EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: Ten years ago, the Bears opened their season at Memorial Stadium in fine fashion, rallying past the Vikings on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Date: Sept. 9, 2002
Headline: Fan-tastic opener - Loud crowd helps Bears in new home
By JEFF MEZYDLO
CHAMPAIGN — Jim Miller ran off the field, sweat pouring down his dirty face, sporting a smile as he looked around to soak up the moment.
In the background was the noise from the Memorial Stadium crowd that was just as loud when the game ended as it was when the Chicago Bears made their march toward victory.
"Wow," Miller said. "I don't think a lot of people left, and that's a good thing."
It was a safe bet almost all the 63,226 in the sellout crowd were there when David Terrell leaped to grab a 9-yard touchdown pass from Miller with 28 seconds left to give the Bearsa 27-23 comeback victory against the Minnesota Vikings to open the 2002 season Sunday.
Chicago's season in Champaign started at an electrified Memorial Stadium that gave the Bears all the comforts of home.
"It was unbelievable," Bears special teams standout Larry Whigham said. "They helped us out. I didn't expect it to get that loud, but we now have a 12th man in Champaign."
The last time Memorial Stadium displayed such a raucous atmosphere? Maybe when Michigan came to town a couple of years back, or maybe the glory season of Illinois' 1983 Rose Bowl run.
It's up for debate.
Several Bears players said it was much louder than their regular home at Soldier Field.
Despite the transportation and hotel problems that plagued the Bears during the preseason, Sunday's atmosphere proved that whether fans come from Arthur or Arlington Heights, the team will enjoy a homefield advantage.
"Oh, man, this was as exciting as it gets," Bears receiver Dez White said. "Just like last year when we won some big games, we pulled it out in the end. It was exciting."
Bears fans watched as Chicago rallied from a 10-point deficit with a little more than nine minutes left in the game, scoring two touchdowns and reprising its role as a team that never believes it's finished.
"We've got a bunch that fights until the end," said Bears linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, who secured the comeback victory when he sacked Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper and forced a fumble that Chicago recovered to run out the clock.
The Bears had to feel good about their support system in Champaign. Despite struggling on offense — 80 total rushing yards — and playing soft defense in the first half, the fans, despite some booing, never let their new "home" team down on a steamy day.
The crowd noise might have been partially responsible for a Minnesota false start in the fourth quarter on third down. Bears safety Mike Brown intercepted a Culpepper pass on the next play.
Miller hit Terrell with the game-winner on the ensuing drive.
"It was a nice atmosphere," Miller said.
"They got loud when they needed to get loud, and that's what we need all year."
Miller, who completed 20 of 33 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns, ignited the Bears' offense in the second half when it racked up 250 of the team's 368 total yards. Chicago outscored Minnesota 17-3 in the second half.
Thanks to the play of receiver Marty Booker (eight catches, 198 yards, touchdown), Brown's usual late-game lift and a spirited second-half defensive effort (Chicago held Minnesota to 92 total yards), the Bears were able to reward their followers with another exciting victory. Even if it wasn't one of their prettier efforts.
"I don't think there's worry or panic on our team," Miller said. "We want to be in close games. We feel comfortable in any situation. We don't panic. We kind of lock in, focus in and do our jobs."
Though a dramatic finish is fun for the fans and can give a team momentum, the Bears don't want to make a habit of pushing games to the limit.
What they do want is to see the same atmosphere throughout their home season in Champaign.
"It was excellent," Colvin said. "We had a good time. It was a good experience the first time. Hopefully, the next time will be even better."