Even on beautiful fall Sunday afternoons, I huddled in our basement to watch the Chicago Bears. I wouldn't come out, not even to play tag football, until the game was over. I loved playing tag football, but I lived and died with the Bears. It was the 1960s, and the National Football League was just beginning to captivate the American public.
There was an unforgettable newness to the experience. For in those days, baseball was king. Until a friend started talking about a quarterback named Johnny Unitas, I knew no one who was watching or following pro football. It had existed for decades, but was almost a secret. The long arm of TV was beginning to change that.
It was a simpler time in league history, and licensed NFL merchandise wasn't on every corner. In fact, one of my most frustrating boyhood shopping experiences was trying to find a Bears jacket I'd seen advertised in Sports Illustrated.
On a summer vacation in Chicago from our home in southern Indiana, my family and I traipsed all over downtown to find the jacket of my dreams. We couldn't. Not in Marshall Field's, not in any sporting-goods store. My mother surprised me at Christmas with a homemade Bears souvenir: a black sweatshirt with sewn-on orange lettering and trim. (Much later I learned that the uniforms were navy blue.)
There was no Madison Avenue hype, no extensive pregame and halftime shows, no Super Bowl. Games arrived unadorned, and either you liked what you saw or you didn't. I loved the directness of it. You had to work at being a fan, and I liked that, too.
Pro football was a new world, full of fascinating characters. For me, Bears Coach George Halas was foremost among them.
Halas was a one-man time line of pro-football history, the quintessential sports patriarch. "Papa Bear" was founder, owner, and coach of a team that began as the Decatur (Ill.) Staleys. He had been at that meeting in a Hupmobile showroom in Canton, Ohio, in 1920 when the league was formed. For 11 seasons, he even played end for his team. He is the only person associated with the NFL for every one of its first 50 years.
Until one develops a rooting interest, any sports-watching experience is shallow. In the Halas-led Bears, I found a team I loved. Games were broadcast virtually every Sunday in the fall. There was seldom any viewing alternative, but no matter - not with Red Grange ("The Galloping Ghost") handling play-by-play from Wrigley Field, where baseball's ivy-covered outfield wall crowded one end zone.
The Bears were good enough to be interesting, though they were no longer the Monsters of the Midway that they had been. They struggled to occasionally beat Vince Lombardi's well-drilled Packers and were never dull. The names, the faces (known from the football cards), and the playing styles all fit beautifully with my concept of what a lovably tough pro-football team should be. Fullback Rick Casares bulled through the line while Willie Galimore left would-be tacklers gasping. Hard-nosed defenders Bill George, Doug Atkins, and Joe Fortunato wrestled opponents to the ground.
Halas retired in 1967. But before calling it quits, he proved that he never lost touch with fans, as I can attest.
For several years running, I had sent a letter to the Bears telling them of my zealous support. Each time, without my requesting it, I was sent a team yearbook.
Finally, one year I mustered enough courage to ask for a personal reply. I hoped that a secretary might dash off a short acknowledgment.
Days went by. Weeks. Then one day....
IT was a letter on Bears' team stationery. I carefully opened it. "Dear Rawson," it began. I quickly cast my eyes to the bottom of the page. To my astonishment, there was the signature of George S. Halas.
This was no form letter. A secretary had typed it and quite possibly drafted it. But the thoughts expressed in it, I'm convinced, were truly those of Halas. He addressed the points I had made in my letter. To this day I treasure Papa Bear's reply.
It was a ringing confirmation that a youngster's devotion is not a trivial matter, that my hours spent cheering the Bears in front of our family's basement TV were not unappreciated. But even if my devotion had not been acknowledged, my enjoyment at being a young fan would still be full. I treasure that period, long after my boyhood fascination - and my homemade Bears sweatshirt - has been put away.