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Countdown to Bourbonnais: Training camp and the art of theater

By Robert Zeglinski

Like an overgrown fungus that refuses to relent, the NFL season does not perish in February like it probably should. This spore multiplies and takes up arms in saturating itself on every airwave, tweet, nook, and cranny imaginable. Where a good portion of United States dwells in chilly weather during this time, the NFL unthinkably persists against all odds. The fungus of most of the NFL off-season is not conducive to health. It’s barely edible – these aren’t porcini mushrooms. These are pale white death caps of which one can only appropriately name after an experience of seeing someone else consume them.

Someone has to make the leap of faith to advance culinary culture, right?

When the summer arrives – the actual summer, not the feint of unforgiving rain, but when heat domes devastate the country enough to put millions of people in heat advisories – is when the NFL slowly slinks away into the dark. That is when the NFL is missed.

This dog days of summer period is when people find themselves writing sometimes obnoxious but largely innocent letters in fan mail, making sure to sign each with a message along the lines of “your biggest fan.” It’s difficult to maintain a delicate balance between appreciation and groveling. Often you’ll find someone tossing the ball up in the air toward the ceiling countless times to kill their boredom in an empty headspace. They’re restless. They don’t rightly know what to do with themselves when 200-pound men aren’t running into each other at hazardous speeds over a small, oblong ball. “Should I find another hobby, maybe take an improv or art class to work for self-improvement?,” they wonder in introspection, if they’re capable of such self-awareness. No, football needs its steadfast devotion they say. Now is not the time to let go, if it’ll ever be time. And when this gloriously flawed, contemptible, and somehow still successful league returns to the public consciousness in late July, it’s euphoria for everyone with a modicum of investment. When you’re a monument to grandeur and violence, you don’t surrender the mantle so easily. The masses are flocking. Don’t deny them.

Pay no mind to the imminent death of a league. Maybe one day the annual prophecy will come true. Realistically, it should be guaranteed. But the NFL’s swelling annual profit reports serve as firm of a condemnation of the prophecy as you can find. The prophecy is more conspiracy theory than destiny. More abject fallacy than proverb. The day the NFL falls isn’t today, isn’t now, and may be decades away. As they loosely say, the frog only panics when the water is boiling. The water’s quite hot, but it isn’t evaporating yet. The NFL will soldier on until everyone realizes this glaring fungus proves to be as malevolent as its namesake, as it always was.

One of the emblems of the original NFL in the Bears begin their formal preparations for the 2019 season this week. What happens to the Bears in camp, and by extension the preseason, is the mirror of the state of the NFL in 2019. Head coach Matt Nagy and the gang have reported to Bourbonnais for training camp for what they hope, nay, what they believe to be the start of a Super Bowl campaign. There is a lot of work to be done over the next six months. At the end of this grinding madness, there will be an expected coronation where the powers that be at Halas Hall can bask in all the money they spent to make it so. Never mind the players who will try and make sure the head and body blows they managed to absorb and still stand, albeit with limps, are acknowledged.

On a smaller scale, over the next couple of weeks, one will hear a lot about what exactly is transpiring at camp. Who said what, who did what, who drove what, who went where, who talked to who, who threw what, who tackled what, how healthy that specific who was, how unhealthy they were, how happy Coach A is with Player D, how Player C is progressing in Player B’s eyes. All in one never-ending circular motion. Rinse, repeat, recycle. In essence, these practices are just of a slightly higher level of competition than anything the Bears endure over the fall. It’s no different from any rote exercise and arguably should be evaluated in such a manner. But it’s not that simple. It can’t be that simple. It’s more than practice to so many, even if it’s only practice.

There will be excitement, measured to the point of a quiet calm. Or excessively boisterous to madness and ceaseless antagonization of any tidbit of any information professing, even suggesting, the Bears aren’t destined for the promised land. Panic will be the currency of the moment, not an afterthought. It’s only natural to believe everything can and should go wrong when you’re near or sitting at the top. It’s the peak of human insecurity. If someone isn’t panicking at the first sign of trouble in sport, or in any endeavor, are they alive? The sensation of fear and frustration is as much proof of vitality as a good resting heart rate or laid-back demeanor. Every slightest bit of perceived news, good or bad, will make for overreaction galore. A non-story becomes an in-depth expose and feature. A tangible, meaningful story that would help tell the story of a season? Those will arrive in measured gaps every now and then. One has to make an effort to find that olive branch and stretch it down to the ground.

Training camp, particularly in Bourbonnais, is a place where many intrepid families treat visiting the Bears like an annual bonding visit to the local lake, water park, zoo or amusement park. The thrills come not in the form of going down a water slide at 60 miles per hour, or in happy-go-lucky Timmy using a tire swing to launch at high speeds into the shallow end, or having your insides blended on “crush” on a roller coaster. They’re hand-delivered in random bits and pieces of an undrafted free agent making an unexpected flash play. That undrafted free agent is a fan favorite now. Accept it. Learn his name and then forget it once the next flavor of the day makes his appearance. Save it for trivia night at the bar years from now. A day is made not when the family sits down together for a barbecue at sunset, but when a child’s favorite player graciously stops to sign a novelty football, gel-covered poster, or sometimes, an appendage. These are moments to be embedded and to last a lifetime—provided you have the right Sharpie and as long someone actually stops to indulge. That football and that poster will eventually be hung up somewhere in the family den, so cherish it.

Bears training camp in Bourbonnais is intently unique because of what it’s done for a small village of over 15,000 people over the years. For almost two decades running, Bourbonnais has turned itself into a gridiron bucket list destination. In a northern city where football is synonymous with “culture” and “art”, that Bourbonnais gets to host the first glimpse of the Bears rising out of hibernation makes it a god send to anyone making the trek. Unfathomable influence for any village like Bourbonnais to possess for so long.

Bourbonnais morphing into as much of a tourist destination as Navy Pier or the Willis Tower is the invasion of football culture on overdrive. There’s no brakes to stop it in its tracks. Forget absorbing one’s self into what makes Chicago or any prominent NFL city unique. It’s not food, though you should really try “Tommy’s over on 1st.” It’s not the arts. Wait, what art? There’s football happening. It’s the Bears, and that football, and what many in Chicago will always lean on first to say they’re in tune with life on the lake. It’s all they have. It’s all they desire to have. When what would otherwise be just another sleepy rest stop on the way up to Chicago becomes a center of attention for a few weeks each summer, you can’t make a salient point otherwise.

There’s a lot to learn about the Bears in an abbreviated training camp this summer. There’s a lot for the NFL to roost in as well, like a potential and (seemingly) inevitable comeuppance. The former of which is going to happen either way. Because even when there isn’t a lesson to be learned, the experience in itself of attempting to learn something suffices for most. People want to revel in teams like the Bears. People desire to be around the Bears and their energy, hoping it rubs off from a distance. Getting a glimpse of what they perceive to be people who are larger than life itself takes precedent. They never are, but it’s the perception of which comes first, of which the Bears and the NFL are actively built on.

Whatever that comeuppance ends up happening for the NFL, it only happens when summer practices stops becoming must-see theater. But when everyone wants football’s stage to act as the new theater, find your seat, grab a roster guide or playbill, and find out the name of your new favorite undrafted free agent. His scene’s about to start, shh.

Robert is an editor and writer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. 

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