When is it too late to jump on a bandwagon?
All season long, I have been critical. Not just for the sake of criticism or hatin' on 'em -- or even because I happen to be one of those people who doesn't believe you have an obligation to root for a team just because you live in that team's city -- but because I didn't believe. I wasn't one of them.
Didn't believe in Lovie Smith. Didn't believe in Jay Cutler. Didn't believe that Brian Urlacher was who everyone was claiming he was: The greatest middle linebacker to wear a Monster uniform since Mike Singletary. Didn't believe Charles Tillman could protect himself, let alone the hot corners in a Cover 2.
In comparison to almost every other person breathing the lake-effect air in Chicago, the Bears meant nothing to me. Full disclosure: I'm a closet Steelers fan who picked the Jets to be in the Super Bowl.
When asked for my prediction at the beginning of the season, I'd always say 5-11 was the Bears' best-case outcome. Winning the NFC North? Never. Making the playoffs? Stop playin'. And even when the W's began to pile up, I found holes in almost every one.
• The Week 1 win against the Lions that wasn't a win because of the Calvin Johnson touchdown that wasn't a touchdown.
• The Week 3 win against Green Bay when the Pack set a franchise record for penalties (18) and still only lost by 3.
• The Week 9 win over then-winless Buffalo by only three.
• The Week 10 win over the Vikings in the wake of the Randy Moss soap opera and while they were preparing to get rid of Brad Childress.
• The Week 11 defeat of the Dolphins 16-0. A game in which (how lucky is this?!), because of injuries, Miami was forced to use its third-string QB (a player the Dolphins had just added to the roster earlier in the week), and in which one of its most dangerous offensive players, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, went down in the second quarter.
• The Week 12 win against the Eagles. The game that was called Chicago's "statement" game. A game the Bears won by only five. A game in which Philly played without both corners, All-Pro Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs.
(And don't get me started on the 17-14 loss to the Redskins, the one in which Cutler threw four completions to DeAngelo Hall as if the defensive back played for the Bears!)
So they were who I thought they were: a mediocre team with an inflated record. I wasn't going to be one of those Bears fans who falls into a false sense of security about a team that, in the end, will make me insecure. I refuse (still!) to be one of those blind-faith loyalists who uses the asinine reasoning that good grounds for believing in the home team is that the team plays in my home.
Not even for the Bears.
Then came the final game of the season against the Packers. The Bears lost it.
A loss is an odd time to jump on any team's bandwagon. That jump can either be a character determiner or a punk move by someone (read: miserable mope) who just wants to be a part of the latest trend. And going into the NFC Championship Game, in Chicago, having to go through the Packers again to get to the Super Bowl, the Bears are the trend.
That 10-3 loss to Green Bay in Week 17 flipped me. Like a pregame coin. Lovie Smith's "overachievers" did everything they could to make sure they wouldn't have to see the Packers again; everything they could to not play them again this Sunday. Short of winning the game, of course.
They didn't back down. They didn't sit the stars or the starters in a game that wouldn't change their playoff fate. Lovie didn't run from the risk of injury to any of his key players, showing me that he is the leader of a squad that represents this city well. Lovie had me at Hester. For the first time in years, he showed me what he is really about as a coach. The Bears, for the first time this season, showed me what they are really about as a team.
And now, I'm all-in. But there's a problem. People who have been listening to me criticize -- I say "criticize," they say "hate;" tomato/tomahto -- the Bears all season long want nothing to do with me. I'm trying to get on the bandwagon and true Bears fans are pushing me off.
"Too late!" is all I'm hearing. Followed by, "We're at full capacity." Followed by, "We don't need you!"
I try to explain that I was never not a fan, that there was never a time this season that I didn't support them. I was just just
But still, the push-back is just what you'd expect: "Bears fans are ride-or-die. People like you are dead to us."
Death, when it comes to the Bears, has become my offered option. It's the price I have to pay for allowing my "keepin' it real" with them to go too far. I want to be all-in with the city in our time of need, but the city doesn't need me. No orange shirts with "C's" on the chest, no blue flags flying out of my Cadillac window, no singing "Bear Down" while standing in line at Lem's waiting for my order of small tips to be called before Sunday's kickoff. I can't wear my "GSH" on my sleeve.
This is the city I was born in and will die in, but I cannot be a full participant in the most important week of Chicago's recent football history. No LeRoi-come-latelys allowed. Like a white housewife from Atlanta, I was tardy to the party.
I'm told that sometimes in life, the hardest place to go is back home. Imagine trying to do that when you can't convince anyone that you never really left, and all you hear along the way is, "We told you so!" from Bears fans who question your allegiance and loyalty. There's a fine line between wanting a team to win and thinking it will win.
I walked that line, and the line won.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.