This week marks 25 years since the Bears cheerleaders, the Honey Bears, were last on the sidelines, for the Super Bowl victory against the Patriots on January 26, 1986. There are plenty of Bears fans that still have wonderful memories of the Honey Bears and want them back on the sidelines. Why do so many fans hold the memories of Honey Bears so dear? There are several peripheral reasons why the Honey Bears are so fondly remembered. One is that they appeared on the sidelines when the Bears were emerging from a period of hibernation (aka, they stunk during the pre-Honey Bear era), and memories of improving Bears teams with Honey Bears on the sidelines go hand in hand. In the eight years prior to having Honey Bears on the sidelines, the Bears were 35-76-1. Ugh! In 1977, the Honey Bears’ first on the sidelines, the Bears returned to the playoffs, and by the end of the nine year Honey Bear era, they won their only Super Bowl.
But the other overwhelming aspect of the Honey Bears was the quality of the squad. Part of it is numbers. No other US metropolitan area matches the size of the Chicago area and has a single NFL team. So, that means a lot of cheer/dance talent competed to make the Honey Bears squad. Back in those days, the larger metro areas of New York City had no NFL cheer squads, and LA often was split between two teams, so making the Honey Bears’ 32 spots was quite an achievement.
The lasting memories of the Honey Bears are captured by web site developer Dale, who maintains the wonderful chicagohoneybears.net. According to Dale, “The real cause is promoting the Chicago Honey Bears, what they meant to the City of Chicago, the Chicago Bears, and how can we bring them back.”
And during this week’s interviews with former Honey Bears Renee Halverson, Maribeth Duffy-Bolger, and Tena Casassa-O’Keefe, the photos from chicagohoneybears.net have added to the memories provided by their stories. Dale says, “I think we have by far the largest collection on Chicago Honey Bear stuff online. We have slowly been increasing the number of photographs we have online from the Chicago Honey Bears but are always looking for more photographs, stories, and videos. I have tried unsuccessfully to find the Chicago Honey Bears dancing or cheering to ‘Bear Down’ (the Bears theme song).”
In addition to photos and video, the background and stories about the Honey Bears compiled on chicagohoneybears.net cover a lot of interesting territory. I even saw a letter to the Chicago Tribune that one of my college professors wrote complaining about the lack of Honey Bears. I hold my school’s faculty in much higher esteem now!
The Honey Bears, lead by coach Cathy Core (far right) also had an entertainment show team; but how they can all look so calm with that scary bear around! (click to enlarge)
It was twenty-five years ago yesterday that the Chicago Bears won their first and only Super Bowl, and their cheerleaders, the Honey Bears, walked off the field for the last time. We have been so fortunate to learn about the experiences of two Honey Bear captains, in Part I, Renee Halverson, and in Part II, Maribeth Duffy-Bolger.
Today, in Part III, Honey Bear Tena Casassa-O’Keefe shares her experiences. Tena was on her second year on the Honey Bears during their final season when the Bears won it all. I so enjoy Tena’s telling of her Honey Bear time. So here it is, “I, Tena,” first person:
As a kid, we moved from the city to the suburbs, but I still considered myself a city girl. My parents had been die hard Bears fans from the old Bobby Douglass quarterback days! Even when I was little, I could remember the family screaming and cheering at the television during games.
I was a pompom girl in high school, LOVED to dance, but never really had any professional training. When I was in college at Northern Illinois University, I enrolled in the Miss Illinois/USA pageant. I remember calling my mom the first day of the four day competition and telling her how out of my league I was! These girls all had professional dance/acting/modeling backgrounds and I was this “708er” (based on the area code) as they used to call the suburban girls. While I was there, a couple of the girls were talking about trying out for the Honey Bears, and was I interested? REALLY?! Of course I was!
