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Bill Plaschke

Uprooted fans turn bar into a Bear trap

January 21, 2007|Bill Plaschke

Today at 6 a.m., Nick Grgov will awaken from a restless sleep and grab a Chicago Bears sweatshirt. For his dog.

After taking the pit bull for a walk, Grgov will shower and dress in an outfit that includes Bears boxers, Bears socks, a Bears T-shirt, a Bears sweater, and a Desmond Clark-autographed Bears cap.

Then at 7:30 a.m., he will drive to where Bears fans are tailgating on the pavement, some of them dressed in the mustache and sleeveless sweater of Mike Ditka, one of the Ditkas being named Tiffany.

Soon, Grgov will be sitting with a midfield view of the Bears' NFC championship game, crammed together with other Bears fans, black jersey shoulder to blue sweatshirt shoulder, 'Da' next to 'Dis,' all of them singing and chanting and representing a most unusual triumph of brotherhood and neighborhood.

Because Nick Grgov will not do any of this in Chicago.

He will do this in Burbank.

This is not Soldier Field, this is Magnolia Boulevard.

These are not aluminum bleachers, this is Tin Horn Flats.

Six days a week, the aging joint with the swinging doors is a bar.

On Sundays during football season, it is a Bear.

Take America's most fervently frustrated football fan base, transport it 2,000 miles west to a place where nobody appreciates refrigerator temperatures or linemen, invite them to hang together for three hours of reminiscing, and, well....

"My first time seeing a Bear Sunday, I got goose bumps," said Lindsey Taylor, the Tin Horn Flats manager. "I stood in the corner and saw all the craziness and I'm like, 'I don't think I can do this.' "

For more than three decades, hundreds of Southland Bears fans haven't been able to do anything else.

Since a Chicago-born owner began welcoming homesick locals, the place has been one of several Southern California establishments that catered to fans of all Chicago sports.

In recent years, though, the hard-bitten, often heartbroken patrons have turned it into the Butkus of Bears bars.

"This is the mecca," said Fredo Brown, a movie production worker who has been watching his Bears play here for 25 years. "It sounds like Chicago. It feels like Chicago."

Today, when the Bears play host to the New Orleans Saints at noon, the place will be as nutty as an Urlacher.

People will begin lining up on the nearby streets with their lawn chairs and grills about 6:30 a.m. Just wondering, but how many other sports bars have tailgaters?

"I remember stepping around all these people on the sidewalk thinking, 'You've got to be kidding me,' " Taylor said. "They're just waiting to come into the Tin Horn?"

And what's inside? Well, to those accustomed to the spaceships that now pass for sports bars, not much.

The floor is covered in dust, the walls are dotted with old license plates, there's a pool table, some tiny round tables, a few booths, all crammed into a room dominated by a long Western-style bar.

And, frankly, there are probably more televisions in your home. There is one big screen and four regular-sized screens in the main room, and a tiny TV on the back patio.

But fans don't come here for the decor. They come here for the Chicago.

"The first time I walked in on a Bears Sunday, I said, 'I'm home,' " said Joe Mieszala, who was born and raised in Chicago. "This is more intense than even the Bears bars in Chicago."

How intense?

Once the doors open, each fan is given a ticket. This is not to ensure entry, but to prevent exit.

Because virtually every Sunday during the game, the fire marshal shows up to enforce a 140-person limit. And so every Sunday, dozens without tickets get thrown out.

"Once the game starts, people can barely move, and it's so loud you can't hear," said bartender Bobbi McCabe. "I have to climb on top of the bar and shout, 'Hey, you in the white jersey, No. 54, your burger is up!' "

That being linebacker Brian Urlacher's number, two dozen dudes inevitably raise their hands.

This is not just a Bears bar in theory, but by vigilante law.

On Sundays when other games are being played, every television set is turned to the Bears game, and every fan must be a Bears fan, two rules that would never work at any other sports bar.

There was the time a Minnesota Vikings fan was ushered into a kitchen freezer. Then there was the time a Green Bay Packers fan was politely carried outside by his elbows.

Grgov, who is the bar's

5-foot-11, 250-pound ringleader, makes no apologies for the partisanship.

"Once a week, for three hours, we're like a family," he said.

For many here, that word has literal meaning. Grgov, 33, used to watch Bears games here with his father, Nick Sr.

After his father died of cancer in the spring of 1994, this heaven became his haven.

"This was one of my getaways, a place I could come to forget my troubles and remember my father," he said. "Dad always looked forward to this day, in this place, and I try to keep that alive."

From the placing of Gale Sayers rookies cards reverently on the bar, to the lining up of old Bears glasses that cannot be filled, that tradition indeed lives.

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