If the Bears leave Bourbonnais, then what?

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

If the Bears leave Bourbonnais, then what?


May 29, 2010

GREELEY – At the University of Northern Colorado, the berms still loom.

It’s just that, these days, the football practice fields below them on the campus of the one-time summer home of the Denver Broncos are a little bare.

Or, perhaps, a little “Bear.”

If you’re into potential foreshadowing.

Earlier this month, while on vacation in Colorado, I took a jaunt up to Greeley, a city of more than 90,000 located about 50 miles north of Denver that spent 21 summers hosting an NFL training camp that attracted hordes of football-mad visitors and, in many ways, put the town on the map. In 2003, though, the Broncos ended their lengthy tenure in Greeley and opted to relocate camp to the team’s Dove Valley headquarters, just outside Denver.

With Olivet Nazarene University, summer home of the Chicago Bears since 2002, currently without an agreement to host the team’s training camp in Bourbonnais beyond 2010 (talks continue for a return in 2011) and with the Bears openly examining other camp options, including Lewis University in Romeoville, I thought it would be interesting to chat up the Greeley locals about life now that the Broncos, their fans and the media aren’t stampeding their way into town each summer.

What I discovered is that Greeley does miss the Broncos.

And also that it doesn’t.

“It’s interesting,” explained Sarah MacQuiddy, the longtime president of the Greeley Chamber of Commerce. “At first, the community was devastated [when the Broncos left]. We enjoyed having the team. And any time you’re having all these people in town buying your gas and eating at your restaurants, that’s a good thing …

“But hosting the Broncos also brought challenges. We always had a lot of media taking shots about Greeley being a cow town. The joke is that to get to Greeley you just go to Denver, head north and follow your nose. And we love Greeley, so a lot of people resented that.”

On a mid-May afternoon, the aroma from Greeley’s notorious feedlots can still occasionally be detected wafting through town. But, eight years removed from the Broncos’ Last Stand, there are few signs downtown that this was once the land where Elway roamed.

Besides a cartoonish inflatable Broncos figure blown over by the wind outside a discount store, there’s little orange or blue to be found anywhere. And, curiously, inside the Greeley History Museum downtown, only one sentence of a display is devoted to the town’s two-decade relationship with Colorado’s most popular sports franchise.

In the post-training-camp era in Greeley, the Broncos seem in some ways to be a Horse with No Name.

“It used to be that a lot of people in Greeley would say during the summer, ‘This is the time when training camp should be starting.’ But you don’t hear that much anymore,” longtime resident Tybert Wartrip, 48, said while working a hot dog stand along Greeley’s 9th Street Plaza. “I kinda miss the Broncos, and I imagine Greeley does. More than anything, probably the revenue.”

MacQuiddy said the economic impact that Broncos Camp provided Greeley was never formally measured, but that “it wasn’t huge.” In latter years, revenue decreased significantly after training camp was cut from six weeks to three.

A couple miles from downtown, near the UNC campus, sits The Dugout, a popular sports bar where 72-year-old Robbie Johnson is the former owner and current manager. A die-hard Green Bay Packers fan who ironically “detests the Broncos,” Johnson said the loss of the team’s training camp hasn’t had a huge impact on The Dugout’s business.

“Although, with the economic situation and the way things are today, we could take anything in town,” Johnson said, chuckling before he added, “Even the Broncos.”

While recalling the nights when Broncos would roam the city’s bars, attracting girls and vice versa, Johnson then went on to admit, “No, but we really do miss the Broncos. They have a great fan base in the state of Colorado and having camp here really helped Greeley. It was of the best things the town ever received.”

Even if that receipt can be easily quantified. MacQuiddy added that more than money, what Greeley truly lost when the Broncos bolted town was their NFL cachet.

“It was more the prestige you lose, being the training camp for the Broncos,” she said. “You can’t put a price tag on all that free advertising, with news reports always saying, ‘Live from Greeley.’

“So, yes, we lost our celebrity, but that’s OK … There are probably a couple of diehards out there flying their Broncos flags and wishing camp was still here. But we’ve basically moved on. And I can honestly say, there is life after Broncos Camp.”

  • Jerry

    If the Chief leaves Champaign, then what?