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Michael’s Travel Diary

Friday, 22 Dec 2006

Location: Chicago, USA

MapHey guys,

Given it is just gone past midnight here, and I managed not much drunken (yeah, quite very drunken) sleep last night, I am only gonna give you the highlights of Sunday in this post, and the rest of the week will have to catch up tomorrow.

Sunday morning we (being me, Richie, Uncle Mike and Cousin Ray) were up before 5am and out the door (with a beer in hand) at 515am and headed to the train station. What in the world for??? Well, after the hour-long train ride into Chicago, and a bit of a wandering walk, we arrived at the 31st Street Parking Lot for the Chicago Bears tailgating party at 730am.

Now, for those not in the know, tail gating is a tradition that is most strongly observed in American Football games, both at professional and college levels, and involves drinking and eating before the start of games in the parking lot at or near the stadium. Generally speaking, no matter what time of day the game is, as soon as the parking lot is open, the tailgating will begin.

So, we arrive at the car park at 730, and start looking around the car park for our tailgate host. It seems my Uncle hard found a guy that hosts parties (saves all the set-up, clean up, buying and cooking of the food) and Grandma bought us all a package at his tailgate party for Christmas presents. Thanks guys...

Well, eventually we found his set-up, with an inflatable Bears players strapped to the roof of his truck, and inflatable Homer Simpson in Santa Claus outfit at the tail, 3 flag poles, each with a fist full of flags on it, and a couple of tents! What a set-up... And this was all before we saw the spread. There were about 25 guests at this guy’s party on Sunday, and he had enough food and drinks for twice that many people. The carrots and dip were a personal favorite, as I haven't seen a vegetable since arriving in the USA! Aside from that there were chips, chips and chips, dips, crackers, cheese (or many varieties) and even M&M's in the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay colors (the two teams we were seeing play).

Opposite the tent, there were 6 ice buckets, and each was full of beer. There were Bud & Bud Light, MGD & Miller Light, Heineken, Guinness, Corona, and other local beers I hadn't heard of. Then there was the shelf of booze as well - Vodka, Rum, Whiskey, Baileys and a fist full of others. I stuck to the beer. Cracking a beer open at 730am for tailgating seems so much more human than downing a Vodka or Whiskey (that would have to wait till later in the morning!).

We met the other people that we in the party and then Ray and Richie took on the reining champions at the beanbag toss game. So simple, and yet so addictive. Two boards, about 2 foot wide, and 3 foot long, set at a slight angle, and a hole cut out at the top of the board, sit 10 meters apart, facing each other. Then one person from each team stands at each board, and you toss beanbags at the board. In the hole is worth three, on the board is worth one, and there is four bags to each round. If you score, say, 8 points, and the other guy score 5, then you would add 3 to your score. First to 21 wins, but you have to finish on exactly 21, or you go back to your previous score... somehow it is really addictive. In any case, Ray and Richie busted over 21 once, and went back to 18, and eventually lost 21-19. Not bad for first timers.

As the morning wore on, and we drank on, the BBQ's were set up, and the biggest pot of roast beef was cooked up. So a couple of roast beef rolls and beer for breakfast and I was set. Little did I know that there was still so much more food to come, with hot dogs, and hamburgers still to be cooked up - wish I'd not had that second beef roll and left some more room!

At about 10am, we'd had lost my Uncle! Seems he'd wandered to the toilet (after one too many whiskeys?) and never made it back to the party. I found leaning against one van, staring at another whilst staying warm in front of a generator! We managed to coax him back to our party and keep him off the drink... well, for about an hour anyway!

So the food and drink was awesome. Having just polished off an eggnog and Bailey's, we grabbed our travelers and at about 11am headed over to the stadium, which was about a 10-minute walk away.

It was the first time I had seen Soldier Field since it was remodeled, and now I know why they call it a spaceship. The thing looks like a UFO flew into the side of a hill! But they did do a reasonable job of incorporating it into the old stadium, with the pillared remains still visible in many parts.