Again, what an overwhelming experience. It was the spring before the 1983 season. They held tryouts at the old McCormick Place Hotel. What they told us the first day was that of the 32 spots, 16 were held for “veteran/returning” dancers. I don’t know how many were there trying out, but I heard estimates of over 1,800 girls! It would be a series of cuts over I believe two different tryouts. I do remember looking at the veterans, and having a moment of “hero worship.” They were so glamorous! I was 21 at the time, but felt like an awkward 13 year old. I kept making cut after cut, and they were down to, I think, the last 100 girls, including the veterans. Sadly, as they made the last announcement, I was NOT on the final list.
Devastated, I spent the weekend not talking to anyone. Even though family and friends told me I had made it so far on my first try, it was not a comfort. I really was a true Bears fan and was really looking forward to being at Soldier Field. I went to work Monday morning, still in a fog. Sitting at my desk, I was contemplating how in the world I was going to tell everyone that I hadn’t made the squad, when the phone rang. “Hello, Tena? This is Cathy Core from the Chicago Honey Bears.” I was thinking to myself, did you call to rub it in again about how I didn’t make it? “I was calling to tell you one of my veterans is pregnant.” Again, it didn’t register right away, was she asking me to help plan a baby shower? “Your name was next on the list, and I wanted to know if you were still interested in being a Honey Bear?” UMMM, REALLY? I tried to keep calm on the phone, but after we hung up, I was hooting and hollering around the office! A second chance! At the time, I hadn’t realized what a true lesson in life that it really was: never give up and NEVER surrender! (laughs) I couldn’t wait to tell my mom, she sat on the floor in the hallway with me at McCormick Place that day, and she was the biggest Bear fan I knew at the time. I knew it would make my parents proud.
Maribeth (right) in the Honey Bears poster from the Super Bowl season
It was twenty-five years ago today, and Sergeant Pepper did not tell the band to play. He told Bears fans to cry for joy because the Bears would win their first Super Bowl, but also to weep for the last game for the Bears cheerleaders, the Honey Bears. On 26th of January, 1986, after Super Bowl XX, the Bears walked off the field, carrying Coaches Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan on their shoulders, in celebration of their 46-10 win in New Orleans. But, walking behind the Bears off the SuperDome turf were the Honey Bears, leaving the field for the last time. The Bears had announced months prior that this would be the last season of Honey Bears, their ninth season of providing sidelines entertainment at Soldier Field.
In Part I, we learned about the experiences from pre-Super Bowl Honey Bear Captain, Renee Halverson. In Part II, to continue to celebrate Honey Bear memories, we are also thrilled to have the opportunity to interview one of the Honey Bear captains on the sidelines in New Orleans during that sole Bear Super Bowl victory. Maribeth Duffy-Bolger was in her third season as a Honey Bear in 1985-86, and one of four captains. Maribeth shares memories of the emotional highs and lows that occurred during Honey Bear try-outs, the time that Bears fans actually booed their beloved Honey Bears, how being at the Super Bowl doesn’t always mean you will actually SEE the game, and why it is good during a Sunday night lively Super Bowl celebration to have a Saturday Night Live alum around.
Maribeth is originally from the Chicago area, specifically Woodridge, and attended Downers Grove North High School. She spent three years during high school on a state champion drill team, which was a key for her future success with the Honey Bears. “That is where my high kicks, my splits, and my dancing came in,” recalls Maribeth, “We were so good, and we used to practice between four to six hours a day.” Maribeth went on to be a cheerleader at Benedictine University, a small Catholic university located in Lisle, a suburb of Chicago.
Maribeth first thought about trying out for the Honey Bears when she heard about try-outs on the radio one afternoon. Maribeth remembers, “I heard they were having tryouts and I thought, WHY NOT?! I never thought in a million years that I would ever make it. I didn’t even tell anybody except my mom and dad that I was trying out.”
“Tryouts were a very long process,” Maribeth relates, “First, they sent you an application, like a job application. You had to fill that out and send your picture in, with all your dance experience. Weeks later, I got a notice in the mail that I could try out, and I guess they received 5,000 applications. So that was the first sort of ‘cut,’ if you will. They gave you a time to show up, and you were interviewed and then you danced; you had to do splits and kicks and all that kind of stuff. In my group, they picked two out of eight. Then you came back two weeks later, and kind of the same thing. You tried out in a group at a certain time. I think that went on for about a month. You just kept going back, and getting interviewed, and dancing, and all kinds of stuff. They kept cutting people from there.”
