Crystin Immel is an Assistant Producer and the assignment desk editor for Chicago Tonight. She’s also a big NFL fan. We thought it would be fun to send her to the NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre to see the draft through her eyes.
Did you read my story yesterday? Well so did the NFL it would seem. That or my luck and charm finally ran out. I wasn’t able to get back into the Auditorium Theatre for the second and third rounds on Friday, like I was able to Thursday.
So, I headed into Grant Park to check out the rest of the festivities. If I thought the action inside the Auditorium Theatre was intense, outside was 10 times that. Grant Park has been invaded by thousands of football fans.
The first area you hit after crossing Michigan Avenue into Grant Park is Selection Square. This is the draft-picking hub where club representatives from all 32 teams submit their teams' player selections. This is a ticketed event, but fans can win tickets "day of" and gain entrance. This seated area fits about 1,000 fans. Fans watched on a giant monitor as the picks were announced in Auditorium Theatre.
For the second round of the draft, former players of the club often announce the picks on stage instead of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The most moving announcement of the night had to be by former Hall of Fame Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, who received a standing ovation. Kelly has been battling cancer and took the time to thank fans for their support. After announcing the pick at the theater, Kelly spoke to fans at Selection Square, telling them and the NFL Network he was now cancer free.
Outside the Selection Square lies Draft Town, which is the true NFL fan experience. There are team houses for all 32 NFL teams separated by AFC and NFC divisions that include club memorabilia and a cave for fans to watch the picks.
There's a Super Bowl gallery where fans can take pictures with the Vince Lombardi trophy, AFC and NFC conference trophies, Bears memorabilia, or even Super Bowl rings. While looking at the Chicago Bears 1985 Super Bowl XX ring, a Bears fan pointed to it and said to her friends, “eyes on the prize guys. Don’t take your eyes off the prize.”
Full disclosure: I was born and raised in Wisconsin, and am a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers. Even without wearing a jersey, most of the fans I talked with could tell where I was from because of my slight Wisconsin accent. So what’s it like being a Packers fan in Chicago for the draft?
In Enemy Territory
Packers fans Travis Zaborski and Matt Hiller live in the south suburbs of Chicago. They say they’re used to the smack talk with Bears fans. When asked if they had any problems with divisional fans Matt said, “Not really. I think all the fan bases are really optimistic right now. And Bears, Lions, [and] Vikings fans have a hard time giving us crap because we’ve been winning. Winning always helps.”
I told Travis and Matt that I always remember the Packers being good because I haven’t lived through a winless drought.
"Yeah, the '70s and '80s were a pretty rough time to be a Packers fan,” Travis added.
In Wisconsin, football isn’t just a sport, it’s an identity. As I walk through Draft Town and talk to fans, I see that rule isn’t just true for Packers fans. This is where I run into Don “Bearman” Wachter. The word fan doesn’t even begin to describe this guy. He’s a superfan and a fan fixture for the Bears, representing his team in true Bears fashion and taking pictures with fans. In 1999, Don says he was the first Bears fan honored by the Hall of Fans in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Don has been a season ticket holder since 1985. His thoughts on all these opposing fans being in Chicago? “I have a lot of friends from other teams that I’ve gotten to know. They’ve got a lot of smack talk, but we can give it right back to ‘em. We Bear Down.”
A police officer wouldn’t give me information on whether any fan fights had broken out, but said the night has been “calm.” A group of Packers fans told me they didn’t wear jerseys because they didn’t want to get mixed up in a fight despite the heavy police presence telling me, “we’re called the black and blue division for a reason.”
Detroit Lions fans Matt and Jessica traveled from Grand Rapids, Mich. to attend their first draft experience. When talking about the fan rivalries Matt said, “opposing fans have been OK so far, just the normal smack talk and booing us when we walk by, but you have to be able to take that.”
Minnesota Vikings fans Patrick and Nathaniel and their friend Chicago Bears fan Lauren gave credit to the NFL and Chicago for the draft.
“New York has the fame, but you can’t beat that view and this atmosphere,” Patrick said.
Lauren’s father is a season ticket holder for the Chicago Bears. She and I share tactics on staying warm during games, saying that Minnesota fans don’t know our pain (since they play indoors). Where else can you pay to go to a professional sporting event and actually be in pain because of the cold? We take pride in that. When asked about the rivalry and their friendship, Lauren looks at Nathaniel and I, then laughs and says, “we get along now, but the minute the season starts, you’re both dead to me.”
For now team rivalries may be put on the back burner, while fans revel in the draft, simmering until the season starts. Share your best football rivalry stories below.
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