BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Twelve years ago, the Chicago Bears staged a statewide hunt for their new summer home.
They traveled to Charleston, site of Eastern Illinois University, to meet with the mayor. They drove five hours south to Carbondale to check out the practice fields at Southern Illinois University. When they arrived in Galesburg, banners had been draped across storefronts to sway team officials toward Knox College.
But after five months of wooing and speculation, the Bears chose the closest option: Olivet Nazarene University, in Bourbonnais, whose broad, grassy practice fields sit one short hour south of downtown Chicago. The town, nestled along Interstate Highway 57, about 20 miles from the Indiana border, quickly became a statewide household name.
The biggest change comes each July and August, when the Bears — players, coaches, administrators and thousands of fans — migrate south for 31/2 weeks of training camp. The pilgrimage begins anew Friday, when the first of this summer's 13 practices in Bourbonnais opens to the public.
In a bid to lure fans south, the Bears have increasingly added entertainment components to camp, including food, shopping, concerts and autograph sessions. Better still, spend enough time around town and odds are good that you'll come across a Bears player or two in the town's restaurants, bars and shops.
"Going away for camp has a football purpose, but it certainly has a fan purpose as well," Bears spokesman Scott Hagel said. "This is an important time for us and an important touch point for our fan base."
If you're thinking of joining Bourbonnais' busiest three weeks of the year to scratch your summer football itch, here's what you need to know.
With new coaches come new practice schedules, and the newly hired Marc Trestman will hold practice unusually bright and early: 11 of the 13 Bourbonnais practices will run from 9 to 11:30 a.m. The other two are from 3:15 to 5 p.m. Under former coach Lovie Smith, practice was generally held later in the day, including several evening practices.
Bars, restaurants, hotel operators and Bears officials wonder how fans will adapt. Will they come down the night before? Will a visit to Bourbonnais be largely a day trip, as it has typically been? Hagel's advice: arriving at 9 a.m. sharp isn't necessary for a couple of reasons.
One, players will no longer sign autographs before practice; when gates open to fans at 9, players will already be on the field. Also, Hagel said, the meatiest part of practice will be between 10 and 11:30 a.m., when offensive and defensive players are lined up to scrimmage against each other.
Fans enter practice, situated in the heart of Olivet's green, leafy campus, by stepping into a virtual amusement park of football: a shop stuffed with Bears gear, radio and television reporters working live from the scene, and food vendors. Beyond those stops will be four football fields clustered together, one or two of which the team will be using at a time.
Bleachers will be set up for ample views, but seating is limited, so fans are encouraged to bring folding chairs. A tip: The grassy berm rising above the northern edge of the practice fields is a favorite spot among local spectators.
Because of the earlier start times, Hagel said, the Bears are increasing post-practice programming. Among the offerings are "Vamos Bears" (Spanish for "Go Bears," on Saturday), Ladies Day (July 31) and a one-mile race for kids 14 and younger with Bears mascot Staley (Aug. 11).
The team also will host post-practice concerts — "different types of cover bands from (the) Chicago area," Hagel said — and eight autograph sessions for kids, among other events. Kids can win the chance to carry a player's pads off the field after practice, and there will be an autograph session on the school's tennis courts for kids 12 and younger.
(The full practice schedule and list of events can be found at chicagobears.com.)
Oh, and did I mention all this is free?
Bear hunting, Part II
Maybe even more fun than watching players run drills is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Word spreads quickly about where players spend their time, in part because there aren't that many options in a town of 19,000.
Players know, and generally accept, that interacting with fans is part of training camp, Hagel said.