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Teenage Bears fan enjoys experience of lifetime


Sam Buono and his family have worked to keep his life as normal as possible. The 15-year-old native of Springfield, Massachusetts, goes to high school, plays baseball and watches football on Sundays.

However, Sam is different in two ways.

The first is that Sam has battled juvenile dermatomyositis, a rare and life-threatening autoimmune disorder, since he was three years old.

The second is that, despite living deep in New England Patriots territory, Sam has spent almost his entire life cheering for the Chicago Bears.

As NFL fandom goes, the Buonos were unaffiliated when Sam was born, though his father, Leo, was partial to the Miami Dolphins. When a five-year-old Sam discovered linebacker Brian Urlacher, he became a Bears fanatic, and the rest of the family followed his lead.

Sam's mother, Cathy, said that she couldn't quite explain what it was that drew her son to Urlacher, then in the latter half of his 13-year career.

"Just watching him on television," said Cathy. "For some reason, he started watching them, and for some reason, he just loved the Chicago Bears. It was no one in our family or house or anything."

Throughout Sam's childhood, his condition required frequent trips to Boston, a 90-minute drive from his hometown. His love of the Bears became a part of his identity. He plastered an Urlacher Fathead on his wall and decorated his room with Bears logos on his pillows and comforter.

This past weekend, though the Make-A-Wish foundation, The Buonos traveled to Chicago to give Sam the chance to watch the Bears and meet his idol. Cathy was blown away at the welcome they received from the organization.

"[Sam] has, unfortunately, had to grow up in doctors' offices and hospitals," said Cathy. "To be able to experience something like this was unbelievable for him because he had such a rough childhood. We were overwhelmed with what the Chicago Bears did for him."

Urlacher was in town as the Bears handed out bobbleheads of his likeness before the game, part of a season-long promotion celebrating the defining players of each decade in Bears history. Make-A-Wish had tried twice before to put Sam and Urlacher in the same room, but both times fell through. On Sunday, Sam was able to meet his hero on the sideline at Soldier Field.

"When Brian was walking over," said Cathy, "Sam's like 'I'm not ready. I'm not ready.'"

Cathy described Urlacher as kind and gracious, expressing pleasant surprise that he had such a devoted fan so far from Chicago.

On Friday, the Buonos visited Halas Hall and watched practice. Linebacker Khalil Mack, who has risen to a strong second-place to Urlacher in Sam's estimation, met with the family and gave Sam a pair of signed gloves.

Sam has recently gone into remission. He still has to keep an eye on his health and make the occasional visit to his doctors, but for the most part, he has been able to lead a normal life.

With all the other things happening on Sunday, there was one teenage boy having an experience he'll never forget.