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Bears fans huddle at Da Coach's

Mike Ditka caught the Super Bowl in Miami, but there was full house at his Chicago eatery.

February 05, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — As the temperature plunged below zero Sunday morning, Chad Rott and his father-in-law, David Whited, huddled in their overcoats and bright-orange Chicago Bears shirts outside of Mike Ditka's Restaurant waiting for the doors to open.

The Southern California duo had flown into the city for the chance to watch the big game at this altar to the Monsters of the Midway.

Not even the threat of frostbite kept them away. After all, Ditka, whom Chicagoans lovingly call "Da Coach," led the Bears to victory in Super Bowl XX in 1986.

So what that it's been decades since their last win? Or if Rott, who lives in Yucaipa, and Whited, from San Bernardino, forgot to buy gloves -- or even scarves -- before they got here?

"I've been a lifelong Bears fan," said Whited, 53, who co-owns a portable-toilet company. "We couldn't get tickets to the game. So the next best thing was to come out to Chicago to cheer them on."

In the Windy City, the baseball team you cheer for says much about your economic status and neighborhood loyalties -- and there has been little love lost between fans north and south of Madison Street, the road that physically and philosophically divides this town.

But football unifies sports fans here who happily hold tailgate parties in the snow and still find humor in the old "Saturday Night Live" parody of being "superfans."

This Super Bowl pitted locals against their neighboring Midwestern rivals -- the Indianapolis Colts.

"I used to live in northwest Indiana, but I was still a Bears fan," sniffed Debbie Gess, 53, an oncology nurse in Portland, Ore. "You have to be dedicated and a hearty fan to be a Bears fan."

Indeed, scores of men and women traveled from as far away as Alaska and New York to watch the big game and sing the Bears' fight song in Coach's house. (Ditka, normally a regular at his restaurant, didn't join in. He was in Miami.)

At the downtown Chicago steakhouse, reservations for Sunday night sold out 20 minutes after the Bears beat the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game Jan. 21. The waiting list numbered in the hundreds.

"I tried to get a table, but it wasn't meant to be," said Terry Mickle, 63, a retired elementary-school principal who took a four-hour train ride from Quincy, Ill., to reach the city. "I knew there might be space at the bar, so I got here this morning in hopes of grabbing a seat."

He was in luck, sliding onto a stool near Whited and Rott. Ordering a large platter of nachos for his kickoff meal, Mickle swapped favorite Bears stories with the California pair. The seats around them filled with other eager fans, many dressed head-to-toe in orange and blue in the amber-lighted bar.

All were ready to scream themselves hoarse.

As Chicago rookie Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, the fans shrieked for several minutes in hysterical glee. Gess began to sway. A man behind her wrapped his arms around her and, teary-eyed, the two began to chant, "Go Bears! Go Bears! Go Bears!"

Nelson Ham, a managing partner of the restaurant, gaped at the TV screens positioned around the room in shock.

"There was a guy in here last night who said he was in Vegas for last year's Super Bowl," Ham said. "He told me that he placed a bet that the Bears would win the coin toss, and that Hester would run it back for a touchdown. The odds were 18 to 1, and he put $100 down on a lark.

"I told him I thought he was crazy. Now? I wonder if he's a psychic."

But by the beginning of the second half, the mood inside the restaurant grew tense. Fans grumbled obscenities, and hissed at the screens every time the cameras cut to a Colts player.

Kelly Layden stuffed her hands deep into her jacket pockets, to keep from gnawing her already bloody fingertips.

"I get super nervous," said Layden, 32, a saleswoman from Chicago. "We're not doing well."

Finally, as the game clock ticked down to a Bears loss, she stood up and walked out -- to hunt down a T-shirt vendor.

"I don't care that they lost. They're still my team," Layden said. "I'll need something to wear to the first game next season."

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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