According to Maribeth, “The very last day is a very long day, because there are about 100 people left, and then they bring in the squad from the year before, and then you had to try out against them as well. So there’s just a process of elimination the entire day. They just kept saying that they were going to have another elimination, so they would send us out into the hallway, and then they would call out a number, and if they called your number, you either stayed out in the hall or came back in. Finally, later in the afternoon, my coach (Cathy Core) said, ‘Okay, we need the following girls to come back in, because we are still not sure if we are going to choose you.’ They included me, and I went in there, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to dance my heart out!’ She put on the music and we all danced and danced and danced. After that, then Cathy said, ‘I’ve made my decision, THIS is the new squad.’ Of course, all of us started screaming. It was amazing!”
New to the process, Maribeth did not realize that a veteran’s earlier reaction symbolized the mix of high and low emotions on such a competitive day. “Right before I was going through first tryouts, I called a girl from my hometown who was on the squad, and I said, ‘Hey, I am going to try out for Honey Bears, can you give me some pointers?’” Maribeth relates. “She said, ‘Oh yeah!’ and she told me everything I needed to know for every single tryout.” While Maribeth received the elating news of being chosen for her first squad, the veteran did not make the cut that same year. “I felt so bad because she made it to the very last minute, and then, remember when Cathy called us in, and said she was not really sure. When Cathy said, ‘Can you do the dance, so I can make my final decision?,’ they did not call her, and I just remember her starting to cry. I thought, ‘I wonder why she is crying?’ but she probably knew that she did not make it. I felt so bad because I felt like I took her spot, after she gave me all these pointers. They only picked about 15 new girls, they cut half the squad every year, and they only picked 15-16 new ones, so there are 15 of out 5,000 applications. It is not a very high amount.”
Maribeth's first squad goes on location for a group photo
Renee (top right) during a Honey Bears photo shoot
Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, the Honey Bears, the cheerleaders for the Chicago Bears, cheered officially for the Bears the last time, for Super Bowl XX, January 26th, 1986. So it has been a while since the Honey Bears have cheered on the Soldier Field sidelines. But that does not stop the former Honey Bears from still getting together and cheering! For instance, Honey Bear Renee Halverson attended the Miss USA pageant last year with some of her squad mates to cheer on one of the contestants, who is the daughter of one of her Honey Bear sisters. But before we skip ahead to 2010, let’s go back to 1976.
Based on the success and popularity of squads like the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, many NFL teams added cheerleaders to their sidelines that provided a more dance-based, glamorous look than college cheer teams. The Bears owner at that time, George Halas, one of the founders of the NFL, also wanted to add cheerleaders to Bears games. He put General Manager Jim Finks on the case, and a Finks’ friend recommended someone with experience with junior high cheerleaders, Cathy Core, who had recently re-located to Chicago from New Jersey. When the Bears GM called Cathy, she thought it was a joke and hung up. Later, friends interceded and eventually explained, bringing brought Core, Finks, and Halas together. Halas told Core, “As long as I’m alive, we will have dancing girls on the sidelines.” So in 1977, the Honey Bears debuted at Soldier Field, which was also a year that the Bears returned to the playoffs after 14 seasons away from the post-season.
The Honey Bears continued on, but Papa Bear Halas passed away in October 1983. His daughter, Virginia McCaskey gained control of the Bears, and tried to discontinue the Bears association with the Honey Bears. However, the Honey Bears continued to cheer on the Bears because they were under contract through 1985, which also was the only Super Bowl victory season for the Bears. Since Super Bowl XX, the Bears have not had cheerleaders.
