SANTA CLAUS, Ind. — The jolly, chubby, bearded man leans back and lets out a belly laugh so deep it shakes the stuffed elves hanging on the nearby tree.
He's sitting in a large red armchair beside a fireplace at the back of the Christmas Store in Kringle Plaza — near the intersection of Christmas Boulevard and Holiday Road. And of all the requests he has taken this month, the one soliciting his opinion on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler registers as most surprising.
Thus the hearty chuckle from the one and only Santa Claus in Santa Claus, Ind.
"People come through here for all sorts of reasons," he says. "And every so often, somebody just needs to know what it's like to be in the hometown of Jay Cutler."
Cutler remains a success story in this town with a population just shy of 2,500. The civic pride in his ascent to the NFL is still palpable in certain pockets. But this is a Christmas town far more than it is a Cutler town.
So here, in a village with cheerful statues of its namesake around every corner, it's hard to detect much elevated interest in the NFL quarterback with the notoriously glum demeanor.
Not even Santa Claus — the town, that is — can fully quell the feelings of frustration and disappointment that continue suffocating the Cutler narrative.
About 350 miles north in Lake Forest this week, the Bears made a bold and decisive move: Jimmy Clausen to the starting lineup Sunday against the Lions in place of the now-benched Cutler.
It's the latest Grinch twist in a tale of unfulfilled promise, another swig of sour egg nog for the quarterback's hometown supporters to choke down.
"You definitely appreciate what Jay has done," says Adam Kress, a childhood friend and former teammate of Cutler's at Heritage Hills High School. "To be on the NFL stage from a tiny little place like this, it's almost like winning the lottery. For a lot of us, that pride will always be there.
"You just also find yourself constantly wishing Jay could accomplish more."
Now, with the Bears' bombshell benching, who knows if that ever will happen?
And if it does, where?
As for Santa, who refuses to break character and whose real name is either truly not known or actively kept secret by the townspeople here, he wants it on record that he can't play favorites with NFL teams or quarterbacks. Not with so wide a constituency.
So while he characterizes this as Colts country with throngs of Peyton Manning and Packers fans mixed in — not a single Bears or Cutler gift request all year, in fact — Santa refuses to put Cutler on the naughty list.
It's not in the Christmas spirit, he says. And in a town like this, belief has to remain the heartbeat.
"It's important to believe to keep the magic alive," Santa says with a wink. "And that's what we do here. Whatever you want to believe in, you have to believe in it with everything you have."
And if that belief fades?
In a team? In a quarterback?
"It's sad," Santa says. "I don't know what you do then."
A state champion
Cutler's family doesn't live here anymore, having moved shortly after Jay graduated from high school in 2001. Outside of the modest high school trophy case that holds Heritage Hills' state championship trophy from Cutler's senior year and the plaque mixed in on the all-state wall in the Patriots' gymnasium, there are few signs of the quarterback's success or celebrity anywhere around town.
In a blue Ford Ranger pickup truck, Kress circles through the Christmas Lakes Village subdivision pointing out Cutler's boyhood home on Holly Drive. He zooms by the roller coasters and water slides at Holiday World and past the baseball diamond at Jay Cutler Field.
Kress eventually pulls his truck into The Chateau for a couple of Budweisers, a chicken sandwich and tater tots.
An all-state linebacker and offensive lineman alongside Cutler in high school, Kress considers the expectations that intensified for Cutler last winter after he signed his mega contract extension. And he understands the mushrooming angst in Chicago now that the Bears are 5-9 and getting blown out regularly.
"It seems like Jay's not himself," Kress says.
No quicker does he begin pontificating than the flat screen in the corner of the bar lands on a "Pardon the Interruption" segment looping through lowlights of Cutler against the Saints — a sack, a poorly thrown interception, a false start against Bears right tackle Jordan Mills.
Another sack. Another interception.
"There you go," Kress says. "Here we are again."
Kress understands the Cutler criticism, triggered by this season's blizzard of inexcusable turnovers and bad losses.
He just also doesn't fully understand why analysts always seem so enthusiastic to pile on.
"It's like being a Kardashian, I guess," Kress says. "There's always going to be someone following you, looking to get a picture of your ass so they can then point out all the flaws."
Kress knows the torment Cutler must be feeling with his ninth NFL season ending under an avalanche of disparagement. But it's still a bit hard for Kress to reconcile that with the memories of 14 seasons ago, the year Cutler led Heritage Hills on its undefeated state title stampede.
Kress quickly can recount the Patriots' semifinal triumph over Indianapolis power Roncalli High School. That's the one in which Cutler overcame a severely sprained ankle that had him on crutches all week to record three interceptions as a safety while steadying the offense from the shotgun in a 27-0 win.
He can tell you about Cutler's scorching competitiveness — the kind that seems to be missing with the Bears right now.
Against Roncalli, Kress recalls missing an easy tackle, then having Cutler yank his face mask with dragon fire roaring out of his mouth.
Says Kress: "He got in my face and lit me up to where my skin was tingling. And I smeared a guy the next play. It was good, ya know?
"I've seen that in him."
Still, that was nearly half a lifetime ago now. And it all quickly leads Kress back to the unanswerable riddles of 2014, the whys that never go away.
