BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – For the past four days, thousands of Bears fans lined the sidelines of the practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University to get a sneak peek of the season to come.
A much smaller crowd gathered on Tuesday, as attendance was limited to the invitees of Bears Community Day. Invited groups included participants in the Special Olympics of Illinois, Choose to Change, and little league football teams from Kankakee, Joliet, and Evanston.
While the Bears have long invited such groups to camp as a means of community outreach, this year is the first time that an entire day of practice was set aside for that purpose.
Amid all these groups, 18 tickets were reserved for the family of Fred Eiselstein. He was joined by his wife, Kim, his parents, eight children, three sons-in-law and three grandchildren.
Eiselstein is a police officer in Woodstock, Ill., about 35 miles west of the Bears practice facility in Lake Forest. His life was upended this spring when he was diagnosed with advanced-stage colorectal cancer.
The disease has forced Eiselstein to go on disability, which left him without health benefits. Trying to support his family, with five children still living at home, on 50 percent of his salary, he started radiation and chemotherapy and made plans for surgery, which he underwent earlier in the summer.
When news of his situation spread through McHenry County, the community responded with a series of fundraisers to help cover medical costs and lost income.
“Everybody is just so caring,” Eiselstein said. “I was just floored.”
The fundraisers drew the attention of members of the Bears organization, who arranged for the entire family to see the team in training camp for the first time.
“We’ve talked about,” said Kim. “We’ve always wanted to do it.”
As natives of the Chicago suburbs, Bears fandom has long been a part of the Eiselstein family. Highlights range from the 1985 Super Bowl team to watching the Bears beat the Packers at Soldier Field last December.
Living close to the Wisconsin border, the Eiselsteins live in an area split by the Bears-Packers rivalry. The family itself has not escaped unscathed.
“We have one traitor,” said Kim, gesturing toward her teenage son. “We have one son who thinks that he’s a Packers fan. I think he just does it to antagonize us.”
With his entire family together, Eiselstein called the experience “awesome.” Like many fans, he’s started to feel the excitement around the upcoming season.
“I have very high expectations,” said Fred with a smile. “Don’t let me down.”
While Tuesday’s practice in Bourbonnais was closed to the public, the organization held ‘Community Day at Bears Training Camp’ where the team welcomed over 700 special guests from more than 30 community outreach groups from the greater Chicagoland area to attend, watch practice and take part in photo and autograph opportunities.