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The Platteville Bears
18 Chicago Bears seasons began at UWPlatteville.
14B Bears Williams
... including offensive lineman James Big Cat Williams. - photo by UWPlatteville

In 1984, the attention of the American sports fan was on the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, while the attention of the Midwest sports fan may have been on the uncharacteristically competitive Chicago Cubs.

Less noticed during the summer of 1984 was the National Football League’s Chicago Bears, who started their preseason training camp that July in a new location, UW–Platteville, after nine seasons at Lake Forest College, near their team headquarters.

“They were looking to get out of Lake Forest and get rid of the distractions, and they wanted something remote,” said Steve Zielke, who then was UW–Platteville’s assistant chancellor for administrative services. “At the time they came, Platteville was kind of a stagnant area, and it was just great.”

Zielke who was part of all 18 Bears’ training camps at UW–Platteville, took part, with three other Bears camp veterans, in a ceremony at Ralph E. Davis Pioneer Stadium Friday afternoon. The Bears gave UWP a $50,000 contribution to UWP’s Pioneer Relief Fund, for students and employees who had losses from the June 16 tornado.

Brian McCaskey, the Bears’ senior director of business development and grandson of Bears founder George Halas, called the summer of 1984 “one of the greatest summers of my life.” McCaskey was an assistant athletic trainer during the first Bears’ training camps, and met his wife, Barb Klinger, that summer in Platteville.

“This is like coming home,” said McCaskey after the ceremony near what was the east-side bleachers at Ralph E. Davis Pioneer Stadium before the EF2 tornado. “Some of the best summers of my life were spent here. It was tough to leave here.”

The Bears’ story began one season earlier, when UWP was placed on a short list of candidates for training camp, along with UW–Whitewater. Zielke and Athletic Director George Chryst gave Bears management a tour of the UWP facilities on what was supposed to be the first of two stops.

But as the story goes, Chryst kept talking, and, said Zielke, “they left here in the dark and really never did get to Whitewater.

“They came here because of the people. They never said we couldn’t do anything. It was a wonderful situation.”

Those who had to work with Bears management and players all 18 summers called it fun, though a lot of work.

“The players were basically here to do business,” said Curt Fatzinger, UWP’s athletic facilities and intramural director. “It was work. Right down to the cooks and the people who worked in housekeeping, they kept the Bears coming back. It was a great experience; I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

“It was a lot of fun; it was a lot of camaraderie,” said McCaskey, who one day noticed his three-year-old son on the crossbar of the Pioneer Stadium south goalpost, having crawled 10 feet up the goalpost.

Deb Putnam, UWP’s assistant director of dining services, then was the food service administrator, in charge of feeding the Bears, a task she called “very complicated.”

“They had to eat a lot, but it had to be low-fat,” said Putnam, whose Bears menus included lean meats, fish, and fruit and vegetables and a “huge salad bar.

“In the beginning, we created our own menus, but as we got to know the players, we’d send last year’s menus to Halas Hall [the Bears’ headquarters], and the veterans would tell us their likes and dislikes and send it back.”

One yearly highlight was the Platteville Regional Chamber’s Bears picnic, which included Bears players and coaches and other staffers.

At one picnic, Bears coach Mike Ditka kissed Dick Brockman, then publisher of The Platteville Journal and the host of the picnic the first few years.

“One time I introduced Ditka, and he came up and kissed me,” said Brockman in 2012. “So that was kind of different.”

At another picnic, Bears defensive lineman Dan Hampton, who had played in his high school’s marching band before becoming a football player, played guitar in the picnic band.

The Bears’ move to Platteville coincided with the Bears’ becoming one of the NFL’s best teams for several years. The first year the Bears had their training camp at UWP, running back Walter Payton broke the NFL all-time rushing record, and they won their first division title and first playoff game since 1963.

The next year, the Bears were the most dominant team in the NFL by far, going 15–1 in the regular season, thanks to having the NFL’s number one defense as measured by yards given up and points given up. The Bears then posted a pair of shutouts, 21–0 over the New York Giants and 24–0 over the Los Angeles Rams, to clinch the first Super Bowl berth in team history. The domination concluded at Super Bowl XX in New Orleans, where the Bears crushed New England, 46–10.

The rest of the decade was almost as successful. The Bears won five consecutive division titles, set a franchise record for consecutive winning seasons, and set an NFL record for wins over five seasons, 62.

