For all the cynicism I have in my soul for professional sports, I have to say the NFL reached out to me yesterday with the warm embrace of an Oprah show, and I hugged back. Yes, I hugged the NFL with all the joy in my blackened, shriveled heart.
On a bit of a lark, I took the boys to see the Chicago Bears at their summer training camp in Bourbonnais, Ill. A chance clip on the evening news showed people sitting around in lawn chairs on the sidelines of what appeared to be a Pop Warner pick-up game, but which was, in fact, highly paid professional sports superstars shuffling through drills on a college practice field.
“Why not?” asked my wife, and with at least one son who is Sports Crazy, we took the bait. Three men in a Honda, together we crossed the countryside to watch pro pigskin in action. And we found joy.
I didn’t expect it, really, since I’m more a college sports guy than a big-time sports guy. And why not? High-dollar pro players fill the newspapers with their misdeeds. Spoiled players throw tantrums and demand cookies or they will cry. And for the privilege of watching them play, a family of four has to drop hundreds of dollars to see it all live. (We’ve been to one Cubs game as a family; crummy tickets were $80 a pop. Bears tickets, like Bears games, are rarer and costlier still. Who can afford to take children to these things?)
As it turns out, the Bears Training Camp is a whole ‘nother experience. For the cost of gas (an hour and a half drive from my door), we got free parking, free admittance, free autographs, and all kinds of free freebies for a day’s submersion in football antics. We even got an hour in a heaven of giant inflatables and bounce-arounds — the last time we went to our local pumpkin harvest festival, the privilege of jumping around one of those air-filled amusements worked out to about two dollars a bounce. Try putting three kids in a duct-taped inflatable obstacle course and not dream of those six bucks flying back to your wallet to better serve you in the form of gas money or a steamy morning coffee.
But the Bears put on a class show, including crazy inflatables like a Japanese game show …
…and the obligatory Slide of Doom.
My boys even had the chance to run the length of the big inflatable bear muzzle that REAL PLAYERS get to run through before REAL GAMES on REAL TV.
That’s some glee.
We got there two hours before the gates opened, so we found ourselves in a bit of a long line. But this being a crowd of football fans, it quickly became a mass tailgate as Bears enthusiasts broke out their grills, footballs and lawn games. (Note: Even though my Cincinnati kin insist it is called Cornhole, folks up ’round these parts will look at you crazy unless you just call it “bean bag toss.”) (Also note: Olivet Nazarene University, home to the Bears Training Camp Experience, keeps it alcohol-free, and you should, too. Or else the security detail will deal with you … the Wesleyan way.)
Travel tip No. 1: Our early arrival ensured the boys were two of the daily allotment of 150 kids granted access to a children-only autograph session after the practice. This session was a bit factory-like, with each set of 50 kids getting two autographs from just two players — and if you don’t like which two players your line got, then tough, junior. Older Boy got a Hancock from running back Mike Forte, which Younger Son (the true Sports Nut) is keenly jealous of. Still, it was a well-run operation, and got the kids close to some Wow Factor with some Really Big Dudes.
Travel tip No. 2: Seats for practice weren’t so bad — certainly you get a closer view at Training Camp than at an actual game. But here’s a warning: The practice area is three side-by-side football fields, and the team only practices on one, which changes day to day. We arrived so early, I didn’t have any clues as to what the best seat would be, so I chose shady seats in a set of bleachers at the 45-yard mark. We put down our things to save the spot and went to attack more inflatables. By the time we returned, it was clear we had chosen the wrong side; the real action was now quite far away. My hint for next time? Look for the cranes holding TV cameras — this was the vital giveaway for which field was going to get the most use.
We eventually moved to a blisteringly sunny spot on a grassy knoll. Not bad, but could have been closer for having arrived so early:
What could have been a hundred-dollar experience for three men-about-town turned out to require no more investment than a little gas money, some cooler-packed snacks and a little sunburn. So thanks, NFL. You could have charged for this amusement — and for all I know, someday some blackguard in your central office will think this is a fine idea — but for today, your well-run, family-friendly camp show made fast fans of two excited boys … and their father, who so desperately needs to keep them occupied for the rest of the summer before they kill each other.