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It is nearing seven o'clock on a hot and humid Tuesday night in Bourbonnais, Ill., a sleepy hamlet an hour south of Chicago. The sun is still beating down relentlessly at this hour, frying the fans who pack the stands and are lined up seven, eight, nine deep behind the fence around the modest football field at Olivet Nazarene University. A twin-engine plane, buzzing across the cloudless sky, drops a skydiver who floats down and lands almost perfectly on the 50-yard line as orange smoke shoots out of a canister in each of his hands. The crowd cheers, impressed, but moments later a much bigger roar erupts for the evening's grandest entrance: Jay Cutler, the new quarterback of the Bears, jogging out of a tunnel underneath the stands, onto midfield and center stage. ¶ Nearly 10,000 people have shown up on this night; a week earlier, 12,000 attended a mid-afternoon practice. The record crowds—and the chain-link fence that collapsed from the crush on Day One of camp—confirm it: Not since McMahon, Payton and the Fridge came to camp 23 years ago still glowing from their Super Bowl XX victory has there been this much anticipation for a Bears season. "It's been a circus," says tight end Greg Olsen. "And really, there's one reason for that."
That reason is Cutler, the 26-year-old gunslinger who has yet to take a regular-season snap in a Bears uniform but is already the face of the franchise. (Brian Urlacher, step aside.) Since the blockbuster deal that sent quarterback Kyle Orton and three draft picks to the Broncos for Cutler—"the biggest trade in Bears history," one columnist proclaimed—giddy fans have made Cutler's number 6 Bears jersey the top-selling piece of NFL merchandise. The media in Chicago, where the major newspapers each carry daily Cutler updates, are just as zealous. During a recent practice Lance Briggs, the Bears' four-time Pro Bowl linebacker, stopped by a group of reporters. "You guys know I'm still on this team, right?" he said. "Do I have to do a dance for you or something?"
An hour into the practice, all eyes are on Cutler as the team begins seven-on-seven drills. He throws a gorgeous 50-yard pass down the right sideline and into the outstretched hands of wideout Earl Bennett. Later, when the offense lines up in the Wildcat formation, with Cutler out wide as a receiver and wideout Devin Hester behind center, Cutler dashes downfield with his shoulder lowered, as if he's ready to flatten a defensive back, while Hester runs through the line. "Nice blocking, Jay!" a fan screams. The night ends with a two-minute drill: Cutler moves the unit to the 10-yard line from his own 35, and on the final play lofts a fade to the corner of the end zone, where Olsen reels in the ball one-handed. Cutler pumps his fist. The crowd cheers wildly.
On a night like this you could see almost all the way to January, with Cutler leading the Bears to their first playoff berth since 2006 and, just maybe, their first Super Bowl win since the 1985 season. You could see Cutler establish himself as Chicago's first bona fide franchise quarterback since Sid Luckman 60 years ago. You could see Cutler become, as Hester puts it, "Chicago's biggest sports star since Michael Jordan."
You could also see all of it—all the hope and love of a city—go up in smoke.
In Chicago, the Bears recycle QBs like the Cubs go through closers: Over the 23 seasons since their Super Bowl win, the Bears have trotted out 30 of them. They are a collection of first-rounders (Cade McNown), acquired Pro Bowlers (Kordell Stewart), collegiate golden boys (Rick Mirer), ex--baseball players (Chad Hutchinson), old-timers (Dave Krieg) and one-start no-names (Will Furrer, Moses Moreno, Henry Burris).
"Those guys would tell you that this is a difficult city to be a quarterback," says Jim Miller, who made 26 starts for the Bears between 1999 and 2002. "When you consider that New York is split between two teams, Chicago is the largest market in the league, and as a quarterback you feel it. They don't treat their quarterbacks with kid gloves."
Now comes Cutler to win over the fickle heart of the Windy City. The mop-topped son of a retired state trooper, he grew up 360 miles south of Chicago, in the town of Santa Claus, Ind., in a gated community called Christmas Lake Village. But in Denver he came to be seen as the Grinch because of his aloofness, his bravado despite a 17--20 record as a starter—last fall he proclaimed he had a stronger arm than John Elway—and finally his falling out with Josh McDaniels over the new coach's interest in acquiring then Patriots QB Matt Cassel.
"A trust was broken," says Cutler of McDaniel's pursuit of another quarterback and his own decision to demand a trade. "But I had no clue how things were going to play out."
Cutler made his first Pro Bowl last season after throwing for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns. No 4,000-yard passer had ever been traded at age 25. Interest in him was high—and so was the price. The Bears gave up Orton, who was 21--12 as a starter in Chicago, and three draft picks.