On a politically charged Sunday at Soldier Field, during a weekend when President Donald Trump inserted himself smack dab in the middle of America's game, the Bears did their best to make the football conversation in Chicago stick to sports.
It will take more than the Bears' 23-17 overtime thriller over the Steelers in the wake of Trump's incendiary, anti-NFL speech Friday night, but John Fox's first September victory as Bears coach went a long way toward temporarily changing the subject.
Like, how dangerous could the Bears become if they get anything from the quarterback position?
The Bears won a game they tried hard to give away, persevering thanks to an offensive line that controlled the line of scrimmage well enough to overcome too many blunders — from cornerback Marcus Cooper's brainless fumble at the 1 to quarterback Mike Glennon's aimless fourth-quarter interception. In a show of team unity suggested by players upset with the president's comments, the Bears locked arms for the national anthem and then knocked the Steelers around for 220 rushing yards, the last 19 coming on Jordan Howard's game-winning touchdown run. The Steelers, except for left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, an Army veteran, stayed in the locker room for the anthem and then essentially failed to show up against an inferior team.
"We're in a good state of mind right now,'' a relieved Fox said.
Their mindset began to take shape Saturday night when Bears Chairman George McCaskey addressed players at the team hotel during an emotional meeting.
Less than 24 hours before McCaskey's speech, Trump had alienated a league in which 70 percent of its players are African-American by attacking NFL players who followed former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's lead by protesting racial inequality during the national anthem. Those players included Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett and Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, among others, who have used their platform responsibly to spread similar ideas.
"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now … he is fired. He's fired!'' Trump said at a rally in Alabama.
The reckless, inflammatory rhetoric reignited an issue that had simmered. The president treating black players exercising their First Amendment rights with harsher language than he used to decry the actions of white supremists in Charlottesville, Va., drew a deserved backlash. Trump would have been smarter sticking to politics than entering an arena in which he sounded no less polished or prepared than a sports-talk radio caller on a rant.
Like professional athletes everywhere, from NBA superstar LeBron James to A's catcher Bruce Maxwell, the first major-leaguer to kneel during the anthem, Bears players did more than just hear Trump's message. They felt it. Cornerback Prince Amukamara became "irate.'' Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, citing a family military connection — shared by several teammates — called the situation sad. Even Fox, as careful as they come speaking publicly, referred to the president's remarks as "divisive and disrespectful.''
"What's right is right and what's wrong is wrong,'' linebacker Danny Trevathan said. "You have to stand up for what's right.''
Bravo. McCaskey assured the players the Bears organization had their backs no matter where they stood — or if they stood at all during the anthem.
"A lot of us still were talking when we got here, should we raise a fist, kneel?'' Amukamara said. "Then Sam (Acho) said, 'Hey, Prince, we're locking arms. I said, 'OK, great,' and started spreading the word.''
By warm-ups, the Bears finally had joined many NFL teams in issuing a statement expressing disappointment over Trump's words. By kickoff, they had 53 unified players empowered by their interlocking arms. By George, the Bears took the field with purpose.
"I just think this team has a great amount of respect for Mr. McCaskey and the McCaskey family for all they do for us, their open-book style, you never wonder what they're thinking,'' Kyle Long said.
Some things on a memorable day were worth forgetting. Cooper committed one of the dumbest plays in Bears history when he returned a blocked field goal to the 1, stopped to showboat, and lost a fumble that went out the back of the end zone. Instead of a touchdown, the Bears settled for a field goal — a four-point swing. The gaffe was egregious enough that you imagined Trump screaming at his White House television for the Bears to fire the SOB. Inexplicably, Cooper played the entire second half.
"A weird play," Cooper said. "I should have scored."
Glennon felt similar pangs of regret after throwing an interception at the Bears' 21 with 9 minutes, 5 seconds left. Nothing about a turnover deep in his own territory in the fourth quarter when leading 17-14 at home says game manager. Nothing about going 15 of 22 for 101 measly yards suggested the Bears won because of Glennon as much as in spite of him. Good thing for Glennon that he had Howard and Tarik Cohen finding room behind an offensive line bolstered by Long's return and a pass rush making Big Ben a little nervous.
After seeing the Bears hand the Steelers their first loss, you had to wonder what impact rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky might have on an improved team one play away from starting 2-1. You are forgiven for entertaining the question that hung over the lakefront like the 85-degree heat: What if the Bears are better than we thought after the Tampa Bay debacle?
Now that's a debate everybody in a football city can embrace.