When you saw the construction signs, you knew you were close to Bourbonnais. In nine seasons of covering Chicago Bears training camp, I can’t remember a single year in which there wasn’t some kind of construction between Exits 315 and 322 on Interstate 57.
But once you were there, things were all right. Bourbonnais isn’t exactly a vacation destination, but it’s quiet, and I always felt somewhat relaxed as I annually settled into what I knew would be another stressful and grinding season.
As I would often tell fans who inquired: I genuinely enjoyed training camp at Olivet Nazarene University for about a week. Then I was ready to be back home with my family, savoring a much shorter commute to Halas Hall. Over the years, I’ve heard similar sentiments from team employees. Training camp at ONU was enjoyable and useful — to a point.
Now the shorter commute to Lake Forest becomes a permanent reality as the Bears announced this week they will no longer head south for training camp, ending an 18-year run in Bourbonnais. Starting this summer, they’ll join the 24 other NFL teams that now hold training camp at their own practice facilities. Only seven head elsewhere.
The move is not all that surprising considering the Bears just sunk over $100 million into essentially doubling the size of Halas Hall. They now have access to upgraded technology, meeting rooms, training equipment and rehab facilities that they simply can’t pack up and move to Bourbonnais for three weeks. Over the past several years, the Bears have reduced both the amount of time spent in Bourbonnais and the amount of practices open to the public. The Bears also visited the Patriots’ facility in 2016 and Broncos’ facility in 2018 for joint practices, getting a first-hand look at two successful franchises that hold training camp at home and manage to host fans at those practices.
Starting this summer, the Bears will now open up some of their practices at Halas Hall to the public. How many fans will be able to attend is unknown at this point, but part of the recent expansion included additional practice fields and parking. There’s also some additional land on the property that could be used/developed, or nearby parking could be rented with shuttle buses bringing fans onto the Halas Hall campus. The logistics still need to be worked out and announced.
In the meantime, all we can do is reminisce about the good times in Bourbonnais. Apologies if this sounds like a retired player saying the thing he misses most about playing is the camaraderie with his teammates, but that’s how it feels. I certainly won’t miss the drives between Bourbonnais and the northern suburbs, but I definitely will miss the dinners and endless shenanigans with colleagues.
You may have heard about the legendary bags games involving reporters Bob LeGere and Larry Mayer, who always played on the same team. LeGere was sort of the Steph Curry of TJ Donlins (the local bar) as he had a knack for draining shots on the fly without any kind of roll. It was pretty common to see LeGere dunk two or three bags in a row, take a sip of his Rolling Rock and then curse as Mayer missed the board completely with his next two shots.
Indeed, the memories go on and on. There was once a couch that ended up in front of Kevin Fishbain’s dorm room door overnight and led to a stern reprimand via e-mail from the Bears’ media relations department (the culprits were never caught). Instead of cow tipping, golf cart tipping was apparently the preferred local pastime. And speaking of golf, there was nothing better than sneaking in a quick nine holes between the time you filed a story and needed to be at Brickstone Brewery for dinner. Brickstone was kind enough to give us a brewery tour once on Zach Zaidman’s birthday. Practice the following morning was not fun. And I’ll never forget the dank camper “Boers & Bernstein” would always retreat to during their live broadcasts or the Steak ‘n Shake trip that would inevitably follow (way) later that night.
But honestly, some of best memories of Bourbonnais will always be the daily conversations with loyal podcast listeners who stopped to say hello, as well as the rare day or two my little guy would come visit and give me an extra set of eyes at practice.
And believe it or not, I will miss the practices. Winter and I don’t exactly get along, and I love football, so there are certainly worse places to be when the sun is out than at an NFL practice — even when the Bourbonnais humidity sets in. It was common to see me stroll up to a practice field in basketball shorts and flip flops, a training camp uniform that will look a little stranger when the lake breezes start blowing in Lake Forest.
As for the job, the value of training camp diminished over the years. It wasn’t too long ago that reporters slept in the ONU dorms, ate in the same cafeteria as the players, and played basketball in the evenings with team employees (losing quite frequently). Starting with the John Fox era, reporters were no longer allowed to sleep on campus or eat in the cafeteria. Even Matt Nagy introduced further limitations, as reporters could no longer watch the entirety of practice from the sidelines and were instead quarantined to roped off areas in the bleachers. Crackdowns on video from practices have been well-publicized and are also understandable in today’s secretive NFL. In that sense, the Bears will benefit from an even more controlled environment back at Halas Hall.
In fact, there are many things the Bears will benefit from with their move back to Lake Forest. It makes complete sense from a football operations standpoint. And while fans will understandably have mixed feelings about it, no one summed it up better this week than sports historian Jack M. Silverstein:
I don't care where they hold training camp. Win a damn Super Bowl.
— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 14, 2020
It’s apparent the Bears believe this move will help them in their quest to do just that.