'85 Bears haunt Chicago

CHICAGO -- It's Sunday afternoon, and Diana Ditka is sitting upstairs in the downtown restaurant that bears her husband's name. A pair of Halloween cat ears are perched atop her head, but her eyes are on the big-screen television. In front of her, on the table, are her picks for the day's NFL games.

She bets the games every week against a friend -- just winners, no spreads -- and cheerfully reports that she's trimmed an $800 season deficit down to a single c-note heading into this Sunday.

As an avid football watcher, Diana Ditka knows better than to lay much money on the franchise her husband coached to the Super Bowl XX title 19 years ago.

"This team should be better than it is," she says. "It's just a shame they don't have better management. ... Football means a lot to Chicago. When we won the Super Bowl it was like the most important thing in everyone's lives. When they're losing, the fans are very disappointed."

What disappointed Bears fans have is an 84-year-old franchise with one winning season in the last eight and no playoff wins in the last decade -- and at 2-5 after beating equally inept San Francisco 23-13 Sunday night, this season is going the same sad direction.

Thus on Halloween night, Chicago remains haunted by the ghost of champions past. When it comes to football, the city is stuck in the 1980s, with a tape loop of old glories replaying endlessly in every fan's mind.

That unabated nostalgia is why Super Bowl Shufflers Dave Duerson, Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael, Gary Fencik, Jimbo Covert and Keith Van Horne all have done radio and/or television work in town. That's why, after the ubiquitous Brian Urlacher jerseys in Soldier Field, the second-most popular Bears jersey appeared to be Walter Payton's. That's why the thoroughbred that won the $1.7 million Breeders' Cup Mile Saturday was named Singletary by the horse's owner, Northwestern alum Bill Koch.

And that's why Mike Ditka remains a Chicago icon.

His restaurant -- which advertises "kick-ass paddle steak" in the Yellow Pages, not your everyday phone-book language -- remains popular. He's all over radio, TV and billboards pitching products, from furniture to scotch to casinos. The Republican party attempted to draft him to run against Democrat Barack Obama for Illinois' vacant U.S. Senate seat.

And when Da Coach tapes his local TV show on Thursday nights at his restaurant, the place is jammed with fans wanting to share his orbit.

"It's phenomenal," Diana Ditka says. "I guess everyone's still living in the past, because they love Mike Ditka."

Here's the sobering news for those dwelling in that era: Ditka, an ESPN analyst, also endorses Levitra -- a pretty solid sign that the '80s are long gone. He's not walking back through that door, Bears fans, and neither are Jim McMahon, Otis Wilson and Buddy Ryan. And a new generation of football heroes has not come along to take their place.

These are trying times in a bedrock football town.

The Bulls won six titles and Michael Jordan was elevated to god status. The Cubs are cute, and they sold out every game this year. The White Sox and Blackhawks have plenty of supporters. But the Bears are the town's most valued sports entity.

Veteran Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander says so, and so does everyone else you ask about the sporting hierarchy. The answer is unanimous: When the Bears are fielding a quality team, football rules.

"If the Bears are doing good, the whole town rallies around them," fan Tim Romano says. "With baseball it's divided, because of all those stupid White Sox fans."

Football fits Chicago like a broken-in pair of work boots. This is a town that prides itself on having an unvarnished toughness, where they shrug off the winter cold and go about their working-class business. Football -- especially Bears football, traditionally a bruising, defense-first product -- is part and parcel of that.

"It's basically still a blue-collar sort of town," said Bill Davis, a season-ticket holder for nearly 30 years. He's president of the Machinists Local 701 union, and his tailgating group is heavy on Teamsters and machinists.

Davis is wearing a Butkus jersey and cooking burgers outside Soldier Field. The Vietnam veteran has a "Veteran for Kerry" sticker on his jersey. He says he's missed fewer than 10 home games since 1974 -- "the year they drafted Walter Payton."

"Football fits the character of the city," Davis said. "When the Bears are doing good, it's a football town. This year it was a baseball town well into football season."

But now that the chill is in the air and the clocks have been turned back, everyone knows what season it is. Even if it hasn't been a fun one.

Chicago fans are resigned to cheering for Craig Krenzel, a rookie quarterback with a degree in molecular genetics, and an uninspiring offensive supporting cast. They sold out Soldier Field Sunday night to see two lousy teams, and they were in their seats at kickoff (this is no Lakers crowd). But the fan base is far from happy.

Jerry Sarz, a retired Chicago fire fighter, has held season tickets for 50 years. He saw the Bears win the NFL championship in 1963 at Wrigley Field. He took a bus to New Orleans for Super Bowl XX. He says he'll keep coming to games "until I can't walk, maybe," but he's no fan of the McCaskey family's ownership of his team.

"People are getting very disinterested because of things they've done," Sarz said.

A member of Sarz's tailgating crew, Jim Briney, had four season tickets for a number of years. Briney said that when the Bears extended the contract of former coach Dave Wannstedt after a losing season in the 1990s: "I told the Bears to shove two of 'em. That's telling players that being mediocre is OK."

After grumbling about the state of his favorite team, Sarz reaches into a plastic bag and offers a visitor a T-shirt. In a burst of entrepreneurial spirit, he and a buddy had them printed up and have sold them at Lambeau Field to Green Bay fans. Bringing them to a home game is playing to a new consumer group.

The shirts read: "Da Bears Suck."

When a 50-year season-ticket holder is handing out "Bears Suck" T-shirts, times are tough in an old football town.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com.