Football returns to Wrigley

By Etheria Modacure

The final score of the last football game played at Wrigley Field, on Dec. 13, 1970, was Chicago Bears 35, Green Bay Packers 17. Thirty-nine years, 11 months and seven days later, football returned on Nov. 20 to the field on Clark and Addison streets. Northwestern University played host to the University of Illinois in the teams’ 104th rivalry meeting. This was the first time the two colleges faced off at Wrigley Field since 1923.

This game had enormous implications for both schools. Northwestern has been marketing themselves as Chicago’s Big Ten Team all season to create awareness of its football program, and Illinois was looking to become bowl-eligible for the first time since they went to the Rose Bowl in 2008.

The setting around Wrigley Field on game day was filled with vibrancy as fans from both teams shouted their respective chants well before the gates opened, while some unlucky people were vying for tickets.

“It was a great atmosphere,” said Illinois Fighting Illini Head Coach Ron Zook after the game. “I think [the players] really enjoyed this opportunity to play at Wrigley Field, and I think it’s something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”

The dimensions for the football game on Nov. 20 were different from when the Bears called Wrigley Field home. The football field ran from east to west, which was not how the Bears played. From 1921 to 1970, the football field at Wrigley ran from north to south. Because there were extra seats added behind home plate and in left field when the Bears left, there was no room to put the field in its original direction.

In right field, where the east end zone was located, there was only one or two feet of space from the back of the end zone to the ivy-covered walls—which were padded—resembling the look of an arena

football game.

One day before the game, Big Ten officials deemed it unsafe for players and forced the game to played offensively on one side going toward the west end zone.

Every offensive possession would go the same direction, with kickoffs going toward the east end zone. This difference may have created confusion for many fans but as the game wore on, some people seemed to forget about it.

Shortly after Illinois jumped to a 14-0 lead, Wildcats junior safety Brian Peters intercepted Scheelhaase’s pass and returned it 59 yards to the vacated east end zone for a touchdown. This was the only score in the east end zone.

The game itself was more pleasing to Illinois fans than Northwestern. The Fighting Illini trounced the Wildcats 48-27 with an array of rushing from running back Mikel Leshoure and freshman quarterback Scheelhaase. Leshoure rushed for a Illini record of 330 yards.

The sea of orange and purple throughout Wrigley Field during opening kickoff was a reminder of the tradition shown throughout college football games and the insurmountable presence of alumni from

both universities.

Though the Wildcats lost, Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald said he was grateful for the opportunity to play at the Friendly Confines. This was also the first time a football team played under the lights at Wrigley Field; the Bears couldn’t play night games because the lights weren’t installed until 1988.

“I want to thank the Cubs, the Ricketts family and the entire Cubs organization,” Fitzgerald said. “It looked like it would be fun as a fan; not a great outcome as a Wildcat fan. What we thought it would be was a Chicagoland bowl game, and that’s kind of what it looked like. Unfortunately, we ended up on the short end of it.”

Fitzgerald said he was more pleased with the way the city embraced college football on a day where the uniqueness and pageantry of the sport was in full display around Wrigley Field.

For players, the distractions of playing on one side didn’t get to them, and the context of playing at a historic venue didn’t seem to do much to change the feeling of another game.

“It wasn’t that big of a deal, it is what it is,” Watkins said, referring to both teams playing toward the west end zone. “Once we line up, it’s the same game.”

Wildcats running back Mike Trumpy, who scored on an 80-yard touchdown run, said the novelty of playing at Wrigley Field didn’t limit the players from playing their usual game on Nov. 20, though the results weren’t what the players wanted.

“You could say the [scenery] was different, but we came into it like it was any other game and we try to shy away from all the distractions and just focus on the game,” Trumpy said.

With the idea of having this year’s rivalry game played at a neutral site, both head coaches were asked if they would like to see another game played at Wrigley Field someday. Fitzgerald said it’s up to his athletic director Jim Phillips to make that decision.

Zook said when his players saw the field the night before the game, the excitement of being able to play at Wrigley sparked debates between players who were Cubs or White Sox fans. He said he would like to play another game at Wrigley Field because of its ambiance.

Leshoure’s day on the ground was special to him because he was able to play in a venue where most college players won’t get the opportunity to say they’ve played in.

“Coming into the game, we knew what type of stage we were on and what type of [environment] we were going to be in,” Leshoure said. “To do well in front of millions of people [and more than 41,000 in the stands] on national TV feels good.”