"We encourage players to be open to the fans," he said. "We're very fortunate to have sold out every game since 1984, but the flip side is that we know we have a lot of fans who don't have the opportunity to get to Soldier Field."
There are at least two primary destinations where players congregate. One is the family-operated Brickstone Restaurant and Brewery (557 William R. Latham Sr. Drive, 815-936-9277, brickstonebrewery.com), which has developed a national reputation for the beer made by cousins Tommy Vasilakis and George Giannakopoulos. Brickstone is popular enough with the team that players and restaurant staff know each other by name.
"Robbie Gould will come in and sit at the bar by himself like a normal guy," Vasilakis said.
"And we know what he's going to eat," said co-owner Dino Giannakopoulos. "Cajun-style tilapia with broccoli."
Later in the evening, players are likely to be found at T.J. Donlin's (118 Main St. NW, 815-928-8681), a worn-in sports bar sitting a block from the Olivet campus. T.J.'s predates the Bears coming to town, but with the Bears in town it has become a sports bar more than in name only. Jennifer Meeker, who has worked at the bar for five years, told me she once "partied with Lance Briggs" and that he was an extraordinarily nice guy.
Some players "come in once, and some come in every night," she said.
In the early days, the bar cordoned off its back room for players, but it became clear that such measures weren't necessary, owners Tom Richmond and Jay Karr said.
"Everyone wants to see a player or two, and people are respectful, mostly," Karr said. "No one ever gets mean or gets into fights. Everyone just has their drinks and has a good time."
Eating and sleeping
Fans have most often made Bourbonnais a day trip, but 9 a.m. practices might encourage some visitors to spend a night in town.
"It sure would be nice," said Nita Kloska, owner of the Riverview Guest House Bed and Breakfast, in nearby Kankakee.
Riverview (641 S. Chicago Ave., 815-928-9202, rghbb.com) is one of the few nonchain accommodations in the area. Rooms are about $120 per night plus tax, and include breakfast. Otherwise, many chain hotels sit within a couple miles of the practice fields.
And though the area might not be a culinary destination, there are several quality options.
Chief among them is Brickstone, which serves better (and fresher) than average bar food. But its beer has given it a national reputation. In the last year its American pale ale has won first-place honors from both the Great American Beer Festival and North American Brewers Association. To put it in football terms, that feat was about as likely as the Bears winning the next three Super Bowls.
Beyond the ale, which bursts with ripe, delicious floral and pine, Brickstone offers options for both lighter (an impressively clean cherry ale) and darker palates (an oatmeal stout aged in whiskey barrels was on draft for my last visit).
Also, training camp is the only three weeks of the year that T.J. Donlin's serves food, in this case classic bar fare off a grill. Locals generally favor Chicago Dough Company (545 S. Main St., 815-935-0300, chicagodoughpizza.com) for pizza. La Siesta (180 Kennedy Drive, Bradley, 815-939-0074) was supposedly a longtime favorite of Brian Urlacher's, and 164 North Fine Dining (164 N. Schuyler Ave., Kankakee, 815-936-0164, 164north.com) offers one of the more expensive menus in the area, with a lot of surf and even more turf.
Other things to do
Should you want to get past the practice fields, there are plenty of things to do beyond the Bears in Bourbonnais, Kankakee and Bradley. Kankakee is home to a Frank Lloyd Wright house perched on the Kankakee River (701 S. Harrison Ave., wrightinkankakee.org), where tours are given Friday, Saturday and Sunday and by appointment on other days.
Less than a mile from the Bears' practice fields sits Perry Farm Park (459 Kennedy Drive, 815-933-9905), which boasts 170 acres of nature and front-row views of horses, goats and other animals. The park is also home to Exploration Station (exploration-station.org), a children's museum with a $6 admission.
The first weekend of training camp will also feature two of the area's major cultural summer happenings:
Outdoor theater group Acting Out Theatre Co. (actingouttheatreco.org) will stage "Chicago," the musical, Friday, Saturday and July 28. Tickets are $12-$15
Kankakee will host the Merchant Street Music Fest Friday and Saturday.
Who knows? You might even see Alshon Jeffery bobbing his head to the grooves of Saturday headliner Fishbone.