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Wrigleyville Classic: 40 Years Later, Football Will Be Very Different At Wrigley Field

Until a few years ago, Wrigley Field had hosted more NFL games than any other stadium. College football invades Wrigley Saturday, and the whole experience will be very different.

A general view as the Northwestern Wildcats practice for a game against the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday November 20 at Wrigley Field on November 18 2010 in Chicago Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
A general view as the Northwestern Wildcats practice for a game against the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday November 20 at Wrigley Field on November 18 2010 in Chicago Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Guess I've come full circle.

How many who will be gaping at the  Northwestern-Illinois spectacle at Wrigley Field Saturday --  complete with goal posts affixed to the bleacher wall  -- can claim they were also at the Bears' one successful attempt to establish a beachhead at Ryan Field (then Dyche Stadium) in Evanston on Sept. 27, 1970?

The Bears' second game of that season was the first one I ever attended. Fresh off the infamous 1-13 debacle of 1969, they defeated the Philadelphia Eagles and quarterback Norm Snead 20-16. Cecil Turner ran the opening kickoff back 96 yards for a TD; the Bears needed every one of those six points. They amassed just 181 yards total offense in those Jack Concannon-quarterbacked days. Mike Hull was the leading Bears rusher with eight attempts for 17 yards. Mike Martz was nowhere near the stadium and near were the Women's Christian Temperance Union activists. Their tradition of keeping Evanston dry held the Bears at bay for years when they tried to play at Ryan Field to take advantage of more seats.

Finally the Bears broke through for that one game. I remember someone had a transistor radio and passed the news the Cubs were officially eliminated from the National League East race via a loss in their final-ever game at Philadelphia's Connie Mack Stadium. The day had good and bad news, indeed.

Pro football never returned to Evanston; the Bears finished out their final season in Wrigley Field and then moved with their temporary east stands in 1971 to dilapidated Soldier Field. But now old is good, so college football shifts to Wrigley Field, turning the field east-west in the tightest squeeze in the NCAA compared to the non-regulation south end zone featured in the north-south Bears field layout in days of yore.

The direction of play isn't the only thing turned on its ear. Twenty-first century sensibilities and the necessary improvements in security assure the atmosphere won't remotely resemble the raucous, drunken Bears crowds of the 1960s and earlier.

First off, fans won't be showering cans and bottles on receivers as they throttle through the east end zone, abruptly halting at the wall padding a foot behind the end zone. And I doubt the gendarmes will permit fans to import an eight-foot pole with a fishnet affixed at the top, as several enterprising Bears fans did in the left-field bleachers to snare field goals and extra points back in the day. Such a ball-catcher will come in handy with the fans literally feet behind the goal posts, but with a strong kick those balls will be heading over the bleachers and onto Sheffield Avenue.

Security will have to be tight for another reason. With both teams standing on the sidelines on the left-field side, box-seat patrons on the right-field side will be closer to the action than any other major college game in the country. But reaching out and touching your favorite Wildcat or Illini will be expressly forbidden.

Another distinction compared to the old NFL days: this will be the first football game at Wrigley Field played under lights. With the 2:30 p.m. starting time, almost all the game will require illumination from above. Football in the gloamin'? Who'd have thunk it? I'm sure the fourth quarters of December Bears games were shrouded in shadows and creeping twilight, so this will be a marked improvement.

One unfortunate commonality with Bears games is lack of over-the-air TV. NU-Illini is getting a lot of publicity for "College GameDay's" day-long presence from outside the ballpark via ESPN, but the actual game will be on ESPNU, requiring an enhanced cable package or satellite.

There's one final angle to all of this. In its 10th decade, Wrigley is increasingly busy hosting football, hockey, rock concerts and fan promotions. Do you think before it closes down it will feature the one long-missing event for which it was really designed: a World Series?