All of those seasons began in Platteville, with the Bears’ stars — Payton and running back Neal Anderson, quarterback Jim McMahon, defensive tackles William “The Refrigerator” Perry and Steve McMichael, defensive ends Dan Hampton and Richard Dent, linebackers Mike Singletary, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson, and defensive backs Leslie Frazier and Dave Duerson.

The summer after the Super Bowl, the Bears drew 80,000 visitors to Platteville for training camp. Training camp crowds grew as high as 100,000 when the Bears were one of the NFL’s best teams, with Bears fans coming from Illinois and Iowa to Platteville.

“Galena is not the same without the Bears” in Platteville, said Fatzinger.

The Bears’ popularity was aided not just by their on-the-field success, but by the players’ personalities. The same players who appeared in the “Super Bowl Shuffle” video were the same players who were riding — and often, according to Fatzinger, crashing into “vehicles or other obstacles” — scooters throughout town, forcing the scooters to be replaced by golf carts.

Players would occasionally make odd menu requests, such as egg-white omelets with “lots of cheese,” said Putnam. UWP staff also learned the correct way to make collard greens and grits.

“Walter Payton liked our bread pudding recipe, but he had a better one,” so he contributed it, she said. “When the weather was really warm, we’d go lighter, or if they had late-night practices they would have a late meal. We learned the meaning of the word ‘flexibility.’”

Putnam’s cooking often was supplemented by player takeout orders from Platteville restaurants. On one occasion, Steve’s Pizza Palace got a call from a player wanting to order three extra-large pizzas. The pizzas were delivered to the room, and apparently eaten all by one player.

The players also played pranks on each other. Fatzinger remembers a rookie punter who had too high an opinion of his abilities, according to his more veteran teammates. The training staff found the unnamed punter one morning, attached by athletic tape to Pioneer Stadium’s south goalpost the previous night.

In addition to tens of thousands of fans, Chicago-area media that covered the Bears came to Platteville each summer.

“One philosophy was we wanted to treat the media as well as we treat the bills, because they were the ones who were going to tell everybody about Platteville,” said Zielke. “The media loved it here.”

Training camp ended with the players’ heading to the Chicago area for the final preseason games. The trip out of Platteville was known by law enforcement as the “Platteville 500,” with Illinois law enforcement writing numerous speeding tickets each year.

“There was real great camaraderie” with Bears fans “and with the local people and the university — it was an all-around great relationship,” said McCaskey.

The head coach for the first several training camps was Mike Ditka, whose personality was as outsized as any of his players.

“Mike was a good guy,” said Fatzinger. “Little things didn’t go right at times, and I would hear from him. And then a half-hour later he’d come back and apologize for yelling.”

“Mike Ditka was a generous guy,” said Zielke. “Behind the tough exterior he had a heart of gold.”

John Dutcher, one of the organizers of Building Platteville, called Ditka “a great supporter of things in the community, and it came right out of his personal pocket.”

The Bears started a brief trend by moving their training camp to Wisconsin. Joining the Bears and Green Bay Packers, who have trained at St. Norbert College in De Pere since 1958, the New Orleans Saints held their training camp at UW–La Crosse from 1988 to 1999, the Kansas City Chiefs held their training camp at UW–River Falls from 1991 to 2009, to form what was called the NFL’s Cheese League. The Jacksonville Jaguars held their first training camp at UW–Stevens Point in 1995, and the St. Louis Rams held their training camp at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon in 2008.

The Bears’ last Platteville training camp was in 2001. The Bears moved their training camp to Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., the next year as part of a deal to get State of Illinois financing for a new stadium. On their way out of Platteville, the Bears donated $250,000 to UWP for what became the Bears Den computer lab in the Markee Pioneer Student Center.

Beyond the Bears Den and the mural on Main Street, there are few reminders of the Bears anymore. Pioneer Stadium now has artificial grass. One of the Bears’ practice fields is now UWP’s outdoor track.

On the other hand, Zielke believes UWP’s growth in students from Illinois is a result of the Bears’ having been in Platteville, since many students came as children to Platteville to see the Bears.

“They’ve become, to be honest with you, my second family,” said Fatzinger. “They were here every summer. I still keep in contact with them; their support staff is pretty much the same.”

“I’d look forward to it every year,” said Putnam. “It was a lot of work. I don’t know if I would do it now.”