In 1943, a former Notre Dame Monogram three-time award winner got the chance to play for the Chicago Bears when some of their players were drafted into the war. This offensive tackle was a large man with a wry smile and a great sense of humor. The stories of his antics became family folklore, much like Paul Bunyan. At 6'4" and over 230 pounds, he actually reminded people of Paul Bunyan. Even though he could easily intimidate (especially when, years later, boys started calling on his two daughters), it was his quick wit and general zaniness that left the biggest impression. After his one championship season with the Bears, playing alongside greats like Sid Luckman and Bronko Nagurski, he went on to become a successful salesman. He saw one of his daughters get married, and the birth of two grandchildren. Sadly, though, William (Bill) Steinkemper, my grandfather, died years before his time and shortly before I was born.
I never had the chance to sit on his knee, play catch with him, or ask about his stint with the Bears. As I get older, I think often about a relationship that never was and how it has shaped me as a man. I imagine the stories he must have had and the wisdom he could have shared. At times, when I allow myself to think hard about it, I ache. For some, that may not make sense. How is it possible to miss someone they've never known? I'm learning more and more each day, during life's inevitable trials, how real that pain can be.
The 1943 team picture (he's #35) hangs in my house as well as an "action" photo of my grandfather blocking for Sid Luckman. I see these photos everyday. They are my connection to him. While these photos can only offer a glimpse of the man he was, they still provide me with enormous pride and joy. I honor him with those photos. I also honor him when I explain to people that the Bears are part of my family heritage, however brief that stint may have been. Every Sunday from September through February (hopefully), I dutifully watch my Chicago Bears. I've cried after losses. I've danced after wins. I've broken a remote control. I've done victory laps through my house. I've punched countless pillows. I've alienated my perfect bride. I've even started a blog.
I guess, deep down, I do all of these things to honor the memory of the grandfather I never knew. I'm sure most fans have a similar story about their favorite team. While a relative or friend may not have played for that team, I'm sure there are countless memories and rituals about that team that involve a grandfather, father, mother, brother, sister or friend. These moments have helped shape each of us. It is, for lack of a better word, a legacy.
In the end, the cynical amongst us may claim that being a diehard fan is nothing more than rooting for laundry. But, that laundry represents something far more important than wins, money, bragging rights, or media fodder. It is a connection to our collective pasts, presents, and futures. For some, it is the only way to relate to family or friends. For others, it is an escape from the sometimes painful reality of life. Regardless of the reason, it is important, and it is every bit as real for us as it is for the men who are lucky enough to compete.
So, today I find myself reflecting upon the reasons I became a Bears fan, and how lucky I am that my grandfather played for a real organization like the Chicago Bears rather than that Mickey Mouse operation they run in Green Bay. :-)
Later this week, I'll put a preview together in the hopes I can provide Mike Martz with some tips on beating the Dom Capers defense. But, today, I'd like to hear other fan origin stories. What's yours?