Big Bears fan? Get Midway Minute, the Chicago sports newsletter that will make you a better fan. Sign up for free here.
Ever since Justin Fields was drafted last April, Bears fans waited for the day they could see the prized rookie quarterback takes snaps at Soldier Field.
That day arrived on Saturday and there wasn't a chance I would miss it.
What was it like to attend Justin Fields' debut in a Bears uniform? I'll start off by saying that the energy among Bears fans felt unique. The preseason is always major checkpoint in football's return and fans are usually happy to watch their favorite team again, even if it's watered down.
But I can tell you that this was something more and it had everything to do with the man wearing the No. 1 jersey.
I'm not a season ticket holder for the Bears but I usually make it to one game a year, thanks to the generosity of my uncle (who is a season ticket holder.)
This is to say I understand the Soldier Field experience. I've seen some of the best regular-season and also endured my share of terrible losses. I've also attended a handful of low-stakes preseason games too, most of which featured a subdued crowd.
Saturday's game was the first preseason contest that felt like it actually mattered.
The unique experience started on our way to the game. I attended with three friends, one of which had never been to a Bears game before. I knew he was in for a treat.
The four of us left a quiet apartment in Lakeview, all decked out in navy and orange. We decided to grab a quick bite at a hot dog stand before getting on the train and a few Chicagoans yelled to us about the Bears and Fields on our way over. That was something I hadn't seen for a preseason game before.
As we walked in, the cook asked us about Fields and whether he was the real deal before we could even order our food. We optimistically said yes, of course, before heading to the Red Line. Our train car wasn't packed, but excited Bears fans came aboard at nearly every stop. We all greeted them with loud cheers upon entering, getting louder and louder before our final stop, many people simply yelling about Fields while I reminded everyone how to sing "Bear down, Chicago Bears."
I had to remind myself we were still on our way to an exhibition game.
We still saw a lot of Mitchell Trubisky jerseys on our 15-minute walk to the stadium, despite that era already feeling like an alternate reality.
The biggest observation I had, though, was just how many people were actually en route to the stadium. I've never seen numbers like that for a preseason game ever before.
We missed the opportunity to tailgate because we were late, but it didn't matter. Like everyone else, there was only one thing on my mind and it didn't have to do with grilling meats while standing on top of the Waldron Deck.
The first two series went quickly as both team's starters went three and out on offense. The Dolphins managed to put together a nice drive on their second possession but settled for a field goal after a goal-line stop to take a 3-0 lead. The crowd came alive for that sequence, but were quickly disappointed to see starting quarterback Andy Dalton trot out for another series. There were no boos, just slight groans. He just wasn't the guy we all wanted to see.
Once Dalton went three and out again, fans watched the offense on the sideline more than the defense on the field to see if Fields would go in. Sure enough, the rookie quarterback was warming up with center Sam Mustipher and wide receiver Riley Ridley as the buzz grew around the stadium.
Of course the Dolphins had to have their longest possession of the day before Fields could get in. Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa led his team on a 13-play drive that took up 9:02 of game lock. We didn't care if he threw a quick bomb for a score at that point, we just wanted to see Fields. Thankfully, Bears safety DeAndre Houston-Carson picked off Tagovailoa in the end zone, bringing the crowd to a roar as No. 1 made his way onto the field.
As Fields made his way into the huddle, I could feel every cheer in the stadium. Was it the loudest I've ever heard at Soldier Field? No, it honestly wasn't. Was it the loudest I've ever heard for a preseason game? Without question.
The crowd was cheering all the way until the ball was snapped. Then we saw Fields hand it off on his first play as everyone nearly in unison let out an audible groan. Matt Nagy needed to quiet the fans somehow, right? Mission accomplished.
Penalties pushed the Bears back quite a bit, though Fields did have a crisp third-down throw while on the move to make a fourth down a bit more manageable. From then on, nobody really seemed to care what the defense did. We just wanted the offense back on the field.
Fields' next two series were rough to say the least. A few incompletions, a near interception, and an ugly fumble weren't in the script for this storybook debut. For every tight throw he made, two more plays would not go his way. For other quarterbacks, we may have become a bit irritable in the past, going from groans to outright boos. But there wasn't nervousness in the air from anyone. There was a quiet confidence. Something that said "he's going to get hot at any second."
That mantra proved to be correct as he led the offense 42 yards down the field in 45 seconds with clutch throws and experienced clock management. We cheered and sang "Bear Down" at Soldier Field for the first time in almost two yearss even though the score was 13-3 Dolphins.
It was just the beginning of a special day.
Fields and the Bears got the ball to start the second half, though my friends and I abandoned our seats in search of beer before last call at halftime. We stood around the concourse bar with dozens of other fans as the third quarter got underway, watching Fields pick apart the Miami defense. It reminded me a lot of the last game I attended when Trubisky torched the Dallas Cowboys on a Thursday night as I watched that onslaught from the same bar.
We marveled at Fields' maneuverability and accuracy outside the pocket, then went nuts as he burst into the end zone for his first score as a Bear. The celebration ensued and we all had the same exact feeling; This guy is going to be good.
It was the next drive that had us believing he was going to be great, however.
My friends and I moved from the bar to an opening on the lower level to get a better view of Fields and the offense just as they were coming back on the field. Fields began airing the ball out more to receivers such as Rodney Adams and showed off his 4.44 speed on a 21-yard run. His dual-threat abilities were on full display before he lofted a beautiful rainbow touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James for the loudest ovation of the day.
Fields could do no wrong at this point and we were all eating it up.
The rookie got one more series in which the Bears went three and out, but nobody cared at that point. We had seen enough to believe Fields was the future and fans couldn't have been happier.
Then Nick Foles took over in the fourth quarter.
The former Super Bowl MVP was jogging into the huddle when a few people around us asked if Fields was still in. When one of my friends said it was Foles, they immediately got up from their seats and walked right out.
Those folks didn't miss much as he abruptly threw two incomplete passes, followed by a cascade of boos. As Jacob Infante says, it was probably due to Fields not being in anymore, but that still has to sting for Foles' first game as a Bear in front of the home crowd.
The rest of the quarter felt like a true preseason game once again. Fans were casually invested in the action, getting amped for big plays from running backs Artavis Pierce and preseason legend Ryan Nall, but the excitement had peaked and many began to head for the exits. Fields' debut was a success, as he completed 14 of 20 passes for 142 yards with one passing touchdown and one rushing score and that's all that anyone cared about. The Bears won the game 20-13 and didn't allow any second-half points, though many may not have noticed. My friends and I had a great time back with thousands of Bears fans and were thrilled to witness the debut of Fields in person. I'd imagine nearly everyone else felt the same as well.
We all know preseason is not the end all be all. It's a chance to see rookies and young players hit the field to earn valuable reps while giving the starters a chance to stretch their legs a bit. Championships aren't won in August and MVPs aren't awarded in the summer. That being said, Fields passed the first test and it was a treat to experience it in person. Preseason games are normally forgettable, but we may be looking back on this particular game as the beginning of a special career.
Want more great Chicago sporswriting? Sign up for Midway Minute, the quick (and free) daily digest of the only stories that matter. Subscribe here