Renee was a Honey Bear captain
In 1978, in their second year of existence, aspiring actress and professional dancer Renee Halverson made her first Honey Bears squad, the first of three seasons, eventually as one of the captains. Renee was on the sidelines when the Bears needed to win by 34 or more on the last game of the 1979 regular season, coupled with a Redskins loss, to make the playoffs, and the Honey Bears cheered them to a 42-6 victory on a bitterly cold December 16th as the Bears returned to the post-season.
Renee’s Honey Bear journey started a bit north of Chicago, “I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin called Dodgeville.” She began her training by, “Starting dance lessons at the age of four, and I was a cheerleader throughout high school. I am a diehard football fan. My father played football for the Wisconsin Badgers.” So the lines were connected for her interest in the Honey Bears, as Renee says, “I love to dance and cheer AND I loved football.”
Renee tried out in for the 1978 Honey Bears and made the squad on her first attempt, being one of 28 selected from a field of 1,500. Renee recalls her feelings at the Honey Bear auditions as, “Nervous but excited to being trying out. But didn’t think I would make the team.” Renee heard the good news of making the squad long distance, “My roommates in Evanston called me while I was on spring break in Florida. I was VERY surprised!” Most excited in her family, according to Renee, was, “My Dad, even though he was a Packer fan. My parents bought season tickets. They loved it!”
Honey Bears try-outs
Remembering her first time on the field as a Honey Bear, Renee recalls, “So much excitement! It was a thrill to be cheering in Soldier Field.” During Renee’s three years of the squad, some of the more interesting moments on the field included, “Walter Payton ripped his pants and they brought him a towel to walk off the field. Also, one of the Honey Bears heel broke off her boot and she had to walk all the way to the locker room with a limp in front of the fans.” The Bears fans loved Renee and the other Honey Bears, even trying to collect some souvenirs, “A few tried to take strands from my pom poms.”
Renee's (second row from the top, far left) first year with the squad, 1978 (click to enlarge)
There has been much ado this week about three of the NFL’s oldest and most storied teams still being alive in the playoffs. But it also might be said that the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers are three of the NFL’s most stodgy teams, since they don’t have cheerleaders.
How can this be? Aren’t all football teams supposed to have cheerleaders? Isn’t there something in the rules about that?
At one time, all three of those teams had official cheerleading squads. For aficionados of high-kicking sideline crews, here’s why they went away:
Pittsburgh: The Steelers had their Steelerettes from 1961-1970, but shut them down when the team moved into Three Rivers Stadium. One could say they’ve been replaced the the Terrible Towel.
The women were recruited from Robert Morris University (then a JC), and had to have at least a 2.0 GPA. You can find some vintage photos at Steelerettes.com.
FanNation.com did a story on them awhile back, and had this quote from original Steelerette Eleanor Lineman Lewis: “The first year, we wore hard helmets as part of our uniform. We started to look more and more like wholesome cheerleaders as time went on.”
Chicago: The Honey Bears were in business from 1976-85, but were axed after the McCaskey family took the helm and decided cheerleaders didn’t fit the team’s rugged image.
Some suggest the Honey Bears’ demise is why the Bears haven’t won a Super since 1985, but that chatter has never caught on the way the Cubs’ various curses have.
Their final performance was to Prince’s Baby, I’m a Star, when the ’85 Bears beat New England at the Super Bowl.
Green Bay: Technically, the Packers still have cheerleaders, but they’re an unofficial group of rotating loaners from either the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay or St. Norbert College.
FootballBabble.com says the Packers had cheerleaders as far back as 1931, recruited from high schools. Then hard-nosed Vince Lombardi, of all people, asked that a professional squad be organized. They were called the Golden Girls Cheerleaders, an apparent homage to Packer’s star Paul Hornung, who was known as “The Golden Boy.”
The Golden Girls were drawn from a dance studio, and included some national champions in baton twirling. They are in the Packers Hall of Fame, but the team did away with cheerleaders in 1988, after a TV station poll found fans were split 50-50 on whether they were needed.
