Back in April, barbecue man Hecky Powell heard about a 300-plus-pound Chicago Bears rookie who liked ribs, lots of ribs. So Powell signed the little-known player to make an appearance at his take-out rib shack during the football season.
"We were just hoping he'd come in, eat some ribs, visit with the kids, drink a root beer," Powell says.
When the day arrived, Hecky's Barbecue in Evanston, Ill., was jammed with TV cameras and Powell had to rent a hall down the street to accommodate the 2,500 fans who showed up to see William (The Refrigerator) Perry.
Strange things have been happening here since the Bears, one of the oldest teams in professional football, got off to their best start in 51 years.
The "Monsters of the Midway," as the Bears are known, finished the season Sunday with a record of 15 wins and 1 loss.
Along the way they have captivated a city where generations pass between winning sports seasons, and have infected hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans who could not have identified the Bears' colors--orange and blue--a year before.
The Chicago Art Institute, venerable home of many prized classics, recently hoisted 50-pound Bears helmets onto the heads of two large bronze lions that guard the entrance. The helmets were art, of course, done by a sculptor on commission, and later were put on display inside.
In an elaborate new music video on the market in time for Christmas, a bunch of hulking Bears players strut and chant "The Super Bowl Shuffle." And a group of women have formed a cheerleading group called the "Refrigerettes" to honor Perry. Women under 200 pounds need not apply.
Why have the Bears entranced Chicagoans? Some say it is because winter's chill arrived early this year, keeping people in front of their television sets on weekend afternoons. Others credit Halley's Comet--not its arrival but the fact that cloud cover kept it invisible here for the entire month of November. Comet-mania became Bear-mania, they contend.
"I think it's Armageddon. First the Cubs winning in 1984. And now the Bears," says Laura Mazzuca, a college student. "When you've got a team that's been losing and losing for 20 or 30 years and they suddenly start winning . . ."
Perry Miller used to get quizzical looks when people learned he held Bears season tickets. "For years, I'd say I was going to see the other teams in the league play," the newspaper distributor says. Excuses are no longer necessary. The 60,000-seat Soldier Field was sold out for every home game this year, and tickets were being scalped for three to four times face value.
"There are a lot of fans out there who have suffered through some lean years," says Ken Valdiserri, spokesman for the Bears.
"Now the fans are coming out of the woodwork. It seems that we've been able to make people endure the cold weather and perhaps some of the hardships that they're going through. We seem to make them happy."
Affects Other Events
A kind of game-day mania set in across the city. Those not caught up in Bears' fever ignored the team's schedule at their peril. A suburban bride and groom were angered when guests skipped their wedding only to show up at the reception--after the game.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, after polling its subscribers, found plenty of new Bears fans among the music-lovers. So it has changed the time of a January performance to sidestep the Super Bowl kickoff--even though the Bears still must survive the playoffs.
Nevertheless, it was probably a wise move.
At JP's Eating Place, on Chicago's North Side, manager Mike Cohn still remembers the lesson he learned during the Monday night game between the Bears and the Miami Dolphins last month.
"You want to talk about empty," he says. "Beside myself and the kitchen crew we had only a couple of customers. Everybody stayed home glued to the set."
'Really Personal Service'
One of those diners was Paul Costello. "It was wonderful," says Costello, director of public relations for Marshall Field's department store. "It was like when the city has a blizzard. We got really personal service."
The next Monday, Costello added, "it was packed as usual."
At the Ultimate Sports Bar & Grill, a hangout for single young professionals, manager Ray McDonald has the opposite problem. He has a wide-screen TV. "We put on extra waitresses for Bear games," he says.
"Let's face it: In any city you have your die-hard fans. But when the team's going good, everybody is Bear conscious."
The whole mood of the city began to change midway through the season.
"When was the last time you remember every Sunday being an occasion for good times and celebration?" Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene asked his readers recently.
"You don't even have to be much of a sports fan to savor it--Sundays feel special this year, and when you wake up on a Sunday morning you know there's going to be something to entertain you and--probably--make you feel good by the end of the day."
The most recognizable of the Bears is the "Fridge," 23-year-old rookie Perry. A defensive tackle, Perry became something of a national sensation when coach Mike Ditka sent him in on offense and he lumbered a couple of yards for a touchdown.
Perry already has made several national TV appearances, his gap-toothed grin and affable personality charming fans, some of whom have pasted his number, 72, on their refrigerators at home.
Diet of Salads
Before the season, the coaches put Perry on a diet, saying that at 330 pounds he was just too fat. He got down to 308 "by eating salads," he says.
"He makes being gigantic more acceptable," says new Bears fan Kate Peyton, a museum fund-raiser who has a picture of Perry over her desk at work. "And now he gets to make touchdowns."
Of all the Bears fans, few are happier than Hecky Powell, whose barbecue business has been booming since Perry showed up to sign autographs.
Powell got Perry's services for $300; they go for $3,500 to $5,000 now.
Says Powell: "He was the best investment I ever made."