Jay Cutler celebrates after leading his team to the Class 3A Indiana state championship in 2000. | Mike Fender~The Indianapolis Star
Updated: November 2, 2011 12:44AM
SANTA CLAUS, Ind. — Bears quarterback Jay Cutler didn’t put this charming town on the proverbial map.
Each year for nearly the last century, volunteers here called “Santa’s Elves” reply to thousands of wish-list letters before Christmas from children around the world, and the town was featured in a RadioShack commercial in 2008.
But Jay did literally help his father, Jack, lay the foundation of this quiet and proud community.
‘‘Jay’s as tough as he is because of the hard work he had to put in,’’ says Dean Merder, a close friend of the Cutler family. ‘‘Jack didn’t give him a choice, so the athletic stuff came pretty easy to Jay.’’
For 15 years, in addition to his job as an Indiana state trooper, Jack Cutler poured concrete at homes and businesses, often enlisting his son for help, sometimes between two-a-days during high school.
‘‘When you’re younger,’’ Jay says matter-of-factly, ‘‘you have all the energy in the world.’’
Throughout his NFL career, Jay Cutler’s talent, toughness and even body language have been criticized and questioned. Before his first postseason start last January, an ESPN story suggested he was at least in the running as ‘‘The Most Hated Man in the NFL,’’ a point seemingly validated — in real time via Twitter — by criticism from current and past players after he wasn’t able to finish the NFC Championship Game with a Grade II ligament tear in his left knee.
All of this frustrates his family and many in this community, who provide examples of his work ethic, his humility, his generosity and, especially, his toughness.
Jack Cutler, who declined to comment for this story, seethes at the way his son sometimes is characterized, so his wife, Sandy, and daughter Jenna steer him clear of such stories.
‘‘They want to create a monster, and he’s not like that at all,’’ says Jay Burch, the athletic director at Heritage Hills High School. ‘‘People here are very loyal, and they’re good, honest people who work hard. People have respect for people who made something from basically nothing. Jay’s one of us.’’
Merder isn’t sure when his friend Jack Cutler ever slept. He would drive his police cruiser throughout the state into the early hours of the morning, then build forms and mix, pour and reinforce concrete. He did nearly all the concrete on the Christmas Lake Golf Course.
Jack came from ‘‘tough beginnings,’’ Merder says, and was determined to provide a good life for his wife, son and two daughters.
‘‘He just worked his butt off,” Merder says. ‘‘He’d sleep a few hours here and there, but he built a nice business.’’
They lived in Christmas Lake Village, on Holly Drive, in a gated community that features a beach and three lakes. The family also had what was almost a necessity in the area: a season pass to Holiday World, a family-owned amusement park a short bike ride away.
‘‘Some people are more successful than me, and they’ve had every luxury in the entire world. But I didn’t want for anything,’’ Jay says. ‘‘But, at the same time, my parents made me work for things.”
Jay excelled in baseball, basketball and football, but his father regularly popped into his bedroom and beckoned him.
‘‘ ‘Let’s go,’ ’’ Jay recalls his father saying. ‘‘I was like, ‘Well, I guess I gotta go.’ I never really questioned why to go or not to go. That’s just how it went.’’
When he was of driving age, Jay had to work in order to pay his insurance. The jobs weren’t glamorous, from pouring concrete to collecting garbage.
“Yeah, I worked garbage,” Jay says. “They’re very humbling [jobs]. But it makes you appreciate hard work and what you have and what you’re striving for.”
Jack had high expectations of Jay in sports, too, although he never forced them upon his son.
‘‘He never made me do anything I didn’t want to do,’’ Jay says. “I wanted to play sports, and it was a part of my life, and he just kind of gave me the avenue to do it.
‘‘He gave me every opportunity, and he was real supportive. I never thought, ‘I’ve got to play or my dad is going to be mad at me.’ ”
According to legend, this community was established in 1846, and the name evolved after the initial request, Santa Fe, was rejected. One Christmas Eve, in the town without a name, a child heard bells and yelled, ‘‘It’s Santa Claus.’’
