Four-year-old Clay Watson could hardly wait to take the field. Wearing a size small No. 54 jersey, Clay has been a Chicago Bears fan for most of his young life. Lining up in the Bears training camp Kids Zone was a dream come true.
"We've been fans for a long time" said Clay's father Brad. "Its really fun for me to see him enjoying this experience. I love the way the Bears have set up this mini field with smaller versions of equipment that the real Bears use for their practices. This will give Clay a taste of what the real thing is like."
Marcy Reynolds from Schaumburg was at camp with her daughter Brittni and her niece, Carla. Both girls seemed as interested in playing football in the Kids Zone as any of the boys in line.
"It's always been like that," Marcy said. "Probably because they hear me talking about the team and see me watching Bears games on Sundays. I see no reason that girls shouldn't be just as interested in football as the boys are. Who knows? By the time they are in high school, there might be women in the NFL. You never know. It could happen."
The Watsons and Reynolds were only two of the thousands of families who have attended training camp this summer. Every one, from grandparents to infants in strollers, seemed to be having a very good time.
"I'm a Bears fan from way back," said Ralph Higgins from Kankakee. "It's wonderful that the lockout was settled in time for the team to come down here again this year. It's something special for the community and its wonderful for business. Training camp is the perfect way to introduce those who may have not been to this area before to all we have to offer. And for those of us who live here to have this opportunity to see the players up close, well, it doesn't get any better than that."
Tuesday night's practice for ONU Family Night was a special occasion, both an opportunity for fans to cheer on their team and the team to thank the fans for their support. Practice began on field four then relocated to ONU's game stadium, Ward Field, for more drills followed by fireworks at the conclusion of the session.
The evening was crisp and clear, perfect football weather.
"My kids were asking me if it was the Fourth of July again," laughed Mary Wright, who had three small children in tow. "I just told them that this time, we're celebrating the Bears. That's reason for a holiday as far as I'm concerned."
And although local residents said they would be sorry to see the team leave, they also feel they've formed new bonds with their gridiron heroes.
"Its not just like your seeing some faceless player on the television screen once you've actually met them," said Matt Wojack, who currently plays high school football in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. "There's a connection formed that makes me even happier to play football myself, and helps me enjoy Bears games even more."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.