BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Twelve years ago, the Chicago Bears staged a statewide hunt for their new summer home.
They traveled to Charleston, site of Eastern Illinois University, to meet with the mayor. They drove five hours south to Carbondale to check out the practice fields at Southern Illinois University. When they arrived in Galesburg, banners had been draped across storefronts to sway team officials toward Knox College.
But after five months of wooing and speculation, the Bears chose the closest option: Olivet Nazarene University, in Bourbonnais, whose broad, grassy practice fields sit one short hour south of downtown Chicago. The town, nestled along Interstate Highway 57, about 20 miles from the Indiana border, quickly became a statewide household name.
The biggest change comes each July and August, when the Bears — players, coaches, administrators and thousands of fans — migrate south for 31/2 weeks of training camp. The pilgrimage begins anew Friday, when the first of this summer's 13 practices in Bourbonnais opens to the public.
In a bid to lure fans south, the Bears have increasingly added entertainment components to camp, including food, shopping, concerts and autograph sessions. Better still, spend enough time around town and odds are good that you'll come across a Bears player or two in the town's restaurants, bars and shops.
"Going away for camp has a football purpose, but it certainly has a fan purpose as well," Bears spokesman Scott Hagel said. "This is an important time for us and an important touch point for our fan base."
If you're thinking of joining Bourbonnais' busiest three weeks of the year to scratch your summer football itch, here's what you need to know.
With new coaches come new practice schedules, and the newly hired Marc Trestman will hold practice unusually bright and early: 11 of the 13 Bourbonnais practices will run from 9 to 11:30 a.m. The other two are from 3:15 to 5 p.m. Under former coach Lovie Smith, practice was generally held later in the day, including several evening practices.
Bars, restaurants, hotel operators and Bears officials wonder how fans will adapt. Will they come down the night before? Will a visit to Bourbonnais be largely a day trip, as it has typically been? Hagel's advice: arriving at 9 a.m. sharp isn't necessary for a couple of reasons.
One, players will no longer sign autographs before practice; when gates open to fans at 9, players will already be on the field. Also, Hagel said, the meatiest part of practice will be between 10 and 11:30 a.m., when offensive and defensive players are lined up to scrimmage against each other.
Fans enter practice, situated in the heart of Olivet's green, leafy campus, by stepping into a virtual amusement park of football: a shop stuffed with Bears gear, radio and television reporters working live from the scene, and food vendors. Beyond those stops will be four football fields clustered together, one or two of which the team will be using at a time.
Bleachers will be set up for ample views, but seating is limited, so fans are encouraged to bring folding chairs. A tip: The grassy berm rising above the northern edge of the practice fields is a favorite spot among local spectators.
Because of the earlier start times, Hagel said, the Bears are increasing post-practice programming. Among the offerings are "Vamos Bears" (Spanish for "Go Bears," on Saturday), Ladies Day (July 31) and a one-mile race for kids 14 and younger with Bears mascot Staley (Aug. 11).
The team also will host post-practice concerts — "different types of cover bands from (the) Chicago area," Hagel said — and eight autograph sessions for kids, among other events. Kids can win the chance to carry a player's pads off the field after practice, and there will be an autograph session on the school's tennis courts for kids 12 and younger.
(The full practice schedule and list of events can be found at chicagobears.com.)
Oh, and did I mention all this is free?
Bear hunting, Part II
Maybe even more fun than watching players run drills is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Word spreads quickly about where players spend their time, in part because there aren't that many options in a town of 19,000.
Players know, and generally accept, that interacting with fans is part of training camp, Hagel said.
"We encourage players to be open to the fans," he said. "We're very fortunate to have sold out every game since 1984, but the flip side is that we know we have a lot of fans who don't have the opportunity to get to Soldier Field."
