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.
That first season was such a learning experience. The requirements at the time were that each girl held a full time job or was a full time student. In addition to your “real life,” we held practices at McCormick Place every Monday and Thursday night from 7 to 10 pm, and had to be at the field Sunday mornings at 8 am for a noon game. People always assumed that we must have made a ton of money, and I’m sorry to tell you, we were paid $15 a game. We did not get paid for practices, and we were also expected to perform at various charity events or charity appearances throughout the year without payment. At the time, I was an assistant to a purchasing agent at the Hyatt Hotel Corporation, so I had fulfilled the expectation to work full time. As the season went on, the opportunities arose to make more money at trade show appearances, or paid appearances which were quite lucrative. Customers were able to pick girls from pictures of which cheerleaders they would like to hire, and as time went on, I was getting more and more of those jobs. Eventually, I changed careers and changed my profession to modeling and acting full time. Perhaps a more accurate description would be a professional auditioner, but let’s not split hairs! (laughs)
My first rookie game was awe inspiring, the first time I walked onto that field with the THOUSANDS of fans, screaming, cheering; television cameras on the sidelines and officials all over. But instead of being nervous, I was excited. I couldn’t wait to be on the sidelines and be a part of the team. We would rotate from different corners of the field during different quarters, and it is true that each section of the field had its own personality! The North end zone would typically be more family oriented and quieter, even though they sat closest to the field and the cheerleaders. However, the South end zone was a totally different story! They were the rowdiest group! It was the largest end zone space for the cheerleaders, so by the end of the game, all four groups of Honey Bears would end up there. It was also where the band was. Even when I tell this, I can remember the sights and sounds of the games; it really makes me remember what a special time that was in my life. It’s so very hard to describe to people.
Making the squad for the first year was amazing, and I didn’t think it would happen again. Something happens though that makes it much more important to make it the second year. I don’t want to sound corny, or like a stereotype, but I truly believe it was the relationships that were formed. I had a few, three, four, five girls, that I was really close to, and we spent much of our every waking moment together! Plus, I think once you get a taste of what that experience is like, it’s really had to let it go.
I had so many wild experiences, not so much the crazy, wild party experiences, but mostly the “Can you believe the world is this small?” kind. For instance, I went to high school with a boy who eventually played on the Atlanta Falcons. We were on the field practicing, and I glanced up and saw his jersey. We chatted for a few moments, marveled at how we arrived at where we were, and went on to our respective locker rooms. But at every corner of the game that day, I saw someone in the stands that I knew, either from the neighborhood or from my high school! What made it more incredible was that in the GameDay programs, they featured one of the cheerleaders for each of the games; for that game, it happened to be my turn!
As the 1985 season progressed, and the players became more and more “famous” (e.g., William “the Fridge” Perry, Jim McMahon), we realized that we had something special happening. The Bears were undefeated until November, and then it was only one loss! I don’t really think it gave the cheerleaders any more attention in the press than usual. Until November, that is, when they announced the contract with our agency was up, and Virginia McCaskey (Bears owner) was not renewing it. Then we had a lot more attention. Suddenly, in one weekend, I was on the cover of the Chicago Sun-Times and in an article in USA Today entitled “No More Honeys for Chicago?” I remember people asking me about it, and saying it wasn’t right, but it was a rather helpless feeling. It wasn’t as if we were an integral part of the defensive line. We didn’t generate any income. We weren’t really even featured in most of the shots of the games. The best we could do was to sit back and enjoy the rest of the ride.
The playoffs started in January. January, in Chicago. January, in Chicago, in go-go boots and a thin layered warm-up suit! But who cared?! The excitement fueled us, and when that stopped, there was always hot chocolate! And besides, we were having so much fun outside of the games, and being part of the city at that time was incredible. Remember, Chicago hadn’t won anything back then (in ancient times, before God brought the Bulls and White Sox and Blackhawks presents!) and so it was the topic of every place that you went; the grocery store, the train, the gym. And once they saw you walking in uniform or carrying your pompoms, there were high fives tossed around, and a feeling like we were all on the same team or in the same family! The tunnel leading from our locker rooms to the parking lot became crowded with press and fans, with people asking for our autographs; it was truly an amazing feeling. I have my own teenage boys now, who ask me all the time, “Did you get Walter Payton’s autograph?” I tell them, “No, people used to ask me for MY autograph!” They look at me, as they do on a regular basis, as if they should start looking for that dementia hotel placement for me. But there were so many people at those games, enjoying every second of it, and they wanted to connect to all things Bears, all the time.