There has been some media coverage recently of a Wall Street Journal “study” with the finding that, believe it or not, there are not that many minutes of action during televised football games. Shocking, eh? The article estimates 11 minutes of live action and 17 minutes of replays, on average, per game. I guess those of us who attend football and baseball games know there is a lot of down time, but it is kind of a cute little story about quantifying the obvious. The WSJ story is based on an analysis of four televised NFL games, and since my job title is “Research Scientist,” I have to point out that this is an insufficient number of games to be meaningful, but I’ll leave my scientific opinions at the door.
The one thing mentioned in the report is that there was a total of eleven seconds of time in which the cheerleaders were shown over the four games, so less than three seconds a game. I think most fans of the NFL squads would agree that they are not shown very much, and, in my opinion, a lot less than during the first burst of cheerleader enthusiasm in the 1970′s. But the lack of showing squads is not new. In the last appearance of the Bears cheerleaders, the Honey Bears, in the last Bears Super Bowl victory in the mid 1980′s, the Honey Bears were not shown once. And it was not a gripping game, so besides Bear QB Jim McMahon’s varied headbands, there wasn’t much else to show.
But I guess I felt the need to comment on some of the quotes from this article.
If you think the networks are a little too fond of cheerleaders, you may be mistaken: In these broadcasts, only two networks showed cheerleaders at all. And when they did, they were only on camera for an average of three seconds. “We make it a point to get Dallas cheerleaders on, but otherwise, it’s not really important,” says Fred Gaudelli, NBC’s Sunday Night Football producer. “If we’re doing the Jets, I couldn’t care less.”
and later in the story:
When it comes to showing the cheerleaders, CBS won the day with about seven seconds. NBC had just over four seconds, and Fox and ESPN had no cheerleaders whatsoever. “Cheerleaders are bigger in college,” says Mr. Brown of Fox, who notes that NFL cheerleaders from the visiting teams don’t travel to road games and aren’t as ingrained in the game as they are in college. “It’s not that we don’t like them,” adds ESPN’s Mr. Rothman. “They’re just not our motivation.”
So I could just read these things and move on, but it stirred me up a little, so this is just my opinion/reaction. I think these folks need to sit in the stands, maybe near some painted faces, maybe in the Black Hole section at a Raiders game, and get away from the booth or the truck. I’ve been to ten NFL stadia to see games and cheerleaders, and I can without hesitation say that all of the cities’ fans love their cheerleaders. Raider fans treat the Raiderettes with an attitude that is unmatched. College cheerleaders are great, but pro cheerleaders serve a different role in a very different atmosphere.
The hard work of pro cheerleaders, whether Cowboys, Jets, arena leagues, whatever, is truly appreciated by fans. One of the reasons is that there is 11 minutes of ”football” over three hours, and the rest of the time for spectators is not spent singing school songs like at a college game. The pro cheerleaders provide a lot of the entertainment that is part of the game experience.
I think for the NFL, where the networks are a national commodity, there is not an appreciation for the role of the cheer and dance squads on the local level. I have a feeling that if you examined pre-season NFL games, where the telecasts have a more local flair, there is more cheerleader on-air coverage. Certainly, for fans at the games, the cheerleaders are shown many more seconds on the big video screens than is reflected in the TV coverage. On the NBA side, I know that if I am watching a locally produced Pacers game, there inevitably will be lots of commercial breaks than come back to clips of the Pacemates routine that was performed during the game time-out. This won’t be the case for national NBA games, because the people making the decisions on what to show have no connection to city the game is in.
So, let me just say that the network execs may not realize how the NFL fans at the games really appreciate them, but the squads’ hard work and devotion is truly meaningful. I have a feeling every NFL cheerleader knows their importance because they see the faces of the young and the old, the tall and the small, in the fans during the game and every time they don a uniform. But I just wanted to say the squads and their staffs are doing a superb job! IMHO, the NFL squads are just as ingrained in the game as they are in college.
For some reason, it just bugs me that the Chicago Bears used to have cheerleaders, but don’t anymore. The family that owns the Bears – particularly the matriarch Virginia McCaskey – are dead-set against it, even though the Honey Bears were very popular in their time.
