Party line: Tailgating is bonding experience for Bears fans
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It doesn’t matter if it’s an unseasonably warm fall day or snowing with a minus-10 wind chill. There’s just something about a Bears pregame party with a side of Mike Ditka’s Italian beef on the blacktop.
This is nearly lifelong Bears fan and avid tailgater Rich Bronkema’s mantra.
Maybe Brian Urlacher said it best when he addressed the fortitude of Bears fans in his Hall of Fame speech last month.
“[Bears fans are] the best fans in the world,” he said. “Even when we stunk, they sat in their seats in Soldier Field freezing their butts off, every time.”
The same can be said about the hundreds of resilient fans who camp out in the parking lot hours before kickoff and tailgate.
Despite working the night shift until 5:30 Sunday mornings, Bronkema, a Chicago police officer, hasn’t missed a home game in eight years. It has become a tradition.
Bronkema, who met his wife, Kelli, at a 49ers-Bears preseason game in 2008, usually won’t sleep before the game once he’s done working. Instead, he’ll watch some TV before loading the grill in his car. Rich and Kelli usually meet up with two of his buddies from grammar school, Steve Kaczmarek and Chris Robles, at a parking lot near Soldier Field. They typically set up camp once the gates open at 8 a.m.
After camp is set, Rich will throw eggs and sausage in a pan on the grill to make bagel sandwiches.
“That’s an essential,” Bronkema said. “You have to have breakfast sandwiches. No doubt about it.”
After that, they’ll listen to a Bears pregame show on the radio while either tossing the football around or playing bags (also known as corn hole).
“I don’t have a fancy car or the big vans like everybody else does,” said Bronkema, who said he hosts 10 to 20 people each home game. “But what I guess I can say is we’re consistent — unlike how the Bears have been lately.”
The best part of Bronkema’s tradition is that it’s not exclusive to Bears home games. For the last five years, his family, along with the Kaczmareks and Robleses, plan a trip to a road game. Last season, they went to New Orleans. This season, they plan to travel to Buffalo for the game Nov. 4.
For those who have never participated in a Bears tailgate, Bronkema pledged it’s the best way to bond with fellow fans — especially since the team hasn’t been playing well in recent years.
“You can expect just a big party,” Bronkema said. “You can pull up next to somebody you’ve never met before, and you know they’ll share their booze and their food. There’s been times when people have forgotten stuff and they’ll come over and say, ‘Hey, I forgot ketchup. Do you mind if I use some?’ or ‘Hey, can I use your spatula?’ So it’s a big party atmosphere.
“You hear about some of these crazy tailgates. Buffalo people are breaking tables. In Oakland, they’re maniacs. Same thing with Philly — they’re throwing beer cans at opposing people. Bears tailgaters, no matter with the weather and it’s December, whether the Bears are good or bad, we’re always going to be there tailgating and cheering for the Bears.”
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