Bear Down

By Andrew Santella
From GQ, September 1999

For the past three years, Terry Howley has had a dream--to bring home the Chicago Bears. Howley’s day job is with Salomon Smith Barney, where he’s 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 born.

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 weren’t interested."

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 Howley’s 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 York’s 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
looking back.

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 it’s 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 boss’s 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 about.

Perhaps too much has changed. Mr. Staley’s 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 Howley’s 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 we’d like to try to get the Rams here. If we can’t get the Rams, we’ll try the Colts or the Chiefs." He pauses. "Or the Cowboys."