Bears tailgaters back in their element: ‘This is part of what makes the whole experience. It’s not just the game.’

·3 min read

The September sun was shining Sunday as fans returned to Soldier Field for a Bears regular season game for the first time since 2019.

Tailgaters started trickling into their Museum Campus stomping grounds for the home opener early in the morning, arriving on Divvy bikes, the No. 146 express bus and by foot, tossing orange and navy footballs along the way.

Grill smoke filled the parking lot air as a remix of “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” blared. Later in the morning, workers finagled a giant inflatable can of Miller Lite into upright position in front of the Field Museum. Confetti erupted from the nearby parking lot.

Veteran tailgaters’ advice for newcomers? Come early, make friends and drink often.

“Let somebody else set it up,” said Paul Tarman, a longtime Bears tailgater from Bloomingdale.

John and Paula Dillon, of Lombard, said this is their 29th football season. John Dillon said they started their Bears tailgating careers at Burnham Harbor with a Smokey Joe grill and couple of Jewel bags filled with burgers and chips and hot dogs.

But about 15 years ago, the Dillons started giving their tailgates themes based on the visiting team’s home city. (John Dillon advises new tailgaters to start simple then build up their operations.) For one Miami game, that meant an assembly line of about 40 Cuban sandwiches the night before a game.

“A few really good theme items I think makes an impression,” Paula Dillon said. “Less is more.”

And for this year’s home opener against the Bengals? The Dillons designed a menu — printed and displayed in their parking spot — based on a 1978 episode of the sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Their menu, based on a Thanksgiving episode involving a turkey drop, boasted turkey burgers, herb roasted potatoes in honor of character Herb Tarlek and Cincinnati Skyline chili. The Stan’s Donuts on the menu were not in theme, Paula Dillon admitted, but served as a good breakfast starter.

The Dillons like to end their tailgate on a ceremonial shot with their guests. The development of this week’s shot, dubbed “Dr. Johnny Fever COVID-19 shots,” took a couple of days. The signature shot featured Dr. McGillicuddy’s cherry liqueur plus a “healthy splash” of Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch whisky.

“We believe in the team,” Paula Dillon said. “And that’s why we stick it out, and this is part of what makes the whole experience. It’s not just the game.”

Rhonda Brandes, of Elgin, gave a Tribune reporter a walk-through of her tailgate’s spread: deviled eggs and ham roll-ups with asparagus and hummus. The piece de resistance? Whiskey pretzels, oven-baked with butter, garlic, red pepper and three tablespoons of whiskey.

Brandes, a self-described “quarterback girl,” had to settle for a Youth XL when she tried to buy a Justin Fields jersey. “They were all out,” she said.

Fans have big expectations for the Bears rookie quarterback.

A Bears tailgater since the 1980s, Brandes she hoped the team would put Fields in. “And I think they will,” she added.

Tricia Bohn, who’s been tailgating in the same lot for over a decade, said she didn’t mind if the Bears waited a little bit on Fields.

“Because I just feel like they put (former quarterback) Mitch (Trubisky) in too early, and Justin might benefit from waiting a little bit,” Bohn said. “I loved what they did last week when they put him in, when he was in for five plays. So I hope that they do something like that again this week.”

What was Bohn most looking forward to about the game?

“A win.”

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