While at training camp in 2007, former Bears defensive lineman Israel Idonije formally produced the plan for what later became the Monsters of the Midway universe.
Idonije created "The Protectors" – an origin story of the world's greatest athletes – to jumpstart his company Athlitacomics while sitting in his dorm room in Bourbonnais 16 years ago, but it took until 2017 for that universe to be incorporated into the Bears organization.
During a practice at Halas Hall where Idonije and several other alumni were in attendance, senior vice president of marketing and communications Scott Hagel approached him about the Bears working with Athlitacomics to develop an alternate universe of team superheroes.
"It's special when the Bears can partner with a former player, an alum, a successful businessperson that truly understands what we're about," Hagel said. "The passion that he and his team brought to the table, combined with the passion from the entire marketing group that help put this together, shows that this wasn't just another project. This was a labor of love for both sides."
The campaign, which debuted as a comic strip series in 2018, saw success greater than Idonije ever imagined. Because of the interest shown by fans, the Bears and Athlitacomics, the project released exclusive trading cards in 2021.
"It was just such an amazing experience," Idonije said, "having been a part of the team for a decade as a player and now, being able to be a part of the brand that I love in the facet of creating part of this universe. It was just really special working with the team and being in those first stages of like, 'what's the art style? What does that look like? What are their powers?' That was a real fun part of the experience."
Now, five years removed from the initial Monsters of the Midway launch, the Bears and Athlitacomics on Monday released trading cards for a third consecutive year. The 2023 edition features 25 players, the most ever since the annual collection began. The collection is a mix of standard cards, five current players in a foil finish (Jaquan Brisker, Tremaine Edmunds, Justin Fields, Cole Kmet and DJ Moore) and Bears legends Sid Luckman and Mike Singletary.
"It's neat to see that it has longevity," Hagel said. "It wasn't just a one-year, one-hit wonder. The fans embraced it to the point that they are looking for more. Now it's on us to figure out a way to deliver what that looks like. Trading cards have been a really nice avenue for us to continue to share the Monsters of the Midway universe with our fans."
Within the cards, each player possesses a unique power that highlights one of their strengths on the football field. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson has telekinetic hands, Fields holds the power of time control and defensive tackle Gervon Dexter Sr. boasts metallic arms.
All of the trading cards are illustrated by Andy Smith, who has brought the universe to life since its inception, including the original comic strips. Smith continues to push the project to new heights, helping fans acquaint themselves with new Bears players each year. Smith's favorite part of his creative process each year is magnifying the players' powers and giving them an animated look.
"I just try to make it as fun as possible and as dynamic as possible," Smith said. "One of the things I like about this project is they don't want to straight up make it look like a photo. It's supposed to be exaggerated. The anatomy is supposed to be exaggerated. I've never talked to any of the players, but I would like to think some of them might have looked at the cards and been like, 'I wish my stomach looked that good. I wish my arms were like that.'"
Idonije takes pride in the way the universe unites comic lovers and card collectors with a brand they otherwise may not have a prior connection to. As a trading card fanatic himself, Idonije's favorite part of the creation is receiving the pack each year and being hit by the smell of the ink from new cards.
"The cards have gotten better every year," Idonije said. "So just holding it, smelling it, looking through the detail of it and how the final layout of the cards look. It's like Christmas. It's one of those moments where you just really take your time and cherish the experience. We're fortunate that we get a whole set. So you get to lay out all of the all the cards in the set and just enjoy the detail of the moments of what being a collector represents."
At its core, the Monsters of the Midway universe not only provides Bears fans a unique opportunity to learn about the players, but its origin story taps them into the organization's rich history and proud tradition.
Originally coming to Chicago on a one-week contract midway through his rookie season in 2004 and spending his first nine NFL seasons with the Bears, Idonije's love for the organization runs deep. Now, 22 years later, Idonije is still working in the city he loves, connecting fans to the Monsters of the Midway narrative and superheroes that represent Chicago.
"I always want to send and show love to our fans," Idonije said. "I truly believe across the 32 teams in the league, Bears fans are unparalleled. We have some really special fans. We have a really special community here in Chicago. I've been on a number of other teams, previous to and post-Chicago, and there's just nothing like our city. So to our fans always, we love you, thank you and Bear Down."
Every month during the season, 10 lucky fans receive a FULL SET of all 27 cards, including the limited-edition Singletary and Luckman cards through the Bears' Monsters of the Midway Trading Cards sweepstakes. There are only 100 numbered full sets in existence. The sweepstakes will run through Jan. 7, 2024. Click here to enter.