Illustration by Jeremy Nguyen

In this dark age for football, has the air gone out of the whole circus?

Dan O’Sullivan
January 29, 2018

“VIAGRA! PERCOCET! HOT COCOA! BUD LIGHT!”

The approach to Chicago’s Grant Park and the crash-landed flying saucer called Soldier Field would have had a strange energy even if the street vendor hadn’t punched up his sales pitch that morning. The air was already redolent with the knowledge that this was no normal game. For it was true: Somewhere, in the lightless reaches of the visitors’ locker room, stretching their legs and hissing in low voices, dwelled the most evil force on the planet: the Green Bay Packers. 

And so, the Bears faithful, clad in their Urlacher jerseys and heavy boots and blue and orange knit caps, trod on, buying anything on sale on Roosevelt Road that November gameday morning, with the merch vendors, pedicab drivers, and beer sellers enjoying a brisk trade. If the most bitterly fractious season in recent memory for the National Football League had hurt the bottom line, it wasn’t immediately apparent among the diehards.

The fact is, for a broad swath of the country, Sunday football isn’t just a game to be watched, but an all-day event that commences with a breakfast of champions. Such balanced, pre-game morning nutrition consists of chicken wings, pizza, and copious amounts of alcohol. I’d had my own rituals over the years, eating clam chowder in a bread bowl every Sunday back in New England, watching the Pats nuke another busload of players. 

But for the first time in years, I hadn’t watched a game on TV all season—and wouldn’t, beyond one perfunctory Thanksgiving afternoon Vikings-Lions matchup. Swaddled in stupidity and violence, football finally seemed unpalatable to even rubberneck at these days. I wondered—in this gridiron dark age of brain damage, kneeling protests, the league-wide blackballing of a star quarterback, and a vicious, dog-whistling reaction led by no less than the President of the United States—whether the air had gone out of the whole circus. 

Walking past the the Miller Lite Ultimate Tailgate party on the stately front terrace of the Field Museum of Natural History, it certainly seemed gaudily festive enough. Music blared on the patio, with the biggest crowds huddled around the bar or waiting to use a porta potty. Besides one somewhat forlorn hot dog stand, there was no food, either. The smoke hovering above a parking lot signaled where the real party was.

The first thing you notice upon stepping into the tailgating lot—besides the loud music, which, at the moment, was Limp Bizkit’s cover of George Michael’s “Faith”—are the ambulances. Not actual emergency vehicles waiting to tend to the inevitable head bonk on concrete likely awaiting at least one of the hammered fans dancing at 10:36 a.m. (now to “Hotel California” by The Eagles), but decommissioned ambulances that had been transformed into heavily customized food-delivery units. 

Tim and Cristi, the owners of a snappy Bears-logo-emblazoned food ambulance, spent almost a decade waiting for the right used van to come along before spotting this one. A 1985 model, it’s been in service at home games since 2004. Buffalo wings and cheddar burgers were served on a wheeled gurney jutting from one, while a full bar, stored in a secret compartment on the side of another, was mobbed by revelers.

After the music, you notice the Rabelaisian spread of food and drink. Circling the parking lot like a buzzard, I took in the sights and smells of that most elusive cuisine, the food of the “Real America” nattered over so regularly these days. Unlike the journalism that invariably results from such examinations, this was appetizing stuff. Pork chops. Seven-layer bean dip. Heaps of coiled bratwurst. Nilla Wafers, Cheez Its, mustard and onion pretzels. Cases of Diet Rite Soda, sauteed peppers, macaroni salad, and cheeseballs in an enormous plastic jar, with many more crunched underfoot on the asphalt like little orange lily pads. Spaghetti with meat sauce served out of a Crock-Pot and sopped up with sliced Italian bread. Lots of booze: plastic handles of vodka, spilt beer, sliced limes wedged on the rims of Solo cups.

More impressive than the logistics of the unspeakably filthy Packers effigy, or the cornhole targets propped against an F150, was the assembly line-style efficiency devoted to the food. Nat Caputo was overseeing an impressive taco operation, as well as a freestanding rotating pizza oven, with the occasional hot dog lobbed overhead. This may have been a long-standing tradition, but it “feels just like yesterday,” said Nat, a seasoned tailgater who begins serving food at 9:30 a.m. at every home game. With five friends working alongside him, Nat estimates they produce “enough to feed all hundred” of the friends that show up.

One of them, Jorge Rodriguez, agreed. “You get everything from fish tacos to pizza,” he said, adding, “Tailgating is more fun than the game.”It wasn’t hard to see why,  as a Bears fan, because there was nothing in the way of hope on the horizon that anything would be getting better. And it was too late to talk more now; the clouds that had been so threatening all morning were finally letting loose.

Huddled under the canopy of a hot dog stand, scarfing down my breakfast hot dog, I watched as fans half-jogged toward Soldier Field, where the Packers, led by a second-string quarterback, would thrash the Bears 23-16. 

Football still has its true believers, dining in the cathedral of a Sunday morning parking lot. That much is true. You’d have to be, to sign onto this gambit. 

But as the drizzle accelerated, and tailgaters pushed their gurneys into their ambulances and grabbed loose hamburger buns with the fourth and fifth fingers of hands already full of mustard bottles and chip clips, the party ended. More would be revealed, at lurching, leaden speed. High school football participation would continue to decline that fall in Texas. NFL ratings tanked. The Patriots would go to the Super Bowl, again, like some graying Soviet leader that refuses to die with decency. To quote the last testament of Hunter S. Thompson, in the grand scheme of things, “football season is over.”

I wiped mustard off my face. The rain clouds pushed further inland from over Lake Michigan, leaving me to beat a lonely, winding walk back through the park, past the same vendors hawking new wares—“PONCHOS $5! HATS FOR $10”—alone but for the hungry stragglers, one shouting back in a Chicago accent, “HOW MUCH FOR WET HATS?” 

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