There are at least two primary destinations where players congregate. One is the family-operated Brickstone Restaurant and Brewery (557 William R. Latham Sr. Drive, 815-936-9277, brickstonebrewery.com), which has developed a national reputation for the beer made by cousins Tommy Vasilakis and George Giannakopoulos. Brickstone is popular enough with the team that players and restaurant staff know each other by name.
"Robbie Gould will come in and sit at the bar by himself like a normal guy," Vasilakis said.
"And we know what he's going to eat," said co-owner Dino Giannakopoulos. "Cajun-style tilapia with broccoli."
Later in the evening, players are likely to be found at T.J. Donlin's (118 Main St. NW, 815-928-8681), a worn-in sports bar sitting a block from the Olivet campus. T.J.'s predates the Bears coming to town, but with the Bears in town it has become a sports bar more than in name only. Jennifer Meeker, who has worked at the bar for five years, told me she once "partied with Lance Briggs" and that he was an extraordinarily nice guy.
Some players "come in once, and some come in every night," she said.
In the early days, the bar cordoned off its back room for players, but it became clear that such measures weren't necessary, owners Tom Richmond and Jay Karr said.
"Everyone wants to see a player or two, and people are respectful, mostly," Karr said. "No one ever gets mean or gets into fights. Everyone just has their drinks and has a good time."
Eating and sleeping
Fans have most often made Bourbonnais a day trip, but 9 a.m. practices might encourage some visitors to spend a night in town.
"It sure would be nice," said Nita Kloska, owner of the Riverview Guest House Bed and Breakfast, in nearby Kankakee.
Riverview (641 S. Chicago Ave., 815-928-9202, rghbb.com) is one of the few nonchain accommodations in the area. Rooms are about $120 per night plus tax, and include breakfast. Otherwise, many chain hotels sit within a couple miles of the practice fields.
And though the area might not be a culinary destination, there are several quality options.
Chief among them is Brickstone, which serves better (and fresher) than average bar food. But its beer has given it a national reputation. In the last year its American pale ale has won first-place honors from both the Great American Beer Festival and North American Brewers Association. To put it in football terms, that feat was about as likely as the Bears winning the next three Super Bowls.
Beyond the ale, which bursts with ripe, delicious floral and pine, Brickstone offers options for both lighter (an impressively clean cherry ale) and darker palates (an oatmeal stout aged in whiskey barrels was on draft for my last visit).
Also, training camp is the only three weeks of the year that T.J. Donlin's serves food, in this case classic bar fare off a grill. Locals generally favor Chicago Dough Company (545 S. Main St., 815-935-0300, chicagodoughpizza.com) for pizza. La Siesta (180 Kennedy Drive, Bradley, 815-939-0074) was supposedly a longtime favorite of Brian Urlacher's, and 164 North Fine Dining (164 N. Schuyler Ave., Kankakee, 815-936-0164, 164north.com) offers one of the more expensive menus in the area, with a lot of surf and even more turf.
Other things to do
Should you want to get past the practice fields, there are plenty of things to do beyond the Bears in Bourbonnais, Kankakee and Bradley. Kankakee is home to a Frank Lloyd Wright house perched on the Kankakee River (701 S. Harrison Ave., wrightinkankakee.org), where tours are given Friday, Saturday and Sunday and by appointment on other days.
Less than a mile from the Bears' practice fields sits Perry Farm Park (459 Kennedy Drive, 815-933-9905), which boasts 170 acres of nature and front-row views of horses, goats and other animals. The park is also home to Exploration Station (exploration-station.org), a children's museum with a $6 admission.
The first weekend of training camp will also feature two of the area's major cultural summer happenings:
Outdoor theater group Acting Out Theatre Co. (actingouttheatreco.org) will stage "Chicago," the musical, Friday, Saturday and July 28. Tickets are $12-$15
Kankakee will host the Merchant Street Music Fest Friday and Saturday.
Who knows? You might even see Alshon Jeffery bobbing his head to the grooves of Saturday headliner Fishbone.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun