This summer, the Chicago Bears had a lot on their plate.
The COVID-19 pandemic created the need to rethink every aspect of running an NFL franchise. The team enacted spacing requirements, testing procedures and mask protocols. Despite months of uncertainty, the NFL season finally started.
That's when a secondary issue entered the conversation: how does a team shoot a team photo in a pandemic?
"Even with all of the changes that we've had this year," said Scott Hagel, Bears senior vice president of marketing and communications, "we still had this on our radar. As we were approaching the start of the regular season, and then certainly in the beginning portion, seeing all the challenges, it was becoming apparent that a team picture might not be easily done in 2020."
The history of team photos runs back to the team's inaugural season as the Decatur Staleys in 1920. Save for a few lost photos from the late 1920s, every Bears team is represented in film.
This year, there was a serious logistical problem. The Bears were set to spend the entire year limiting close contact among the entire team. The spacious indoor football field in the Walter Payton Center was lined with generously spaced desks for team meetings.
The team photo would take over 100 people and force them close enough together to capture everyone in the same frame. The normal procedure would be like the biggest team meeting, in the smallest possible space, where masks would defeat the purpose of the gathering in the first place.
"Clearly, you're going to have a lot of guys right next to each other," said Hagel, "likely for more than 15 minutes, which is everything that you don't want to do in this environment. We've been spending a ridiculous amount of time and energy, and people have done a wonderful job ensuring that our meeting spaces are set up [to avoid that], so we're not doing that."
Team leadership met on the topic. The group, including Chairman George H. McCaskey and President and CEO Ted Phillips, came to a unanimous decision. There would be a picture for the 2020 Chicago Bears, and it would be unlike that of any previous team.
"One of the things that we all felt strongly about is that just skipping it wasn't a good option," said Hagel. "We've got 100 years of history. We didn't want this to be the 101st season and not have some way to document who the team was."
Hagel consulted with John Conroy, the Bears director of creative services. They made the decision to approach local digital artist Eliot Zuniga about the possibility of an illustrated team picture.
Zuniga designed the logo for the Bears' "Monsters of the Midway" comic book series made during the 2018 and 2019 seasons in conjunction with former Bears player Israel Idonije's Athlitacomics.
"He's a very talented artist," said Hagel. "He's got the ability to do portrait-type pictures. He presented us with three different ideas to look at, and we decided to commission him to illustrate what the team picture would look like in 2020."
Zuniga grew up in nearby Elmhurst, Ill.. He grew up as a Bears fan, watching his father's Betamax tapes of the 1985 team. Zuniga's fandom was a point in his favor.
"He exudes a passion for the team," said Hagel, "which is always great to have. When you work with an artist that has a genuine love for the Bears, there's just a little something extra that you get from them because it's a passion project. Eliot certainly showed that passion last year."
The team and Zuniga faced a time conundrum. NFL rosters constantly change throughout the season. The team captured in a conventional team photo includes everyone on the roster on the day the photo is taken.
However, Zuniga's effort would span months, so the team had to create an artificial photoshoot day. The team picked a day in early November to stand in for the date of the illustrated shoot, with Zuniga drawing each player who was on that roster at that point in time.
Zuniga started with kicker Eddy Piñeiro, a familiar face to use as a trial run. Zuniga would draw each player, coach and trainer in full size first, then shrink them down to fit in the team picture.
Because some details would be difficult to convey at size, Zuniga looked for key traits that would distinguish players from one another.
"Certain guys lend themselves to the style I'm doing," said Zuniga. "Hundred faces, you want to keep it simple, keep it quick. Maybe a hint of characterization, just to get that emotion and expression."
Zuniga enjoyed identifying those characteristics in different players: squintier eyes, fuller cheeks, big smiles with unique gaps. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky's defined eyebrows were easy to convey. However, fellow quarterback Nick Foles' smile lines, which Zuniga would typically use for characterization, wouldn't translate in miniature.
Zuniga could even say who his favorite Bears player was to draw.
"Charles Leno Jr.," said Zuniga, "he's got this really beefy face, and then it narrows into a flat top. He looks like a character, looks like a big dude and it kinda comes out fun."
Zuniga spent 120 hours completing the illustration. The result is a photo that will stand out next to every other one in Halas Hall.
"It's important that we have both visual and written representation of what happened over given time periods," said Hagel. "2020 is as unique a year as any of us has ever experienced. A team picture for this year, it's only appropriate that it would have be different than any other year because everything else we're doing in life is different than what we've done in any other year. The team picture is no different."