It was Sunday, November 2, 1975. I was twelve years old and in the sixth grade. My parents had been divorced for two years and my dad hadn’t yet skipped out on me.
I had spent the weekend at my dads apartment and his friends picked us up in their conversion van. I remember the carpet hanging from the ceiling and the mini refrigerator in the back. It had the smoked windows all around and a CB radio.
My dad had promised a Chicago Bears game. I was the only child and we all drove up from the region of Crown Point and hit an open package store off Lake Shore Drive. It was in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago and the adults filled a 55 gallon plastic trash can with beer and ice. I don’t remember anyone buying water or pop, and someone told me to just grab a beer if I was thirsty.
As we approached the city I was able to appreciate the sun glistening off the steel beams of the city skyline. When my dad would bring me home from our every other weekend visits, we’d always come north from the Dan Ryan, so the view from LSD was impressive.
We got to the Soldier Field parking lot and set up the tailgate. There was no food, not even a bag of chips. The guys in our party would approach others and ask, buy or trade beer for food from them, original food trucks style.
My dad was able to secure tickets to this game as one of his schoolmates from Hobart, Rudy Kuechenberg was retired from the NFL, but his brother Bob Kuechenberg was playing for the Miami Dolphins against the Chicago Bears.
My dad and I sat in the sunny end zone and I kept my program open to the page showing a referee and his hand signals. Between beers and his friends, my dad taught me about football that day, and it was grand. The Bears lost that day, it was a complete blowout.
Afterwards, back to the tailgate we went and the men enjoyed their beers as we waited for the traffic to lift. The parking lot was a full fledged party and packed with celebrities and stars including Bob Luce and some of his wrestlers. They were just hanging out in the parking lot including my hero Dick the Bruiser.
As the cars emptied the parking lot leaving empty beer cans, hot charcoals and bun wrappers everywhere, we piled into the van for what I thought was the ride home, but no. We got back on Lake Shore Drive and headed north to Addison and Clark street and the Cubby Bear lounge.
The Cubby Bear of 1975 was a museum. I had been there a few times before when my dad would take me to a Cubs game. He’d buy tickets from the bartender and we’d enjoy an afternoon. Baseball bats, photographs and uniforms framed and hung on the wall.
This Sunday afternoon was no other time I had been at the Cubby Bear. It was packed. I mean worse than sardines in a can. I held my dads hand and followed as his 6’2″ 300+ pound frame created a path that could clear a tractor. After stopping at the bar we somehow made it the back where tables had been pushed together and there was a stage with a piano. There were also several Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins players surrounded by everyone and everything. There was not much real estate available when we arrived, but make no mistake, those guys cleared off room for my dad to seat at the table and Bob Kuechenberg took my by the hand, carried me like a football to the stage. That’s where I sat. Onstage, on the piano bench and played the piano with countless players and their female friends.
Somehow I made it home that night.
As I read about Bob Kuechenberg passing, I remember that man being responsible for a moment of my life and a time with my dad. I remember all of the laughter, camaraderie and bonding with complete strangers. I will never forget his picking me up and tossing me across the Cubby Bear lounge like a lateral pass. I have no idea who was there to catch me onstage, and it was awesome. It was a touchdown.