The seats we had were between the goal line and the 10-yard line, and way up - but the view was surprisingly good. We could see the whole field clearly, and my fears that we'd be sitting too far away were never realised. Also, it was a really mild day, sitting somewhere between 10 and 15 degrees. Given my cousin had been to a game on the same day a year earlier at it was -27 degrees, I didn't have much to complain about!

A quick background on the teams - Chicago rock, and were 11-2 before the game, Tampa Bay (Richie's team) suck, and were 3-10 before the game. Before the game, either the offense or defense team is usually introduced. This week they introduced the special teams (kickers, punters, returners etc.), which was a first. It had a lot to do with a rookie named Devon Hester who has an NFL record 6 returns for touchdowns this year, including a field goal that was short, and two kick-offs last week. So the crowd was psyched up from the start, and was waiting for sparks every time he touched the ball.

Well, the game started as predicted, and at half time, the Bears were up 21-3. That now made Tampa Bay 13 straight quarters without scoring a touchdown - safe to say the game seemed pretty over. All of the Bears points had come from a notoriously weak offense, and not much had happened on its strong defense or special teams.

Well, the 3rd quarter the game slowed down a little, and at some stage, the Bears got out to 24 points with a field goal. Finally, with just a couple of minutes left in the third, the Buccaneers cracked the drought of TD's and made the score 24-10. Who would have guessed it was the start of an absolute barrage. Devon Hester, the best return man in the NFL, fumbled the next return and gave the ball right back to the Bucs 20 yards from their end zone.

The third quarter finished, and within a minute of the 4th quarter starting the Bucs scored the TD and it was now a 24-17 game. On the following series, the Bears drove the length of the field and score a TD to make it a 31-17 game, and everyone thought the game was finally put away... not the Bucs though. A busted coverage play, (much like their first TD) and with 6 minutes left on the clock, the Bucs were on the board again and down just 24-31. Finally with just a couple minutes left in the fourth, the Bears secondary looked weak again, and the Bucs tied it up 31 all. After not scoring a TD in 13 quarters, they'd scored 4 in about 18 minutes?

The Bears, much to the disgust of the crowd, decided to let the time run out, and send it to overtime. That is a risky play - in OT, first score wins, and possession of the ball is decided on a coin toss. Tampa Bay won the toss. With first possession of the ball, the Bears managed to cause a fumble just past mid-field. With the ball now, they moved down the field, and kicker Robbie Gould, who's missed just two field goals all year, sent a 35-yard attempt wide. The game was still alive, and Tampa had the ball. With a couple of bad series from both teams, the Bears managed to punt the ball and stop it on the 1 yard line, really backing Tampa Bay up. With the Bears going for the safety (and the win), Tampa completed a pass and got out of trouble. Not for long though. Punting the ball away, the Bears had another chance as time wound on. At this stage, Ray had left to catch his train home... he wasn't the only one.

Finally, a rather dubious long pass reception, and the Bears had another Field Goal chance, and Robbie made good on the 29 yard shot this time. Finally, the Bears had put the Bucs away, and sealed home field advantage all the way through the playoffs in the process.

Slowly, we filtered out of the stadium... very slowly. Once we were out, we headed back towards the train station. Under the impression there was a 430 and 530 pm train, we didn't move too quickly. The crowd wouldn't have allowed us to move any quicker in any case. As we saw the time tick past 430, we slowed a bit, and finally made it to the train station (after finding many doors locked) at about 445pm. We checked the schedule, only to find that we had missed the previous train but 8 minutes - it left at 4:37... damn. Worse though, we found that the next train wasn't till 6:37, 2 hours away. Hmm, Ray and the other fans might have been on to something leaving before the game ended…

I'm the first to admit, the wait sucked. We tried to wander back to the tailgate parking lot, but didn't want to walk all of the way around, and couldn't jump the fence at the train tracks. Instead we ended at Maccas (no food, just non-alcoholic drinks) and watched the TV for the late Sunday NFL games. Finally we caught the train and ended up getting home around 8pm, well and truly exhausted and in need of a good sleep.

Well, I know that won't mean much to a whole bunch of people, but it was what happened, it was an awesome day, and thanks to everyone who helped make it happen (Ray, Mike, Grams, Mum). Next issue will try and get me back up to date and I'll dump a bunch of photos on soon.

Miss you all...