By Andrew Santella
From GQ, September 1999
For the past three years, Terry Howley has had a dream--to bring
home the Chicago Bears. Howleys day job is with Salomon Smith
Barney, where hes a broker. He moonlights, however, as the
mayor of Decatur, a city of 88,500 that sprouts out of the central
Illinois flatlands, three hours south of Chicago. Relentless fields
of corn and soy surround Decatur, and the town thrives by processing
the local crops at operations such as the A.E. Staley Manufacturing
Company, corn millers and starch makers to the world. But as almost
any Chicago Bear fan will tell you, Decatur has another claim to
fame: Seventy-nine years ago, also at the A.E. Staley Manufacturing
Company, the Chicago Bears (then known as the Decatur Staleys) were
In 1996 Howley, bearing a framed photo of George "Papa Bear"
Halas and the rest of the 1920 Decatur Staleys, loaded his wife
and two kids in the car, drove up to Halas Hall, the Bears
headquarters in leafy Lake Forest, Illinois, and made his pitch.
It made sense, he told the Bears, that the team should come home
and hold its summer training camp in the town that brought the team
into the world--not in Platteville, Wisconsin, where the Bears have
summered for sixteen years. Decatur, Howley said, would even let
them use a new, $6 million indoor practice facility at Millikin
University, on the west side of town.
"We hoped it would help us get our name on the map," says
the 51-year-old Howley, sounding not unlike mayors of countless
other cities who have dreamed of the prestige a pro team would confer
on their humble burgs. "But it seems they just werent
In a way, you can sympathize with Howley. When the Cleveland Browns
forsook their homeland in 1995 to become the Baltimore Ravens, the
wailing and gnashing of teeth along Lake Erie was so deafening that
the NFL decided to lead a team back to Cleveland. This year a new
team called the Browns begins play there. If Cleveland can reclaim
its football legacy, why not Decatur?
Certainly, things were simpler in 1920. That year, when Augustus
Eugene Staley decided to take his semipro company team professional,
he hired the 25-year-old Halas, a former University of Illinois
athlete, to make it happen. He gave player-coach Halas and the rest
of his ringers full-time jobs at the company. That was nothing new--teams
from the smokestack towns of western Pennsylvania had been paying
players since the 1890s. But Staley and Halas added a couple of
innovation.s. First Staley gave his team--usually called the Staley,
but sometimes the Starchmakers--two hours a day on company time
to practice. The other new wrinkle came from Halas. He helped form
a league called the American Professional Football Association,
with teams in fourteen Great Lakes cities. (Two years later, the
association changed its name to the National Football League.) In
the Staleys first pro season, Halas coached the team to a
record of 10-1-2. They were in the hunt for the world championship
and Decatur had them.
But before the 1921 season, the seeds of Howleys frustration
were sown: Staley, stung by a recession, could not justify keeping
the team--especially after taking a $14,000 loss on its debut year.
So, in a one-page letter, typed on no-nonsense Staley letterhead
and dated October 6, 1921, Staley makes his Staleys an outright
gift to Halas. Staley also agrees to provide $5000 in bonus money
if Halas relocates the team to Chicago and calls it the Staleys
for one more year--in essence paying Halas $5000 to take the team
out of town. The transfer agreement, signed by Staley and Halas,
is now behind glass in the first-floor conference room of Staley
headquarters, treatment worthy of the Magna Carta.
The agreement is one of the last vestiges of the NFL franchise Decatur
let slip away. Even the original playing field in the shadow of
the corn-milling plant, where the Staleys battled the Rock Island
Independents and the Moline Tractors, is gone, covered by a viaduct;
not even a plaque marks this Eden of the NFL.
For their last game in Decatur, against the Independents, the Staleys
drew a crowd of 4000 to that field. Then came the move to Chicago,
and within a year the team was barnstorming, drawing 73,000 at New
Yorks Polo Grounds and 75,000 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Soon the Portsmouth Spartans would go to Detroit to become the Lions.
But the Akron Pros, the Tonawanda Lumbermen and the Rochester Jeffersons
would not live long. The NFL was moving to the big city and not
Terry Howley, however, will keep trying to bring the big leagues
back to the prairie, if only for the summer. Talk to him long enough
and its easy to see why Howley wants the Bears home. It has
a little to do with the hard times Decatur has known. In the mid-80s,
unemployment hovered around 20 percent. Strikes rocked the Caterpillar
and Firestone plants. At Staley, where employee-athletes once scrimmaged
beneath the bosss paternalistic gaze, locked out union members
picketed. Today much has changed; unemployment is down to four percent.
Bringing the Bears home would have been something to get excited
Perhaps too much has changed. Mr. Staleys company is now the
property of a London multinational. And things have changed up in
Lake Forest, too. For the first time, the Bears are being run from
outside the Halas family. Last March, Michael McCaskey, George Halas
grandson and the guy who received Howleys first pitch, was
pushed out of the team presidency by his own family and replaced
by Ted Phillips. Howley thought he saw his opening and tried again.
Phillips response was no more encouraging.
Howley is not giving up. "Now wed like to try to get
the Rams here. If we cant get the Rams, well try the
Colts or the Chiefs." He pauses. "Or the Cowboys."