Why isn't Cutler's passion more obvious now? Why hasn't it ever clicked for Cutler with the Bears?
Why can Cutler seemingly make the extraordinary throws look easy and the easy ones look like rocket science?
Why is it that every season seems to get upended by an untimely injury or a confidence funk or a deficient supporting cast?
"Honestly," Kress says, "I've sat back and pondered that topic many, many times. Honestly. If it was easy to solve, somebody would have figured it out by now."
These days, Cutler has become a come-one, come-all punching bag — for fans, pundits, even teammates and coaches.
Bears coach Marc Trestman delivered the ultimate blow Wednesday, revealing the decision that Cutler was no longer his starting quarterback.
Cutler, to his recollection, never had been benched in anything.
Bob Clayton, Cutler's coach at Heritage Hills, understands his former protege is a rare case study. In a league that so often chews up and spits out inadequate quarterbacks, Cutler has remained a starter in each of the last nine seasons.
At times, he has seemed ready to clear the last big hump. But more often, it's like Cutler is hanging over a cliff, ready for one final football free fall.
Somehow, neither ever happens.
"Not enough people truly appreciate what it takes to succeed on that level," Clayton says.
Take note, Clayton says, at the other quarterbacks drafted in the first round with Cutler in 2006. Vince Young and Matt Leinart flamed out long ago.
The next year's draft produced first-round quarterbacks JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn.
At the very least, Cutler still has a chance.
Clayton still admires the calming presence Cutler exhibited as a high school quarterback and thinks fondly of the game-breaking skills he possessed. The speed, the burst, the balance, the confidence.
"He was a high school boy's worst nightmare," Clayton said. "On punt returns, kickoff returns. Just back in the pocket. If he tucked it and ran, we were probably going to score."
Now retired, Clayton also remains thankful that Cutler has gone out of his way in recent years to send the Heritage Hills program new Nike cleats and top-of-the-line helmets.
But Cutler rarely returns anymore. He has moved on with his life.
So even as Clayton continues to root for Cutler, saying a prayer for him before every game, there's no longer contact between the quarterback and his old coach.
"Jay chooses not to have contact," Clayton says. "I don't want that to come across as a criticism of him. That's his personality. It's not malicious. … You can either be mad about it or accept it. You're better off just accepting it."
That's simply context, Clayton notes, a reminder that his perspective on Cutler's career no longer comes with an insider's authority.
"I don't have any answers," Clayton says. "I still think he has the skill set. In my mind, I know he does. So Jay Cutler's going to have to tell me himself, 'I don't want to play anymore. I don't want to win anymore.' I will never believe that unless I heard it from him because that guy is a driven man."
Heritage Hills athletic director Jay Burch sees a different Cutler now than he did during the quarterback's early years with the Broncos.
More tense. Less energized.
Burch believes Cutler's boyhood enthusiasm has been eroded by years and years of scrutiny and pressure and failure.
"To me, Jay just looks like he's carrying a ton of weight on him," Burch says.
After such a tense season, Cutler looks wrung out. The kid from Santa Claus is headed for a dispiriting Christmas.
So is it naive denial or simply the requisite Santa Claus belief that has Burch optimistic in an eventual turnaround?
"I know that he still can do this and succeed at a high level," Burch says. "Is that me taking up for Jay? I don't think so. I don't have any dog in this fight. … I just think maybe Jay wants so badly to win, that he's now almost too aware of the stakes.
"By his nature, he's not an anxious, stage-fright kind of person. But you see signs of that."
There is still at least one Cutler backer whose allegiance won't break. Not coincidentally, you find him down Cutler's old street, in Cutler's old house, in what once was Cutler's second-floor bedroom.
Nik Greulich is now a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Southern Indiana. He was once one of the neighborhood kids who both knew and idolized Cutler.
A Cutler pennant hangs above Greulich's bed, on the navy- and orange-painted walls.
A Cutler Fathead is nearby with a signed Cutler game towel from his Vanderbilt days pinned to the hip. Several autographed, framed Cutler photos are spread throughout the room, including one from the quarterback's Broncos days that reads "Nik, Keep my room picked up. Jay Cutler."
And then there is Greulich's most meaningful memento — the letter from Cutler and his foundation, sent shortly after Greulich's May 2012 diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes, the same disease the Bears quarterback battles.
That jarring news for Greulich, coincidentally, came a year after he had tagged along with Cutler during a diabetes fundraising walk through Holiday World.
"It changes everything in your life," Greulich said. "It limits you. You have to be ready for something to happen everywhere at all times. … But I've seen the way Jay has controlled it and lived with it.
"He's an inspiration to me in that regard."
Greulich knows he's running out of company in the Cutler cheering section and admits it has been hard watching the Bears' unending struggles this season.
He even acknowledges Cutler's bad habit of taking unnecessary risks and not always keeping his fundamentals tight.
But Greulich still insists Cutler eventually will turn his lumps of coal into a diamond, persevering to become a regular participant in the playoffs with a real shot at winning a Super Bowl.
It's a lofty hope, Greulich admits.
"But there's plenty of faith there too," he says. "Being from Santa Claus, it's all about believing and having faith."
And if Cutler never does get over the hump?
"We'll believe in him anyway," Greulich says with a laugh. "All the way until he's out of football altogether."