Game on: Tailgaters go the distance for charity by cooking, delivering meals
By DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter December 27, 2013 11:10PM
Frank Babayan, dressed as Coach Mike Ditka, gathers with other superfans around Da Bus for a tailgate celebration before the Cowboys and Bears face off at Soldier Field on Dec. 9, 2013. | Peter Holderness / Sun-Times
Updated: January 30, 2014 6:03AM
A small white van rumbles through the darkness of the 31st Street McCormick Place tailgating lot. It is 10 degrees as the Bears prepare to host the Dallas Cowboys on one of the coldest home night games in Bears history.
The van stops near a group of Bears tailgaters layered in jersey memories: 89, 34, 51. The fans are from Da Bus, an orange and blue 1974 International Harvester bus owned by Bridgeport native Tim Shanley. They form a single line in front of a 6-foot-long smoker. Each fan picks up a slab of pork in heated aluminum half-tins, carrying it to the van’s open back doors.
The free dinners will be delivered to the homeless at Pacific Garden Mission, 1458 S. Canal.
The interior of the former school bus is lined with autographs from Bears greats, ranging from Dick Butkus to Mike Ditka. Da Bus is to blue and orange what Willie Nelson’s bus is to green and gold.
Shanley, 53, moved to Austin, Texas, from Chicago in 2007. The plumbing contractor flies to Chicago for every game. He has missed just six Bears home games since 1984.
Shanley and his tailgating partner Robert Bromberek cooked up their Tailgating for Hunger charity initiative this season.
Da Bus will be back in the parking lot before the Bears host the Green Bay Packers at noon Sunday for the regular-season finale.
On this frigid Monday night, Tailgating for Hunger is dealing an 800-pound cow they purchased from Arnold’s Farm in far northwest Illinois. New Horizons Pork donates the pork, and owner Tim Hollinrake and his sister Trish have driven the pork through winter storms to Chicago from Fayette, Iowa.
It is the holiday season of giving.
Shanley, Bromberek and their 10-person crew have been smoking and grilling for two days. The cow is spun the day before the game. They wake up at 4 a.m. game day. Da Bus is parked around 11 a.m. — eight hours before kickoff. The group sets up the 15-foot-long grill for beef roasts, Italian sausage, ribs and other upscale offerings. There are no burgers or brats. The tailgaters put up a canopy and then adjust it according to the wind whipping in off Lake Michigan.
Shanley is filled with nonstop energy, and even when the mission van arrives around 6 p.m., he darts about like Devin Hester. Shanley is one of a handful of the 50 fans around Da Bus not wearing anything on his head, along with Pasadena, Calif.-based Ditka look-alike Frank Babayan, who is wearing a suit coat, thick mustache and a 1985-era Bears sweater vest.
“The weather is tough,” Shanley admits. “The mission gets 500 pounds of beef (after cooking weight loss) with the cow, another 350 pounds of pork shoulder, 150 pounds of carnitas and 50 pounds of pork chops.” The chops are accented with Maxwell Street-style grilled onions that the tailgate crew stirs up in a 35-gallon pot in front of Da Bus.
Tailgating for Hunger is meals on wheels on steroids.
“We always want to be the biggest,” Shanley admits. “That’s who Bob and I are. The tailgating community is a very giving community throughout. Pacific Garden? South Side guys. We drive past them every day.”
Bromberek, also 53, lives in Lemont and owns a Bridgeport truck repair company where Da Bus is stored.
The Rev. Ervin McNeil, Pacific Garden Mission chaplain, says, “It really helps us out because we serve 2,000 meals a day, and we’re totally dependent on donations. Just today (four days after the game) I had some smoked pork for lunch with green beans and pasta. I love their entire team.
“It’s a blessing.”
The history of Da Bus as a tailgate vehicle dates to 1989 when Chicago cops from Bridgeport won the junkyard bus in a card game. “They turned it into the bus and brought it out in 1990,” says Shanley, who was tailgating on a smaller scale in the 1990s in the more resplendent lot south of Soldier Field. He networked with his Bridgeport brethren.
“I brought handmade Italian sausage from Granata’s bakery in Bridgeport,” he says. “We all started hanging out together. Bob is the griller and he builds the grills. Around 2000 the bus fell back into total disrepair and was ready for the junkyard again. (Former owner) Ralph White handed me the keys and said, ‘Timmy, you’re the guy for this.’ With my passion for food and my passion for the Bears, it has brought us a long way. We do a lot of good things for people. We understand where we’re at and we’re using that as a tool to help other people.”
During the 1960s, Tim Shanley’s father, Pete Shanley, owned Pete’s Inn, a tavern at 38th and Wallace.
The father took the son to a Bears game in the autumn of 1971, the Bears’ first year at Soldier Field. “At that time Mayor Daley — the father — had seats on the 50-yard line,” Shanley says. “There was a plaque on the brick wall in front of us, and those were the seats we sat in. My father must have had pull I didn’t know about. God bless him, he’s no longer with us but he is my influence on everything when it comes to this. My father liked to cook, I like to cook. We liked sports. I grew up sitting next to him at Cubs games. I don’t know how that happened (from Bridgeport). We sat at Soldier Field on a sunny afternoon and saw the Bears for the first time. It was amazing.
“Old-school Chicago, that’s who we are.”
Bears Hall of Famer Mike Ditka is having his No. 89 retired on this frosty Monday night. Of course, Da Coach knows about Da Bus.
One day Shanley “just happened” to be driving the funky bus past Ditka’s restaurant on the Near North Side. “We have a ‘Bears Hall of Fame End Zone’ inside the bus, and I wanted him to sign there,” Shanley says. “He comes out and his Mercedes is there. I’m not going to move. I get out of the bus and ask him to sign. He takes the marker, but he’s going to sign the outside.”
Shanley explained the “Bears Hall of Fame End Zone” to Ditka. “He’s getting a little gnarly, he has the bad hip and people are starting to come out and he’s just trying to leave,” Shanley says. “I shine the flashlight (on the hall of fame wall) and say, ‘Look, there’s your guy (early 1960s Bears lineman) Stan Jones!’ He takes the marker and signs it.”
Shanley did not stop there.
He asked Ditka to pose for a photograph near No. 89 inside the bus. “He goes, ‘How much do you want from me?’ His veins are popping. He’s screaming. And I’m looking at him like, ‘You screamed at Walter Payton!’ I’m enjoying the fact Mike Ditka is yelling — remember the (Jim) Harbaugh audible in Minnesota?” Shanley continues, “I’m getting the treatment and it was beautiful.”
Ditka got the final say.
When Shanley developed his photographs, he saw Ditka had his eyes closed.
“Do you think he gave me one back?” Shanley says with a laugh.
Giving back is part of Da Tailgaters code.
For more on the “charms” of tailgating at Soldier Field and the Bears-Packers rivalry, visit voices.suntimes.com/category/arts-entertainment/scratch-crib/