The name was embraced — so much, in fact, that nearly everything is Christmas-related: Lake Rudolph Campground, Santa’s Lodge, Evergreen Flowers and, of course, Holiday World.
There’s not much else in town. A Subway opened just a few years ago.
Asked where they ate on special occasions, Jenna notes that Evansville, Jasper and Owensboro, Ky., are all at least a half-hour away.
‘‘That wasn’t here when we were growing up,” Jenna says of the Subway. ‘‘My mom had dinner ready at home every night.’’
Locals begrudge summertime, when outsiders flock by the tens of thousands to Holiday World, where a one-day pass costs $30.95 per child and comes with unlimited refills of Pepsi products. Other than Holiday World, which provides many seasonal jobs, most residents have long commutes to work at a furniture factory, an aluminum and steel plants or a Toyota plant.
‘‘These people are private,’’ Jay says, ‘‘and they’re very loyal, and they’re good and honest. That’s some of the values I grew up with, and that’s who I am now.’’
One common passion is football, namely Heritage Hills High School. During the Patriots’ season, red, white and blue are painted all over town, briefly offsetting the usual red-and-white theme.
But this community bears a collective chip, a small-town public school on the southern tip of the state near the Kentucky border, placed in Class 3A, which features several private Catholic powerhouses.
When he was a young reporter for the ABC affiliate in Evansville, Lance Wilkerson enjoyed deviating from the pack of other journalists.
“No one liked to go to Heritage Hills because it was too far,” Wilkerson says of the 43 miles that separate Evansville from Santa Claus. “But I loved it because the people were friendly. I was like a rock star.’’
Then, before the 1998 season, Wilkerson was overwhelmed by a young quarterback.
‘‘I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”
It was, of course, Jay Cutler.
Patriots coach Bob Clayton had established his program as a perennial winner, even producing NFL players such as former Indianapolis Colts tight end Ken Dilger, and he typically fielded upperclassmen. But Cutler earned the starting quarterback job as a sophomore, and he also returned kickoffs and played safety.
“You knew you had someone special, and you knew you had the best player on the field,” says Adam Kress, Cutler’s left tackle. “That made a huge difference.’’
Although his parents don’t live here anymore, Jay says he’s proud to be from Santa Claus, and the townspeople are still thankful for his generosity. He has helped his alma mater, and the park board insisted they name a baseball field after him when he signed over a $60,000 check and helped — via memorabilia and autographs — raise another $30,000.
But Cutler had one stipulation.
‘‘He didn’t want any recognition, especially how much he donated,” recalls Merder, who headed the park board. Eventually, though, that information became public.
During Cutler’s junior season, the Patriots lost one game. But as a senior, Cutler did something no other quarterback in Clayton’s distinguished history at Heritage Hills ever had done.
After an undefeated regular season, the Patriots prepared to play Roncalli High, a private Catholic school in Indianapolis that had won eight 3A titles. The Patriots were a heavy underdog, and Cutler’s status was unclear because of a badly sprained ankle that relegated him to crutches days before the game.
“Our coaches had written him off because it was a very severe ankle sprain, the kind that keeps people out two to four weeks,” Burch says. “They game-planned without Jay.”
But just before the game, he was cleared to play, and the coaches adjusted the game plan by emptying the backfield and placing him in the shotgun on every offensive snap.
‘‘He lit it up that night,” Clayton says. “That was the best performance I’ve ever seen from any high school quarterback.”
Cutler threw a couple of touchdowns, ran for another and intercepted three passes in a rout of Roncalli. Then, in the state final, they defeated Zionsville High in overtime on a trick play in which Cutler caught the game-winner.
“He’s a warrior,” Kress says, “and he’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
To a man, Cutler’s old teammates insist he’s an effective leader — albeit a quiet one — and genuine.
‘‘He may come off bad sometimes,” says Jon Goldsberry, a fullback at Heritage Hills High who went on to Purdue. “But he’s a great guy, if you get to know him, and he’s a great leader.
‘‘He’s going to take care of you if you take care of him. But you’re not going to see Jay out there as a salesman and BS-ing people.’’