And then, finally, the Super Bowl! We had never, as long as I was on the squad, traveled with the team to an away game, so this was special in so many different ways. But it was such a blur! I wish we had digital photography, like we do now, or the ability to archive online all the wonderful people we met and parties/events we attended. I don’t want to say it was simpler “back then,” but it wasn’t as frenzied or as big of a spectacle. The guys didn’t date movie stars like they do now, the halftime show was a performance that wasn’t anyone extraordinarily famous (note: this was the last Super Bowl to feature “Up with People” as a halftime show). Even though the team was gaining national attention with the “Super Bowl Shuffle” and all of the stories, it was just a different time. You looked at them like they were your big brothers being rewarded for hard work. I don’t know, I suppose all older people say “Oh honey, it was different in my day,” but it was, and now that I’m older, I can say it! (laughs)
We were the only cheerleaders at the Super Bowl. We attended parties, still went to practice, and I can still hear Cathy’s voice over the intercom on the plane, “Remember, you are ladies. I don’t want you out on Bourbon Street, late at night, and you still can’t date the players! Behave!” However, I do remember hanging with my girls on Bourbon Street, pretty late at night! The two days we were there went by WAY too fast. I could barely get it all in! Winning the game, that was the proverbial icing on the cake. But that cake, being at the game, being a part of that team, going through that experience, now that was one perfect , “wouldn’t change an iota of that weekend” kinda cake.
The next morning, we shared a plane ride home with the players. That, too, was a special occasion because that NEVER happened before! We ate alligator, which apparently was a superstition shared by all Bear players on the plane rides, and spent some time with members of the team and Coach Ditka. It was nothing short of magic! Not the “wedding day” or “birth of your first child” magic, but something you knew was never going to happen just that very same way, ever again. We touched down and found out we were riding a bus downtown for a parade! The expressways were desolate, not a soul in sight, and we all looked at each other confused. And then, when we reached downtown for the parade, only then did we realize what had happened! I think when you are out of town for a game, until you are home with the rest of your city, only then does it sink in. I tried to take pictures out the window of the bus, however, it just doesn’t do it justice.
When people find out I was a cheerleader for the Bears at the Super Bowl, for those that remember, there is a glimpse of flashback that I can see on their faces. I get the usual questions, like “what was it like, who did you meet, what did you do?” But it’s so interesting to me because I can see someone actively remembering what THEY were doing at the time. I love sharing that sentiment!
It’s hard to explain sometimes, all the different things that we did as cheerleaders. We performed at Great Lakes Naval base, and put on a pseudo USO show. I ended up on the Johnny B show on “The Loop” (a widely popular Chicago radio show). The charity events we attended, the shows and golf outings we performed at; it’s such a larger piece of what we experienced. I saw a cable show not too long ago that had different NFL cheerleaders competing against each other in athletic skills, and it made me think how lucky those girls are to have those different types of opportunities. My only advice to them: buy a Flip camera and a digital camera and shoot it all!
I tell people all the time, if I knew then what I know now, how things would be different. I never realized the opportunity for jobs at the time, or opportunities to continue working in another NFL team. However, most regrettably, I took for granted that I would keep in touch with those girls. I thought we’d be at each other’s weddings and having our babies grow up together. But as life likes to teach us, the more we plan, or take for granted, the more things change. I had the chance to spend two years of my life doing something very glamorous and exciting. I met some of the most amazing women I’ve ever met. I thank HEAVENS for Facebook, because at least we have been able to reconnect that way. But life gets very busy and it is difficult to reconnect. I have high hopes though. I saw a video on some team in Pennsylvania that put together a dance routine with all their former members to raise money for breast cancer. Maybe before my hair turns blue and I start knitting, they’ll do one in Chicago!
I visited UltimateCheerleaders.com, and I have to say, I’m glad that someone is taking an interest and sharing a professional website for women to further their experiences. I grew up, became a nurse, and now have three wonderful boys, and a grandson. My hopes and dreams for them, is that they too, are able to somehow be lucky enough to have something happen in their life that matches that magical feeling that I was blessed to have.
Thank you so much Tena! Your memories paint a canvas that allows all of us to get a glimpse of such an exciting time in your life that mirrored a wonderful era for so many Chicagoans. We so appreciate your time as we remember the Honey Bears and Super Bowl XX. Tomorrow, in Part IV, we look at the past and some work for a possible future for the Honey Bears, at the wonderful website, www.chicagohoneybears.net.