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Like so much of Chicago, the rehabbed Soldier Field puts its best face toward the lake. Seen from the east, the curved glass exterior of the stadium bowl is contained by the distinctive columns of the old stadium. The effect is jarring, but the separate parts almost unite, in the manner of an elegant new office building rising above the classic old library next door. Unfortunately, there's nothing yet between the stadium and the lake but the torn-up runways of what used to be Meigs Field. Most people see Soldier Field from the west, where some have compared it to a spaceship landing on the old stadium; to my way of thinking, the west grandstand bulges out over the columns like some great metallic blob pouring over the wall to engulf Lake Shore Drive. I suppose one could defend retaining the old exterior as a quaint ground-level facade that gives the building character, like the first floor of Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott building--but really, why bother? What about those bland old Doric columns was worth preserving? The new Soldier Field almost single-handedly debunks postmodernism.

Given the mishmash of the outer Soldier Field, nothing prepared me for the interior I glimpsed Sunday before the Bears' game against the San Diego Chargers--not even early endorsements from soccer fans who'd seen the Fire return there. Where the old Soldier Field made the field of play seem a postage stamp, the new stands almost swaddle the action. The 100 level cozies up to the field and two sections are stacked above it. The soaring grandstand in the west contrasts with the skyboxes that cap the stadium in the east; similarly, the stands rise high behind the north end zone--the old "bleacher" section--but are more moderate behind the south end zone. "There's not a bad seat," said a fan as I stood admiring the place while the Bears warmed up, and though that's easy to say from the 100 level, where we were, it did appear to be the case. Like so many Chicagoans, the new Soldier Field is ugly on the outside--it doesn't really care how it looks--but warm and functional within.

Thanks go to the Cubs for (if nothing else) distracting me from the Bears when they came out this season looking ugly, before emerging over the last two weekends as a team as pleasant as its new home. Thanks also to the National Football League's scheduling computer. The Bears dropped five of their first six games, including the bitterly one-sided Monday night loss to the Green Bay Packers that christened the new stadium, but then they sandwiched home-and-home games against the even more woeful Lions--the second this weekend in Detroit--around Sunday's game against the equally awful Chargers, who came in at 1-6. The Bears were coming off a 24-16 win over the Lions that had seen them mix old blood with new. Graybeard quarterback Chris Chandler had replaced newcomer Kordell Stewart and made assistant coach John Shoop's offense seem almost respectable, with the help of some fine play by rookie wide receiver Justin Gage. The defense, meanwhile, had finally produced critical turnovers, with rookie pass rusher Michael Haynes forcing one bad throw that was picked off by rookie cornerback Charles Tillman, leading to a touchdown. The final minutes even found the Bears catching a break, as an onside kick apparently recovered by the Lions was called illegal in a dubious overruling by the replay official. The question was whether the 2-5 Bears could keep that little bit of momentum going.

With Purdue product Drew Brees having a miserable day at quarterback for San Diego, they could. Diminished competition or not, the Bears just plain looked good Sunday--as unexpectedly good as the inside of their new stadium. The first play was well designed and a complete success, as Chandler threw over Dez White, drawing double coverage, to an open Gage deep down the sideline. Chandler hit White with a perfectly timed square-out, and then the offensive line, which has begun to gel in recent weeks, swept en masse in classic Southern Cal "student body left" style for a big gain by the revitalized Anthony Thomas. Even when the drive stalled, it stalled on a nice play: White ran an out-and-up and would have been open, but he was pushed out of bounds by the defensive back. Paul Edinger's 38-yard field goal put the Bears up 3-0.

The Chargers found running and receiving room for the dangerous LaDainian Tomlinson on the next series and marched to the Bears' 26. But in the two critical plays of the early going, rookie linebacker Lance Briggs combined with end Phillip Daniels to stymie Tomlinson on third and short, and rookie Joe Odom blocked a 46-yard field goal attempt. (Unfortunately, the fans didn't see a replay on the grand new stadium TVs because they were playing an auto ad from a Bears corporate sponsor.)

Again the Bears showed that they had actually prepared for the game. Chandler ran a quarterback draw from a no-backs formation 11 yards almost to midfield, and he kept finding White open. On a critical third and three he caught the Chargers in a zone defense, and White found an empty space just beyond the chains for a first down. On another third and short, Thomas burst through a huge hole in the middle of the line for a 15-yard gain to the San Diego six. Thomas doesn't improvise well, but when the hole is where it's designed to be he hits it, and that was the case again on the next play, when he gained five yards to the one. Then Thomas went in for the score that gave the Bears the 10-0 lead they held at halftime.

