublin. A quarter of a million attended a Marian Year Tribute in 1956, and the evangelist Billy Graham spoke to 116,000 people from a pulpit there in 1962.
Events celebrating the Jewish, African-American and Irish traditions have been hosted in Soldier Field at one time or another and the sense that Joe Schmidt’s side will be playing a home game there this weekend is heightened by its proximity to the South Side districts, where so many of the city’s 8% of people with Irish heritage have traditionally called home.
The Irish have left their fingerprints all over the Windy City with contributions to politics, education, construction, law and order and, it needs to be said, crime. A shock defeat of the All Blacks wouldn’t cause too many ripples in a city busy celebrating the Cubbies but it would fit neatly with Soldier Field’s predilection for the dramatic this last 94 years.
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