It's a question the Saturday Night Live Superfans might have dreamed up: Could da Bears win da Super Bowl if dey had to play all deir games on da road? That's the reality that Chicago's NFL franchise faces as it hosts the Minnesota Vikings in Sunday's season opener. With Soldier Field undergoing a $600 million face-lift, the Bears will play all their "home" games some 150 miles south, at the University of Illinois in Champaign, this year. It's hardly ideal for a team with title hopes—Chicago went 13-3 last season—but the players insist they'll grin and bear it. "We have to mentally prepare for 16 away games," tackle James (Big Cat) Williams says. "No excuses."
Normally the Bears would spend the night before home games at the Chicago Hilton & Towers, which boasts room service, spacious suites and breathtaking lake-front vistas. Not so in Champaign, a place more akin to Green Acres than the Magnificent Mile. The Bears, who'll jet down the day before a game and fly back to Chicago immediately afterward, had planned to stay in Decatur, Ill., some 40 miles from Champaign. The plan was scuttled after the first preseason game, when the team bus got stuck in traffic going to the stadium. "It took us over an hour," cornerback R.W. McQuarters said. "Guys were sleeping on the bus." Perhaps still in hibernation, the Bears lost 27-3 to the Broncos.
Brad Cook, co-owner of the Park Inn in Urbana, says the Bears reneged on a handshake deal to stay at his hotel—after he had spent $200,000 on improvements. "They said our towels weren't big enough, that we had styrofoam cups instead of ceramic mugs," he says. "They said they were used to nicer stuff." The Bears' ultimate choice, the Chancellor Hotel, has six-foot-long beds and views of cornfields. There's no room service, but players can walk next door to Aunt Sonya's Restaurant, whose walls are bedecked with NFL pennants.
Though few players have complained publicly, there have been grumbles about everything from Memorial Stadium's slippery artificial turf to the nearly six-hour round-trip car ride that family members must endure. Bears receiver David Terrell, who knows Champaign from his college days at Illinois's Big Ten-rival Michigan, even raised a stink about the smell from nearby cow pastures.
As a gesture to season-ticket holders—some of whom are getting soaked for as much as $10,000 per ticket for seat licenses at the new Soldier Field—the Bears didn't require them to buy tickets for the 2002 season. Nobody's sure just how many Chicago-area fans will make the trip each week, but the idea of a three-hour ride through speed traps is a prospect few relish. "Twenty thousand cars on I-57? That can't be good," says Andy Carter, 36, a lifelong Bears fan who plans to attend only two Champaign games. "It's going to be a big hassle."
Tell that to Vicki Batka. The 30-year-old reception manager went to Champaign with friends for both preseason games. Before the first game, three of her pals were issued $75 citations for drinking beer at a local campsite. During the second game her car got towed. "Other than that," Batka says with a laugh, "we had a great time."