Dick Jauron usually stood by himself on the sideline. In his Bears cap and khaki pants, his shoulders hunched under his Bears jacket, he looked less like the team's head coach than its traveling secretary using his headset to make plane reservations to Detroit. Yet his team looked crisp and impassioned--as when R.W. McQuarters cleaned Reche Caldwell's clock on an incomplete pass late in the half. Returning punts, McQuarters aroused memories of Ron Smith, the 70s-era player who absolutely refused to take a fair catch. McQuarters even returned a dangerous punt deep in Chicago territory just before halftime, when a more judicious player would have made sure his team took its lead into the locker room. As it was, the Bears were warmly cheered by the faithful as they trotted off the field at intermission.

Jerry Azumah, who had returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown in the Bears' win over the Lions the previous week, ran the ball to the Bears' 45 this week. The drive stalled, but it had given the Bears field position, and after a nice defensive series--Alex Brown penetrated to knock Brees's arm on third down--McQuarters returned a punt to the Chargers' 45. On third and one, with everyone expecting a run, Chandler called a play-action pass and lofted a perfect toss to Stanley Pritchett coming out of the backfield, but the ball bounced off Pritchett's face mask and out of bounds. The Bears went for it on fourth down and Thomas got the yard. Chandler then made a lovely pump fake, turned, and threw to tight end Desmond Clark, who was tackled at the two. But Thomas was stifled twice and White couldn't make a grab over the back of a San Diego defender. The Bears settled for a field goal, and the Chargers, down only 13-0, had a chance to seize momentum.

Fortunately, the Chicago defense was inspired, and Brees couldn't have grasped momentum if it had been handed to him in a bowling ball bag. On one play, Tillman smacked a San Diego receiver the instant the ball arrived and swatted it to the ground. On another, Briggs met Tomlinson one-on-one in the flat and brought him down with a lovely tackle after a harmless three-yard gain. After a punt, the Bears were marching toward midfield at the end of the third quarter. But Chandler pulled his pump fake one too many times on a White out-and-up and underthrew the ball so badly it was intercepted.

At that point, San Diego head coach Marty Schottenheimer switched to 41-year-old quarterback Doug Flutie, the Boston College miracle man ("Bambi" to the Bears faithful after he cost them their 1986 bid to repeat as Super Bowl champions), and he aroused both the crowd and the Chargers. Azumah nicely broke up a pass but then badly missed a tackle, allowing a big play down to the Bears' 31. As ever projecting moxie and confidence from that little body of his, Flutie scrambled to the 14. Tomlinson burst through a big hole to give the Chargers first and goal and scored on the next play to make it 13-7. On what had been a near perfect football afternoon, cloudy but comfortable, the skies in more ways than one began to darken.

Conventional wisdom called for running, but the emboldened Bears came out with five wide receivers and Chandler hit White over the middle for 19 yards into San Diego territory. The drive stalled on a third down when the Bears again spread everyone out but Chandler's pass was deflected. Yet Tillman made a spectacular play on Brad Maynard's punt. He covered the ball all the way, pinched it to the turf just short of the goal line, and rolled into the end zone to allow others to down it at the one. Flutie scrambled for one first down, but then the defense held--Flutie throwing into double coverage on third down and Azumah swatting the ball out of bounds.

Again eschewing a fair catch, McQuarters took the punt and slashed through a hole in the coverage for a 36-yard return to the San Diego 21. The Bears ran the ball to a first and goal at the nine, and Thomas ran to the five at the two-minute warning. He ran it again to the two and a half, then again to within eight inches of the goal line. It was like Zeno's paradox except that the Bears had only one more play to go and not an infinite number. Logic called for them to take a field goal and put the game out of the Chargers' reach. Yet Jauron rashly decided to go for it--a call the fans endorsed. As he later explained, "It seemed to us the only way we could lose the game was to get a kick blocked." For the man who approaches risk like an insurance agent, even his boldest move was dictated by what was most judicious. In any case, Thomas got in for the score that made it 20-7. Flutie led the Chargers to midfield in time for a Hail Mary, but with safety Mike Brown exhorting the fans in the south stands to scream their loudest, Bobby Gray calmly smacked the ball aside in the end zone.

In the closing minutes, fans sang along with the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)," then with "Bear Down, Chicago Bears," and they gave the players a warm reception at the gate to the locker room. Chandler, the grizzled veteran, trotted through it, but rookie Briggs ate it up, smiling and nodding all the way. I was down on the field with other members of the media by that time, and was struck by how intimate this outsize stadium suddenly felt, everyone right on top of the action.

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