I figure it’s just a matter of time. Sooner or later, the cheerleaders will be back. Sooner would be better. Come on, Chicago. We’ve got dancers who need jobs.
Every now and then, I take a look around the internet to see if there’s any news on the subject. Last week, I came across a new website dedicated to movement to bring the Honey Bears back. Check out ChicagoHoneyBears.net. They have two goals, the first is to get the Honey Bears back and the second is to have a web site with the history of the Honey Bears. They’ve got some photos, some videos, and are in the process of adding more. If you’ve got Honey Bear memorabilia stashed away, send it on over.
One of the really interesting things about their site is the prototype designs of what the “new” Honey Bear uniforms might look like. I’m not sure who designed and produced them, but they are modeled by Carey, a former cheerleader for the Indianapolis Colts and the Indiana Firebirds.
After weeks of rumors and speculation, it’s finally going to happen. The Chicago Bears confirmed today that they are adding cheerleaders to their organization’s entertainment package. The Chicago Bears Cheerleaders will perform at all home games and represent the team off the field and in the community.
This isn’t the first time Bears have had a cheerleading team. From 1977 to 1985, the cheerleaders, then called the “Honey Bears,” danced on the sidelines.
Soon after the ‘85 Bears shuffled their way to victory in Super Bowl XX, the team’s ownership terminated the cheerleaders, claiming the Honey Bears didn’t fit the Bears’ tough image.
Ironically, it was also the football team’s last appearance at The Big Game.
Many Chicago Bears fans claim the team lingers under a Honey Bear Curse. According to legend, the Bears never will get back to the Super Bowl unless they bring the Honey Bears cheerleaders out of hibernation.
Over the years, a few meetings have been held about bringing back the Chicago Bears Cheerleaders. But it wasn’t until recently that higher ups in the Bears organization, looking to improve the peripheral entertainment on game days, approved the decision.
The Bears may or may not put a winning team on the field next season, but they will have a dance team at Soldier Field. The too-cute “Honey Bears” moniker has been cast aside in favor of the straightforward “Chicago Bears Cheerleaders.”
Kristen Lena, Director of the Cheerleaders, was recruited just before the end of the regular season. She is tasked with assembling a top-notch dance team that will rival the likes of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
Lena ’s worked in the dance team and choreography business for almost 15 years with various teams in the NBA and NFL, and she’s excited about the opportunity to bring the Honey Bears back to life. She will also consult closely with Cathy Core, creator of the original Honey Bears in the 70s and 80s. (Core is currently Director of the Chicago Bulls Luvabulls Dancers.)
The Chicago Bears are one of the few remaining teams in the NFL to field a dance team, and while the move will certainly raise eyebrows, Lena is confident that the team will quickly be one of the most enjoyable aspects of attending a Bears game at the new Soldier Field.
“I’m familiar with the tradition of the Bears, and I’m just honored to be a part of that.” said Lena . “In this day and age, entertainment is the key to a successful game presentation, and the Cheerleaders can be an integral part of that. I think the fans will wonder why we didn’t bring the Cheerleaders back sooner.”
Auditions will begin in May. Competition for about 30 spots will be fierce, and for those who are selected, the rehearsal and appearance schedule will be demanding.
The hard work will begin immediately after the team is announced. The cheerleaders will attend a preseason training camp to prepare the team with basic dance routines, as well as set the high expectations required of all team members. Regular rehearsals will follow, leading up to preseason in August and continuing through the season.
Given her impressive background in the business, Lena knows what she’s looking for in a dancer, and it’s more than a pretty face.
“I like to see people with fire, energy, that spark in their eye, the passion. That comes through very easy. You can spot that a mile away. They need to project the confidence, attitude and professionalism we’re looking for, strong, talented women who carry themselves well,” said Lena .
We know what the fans are looking for: the end of the Honey Bear Curse and a trip to Super Bowl XLIV.
(By the way, I guess I should mention that this whole story is made up. It is April Fools Day after all.)