Wynn Ullman’s day started at 4 a.m. Sunday, and by noon he was smoking a cigar outside Soldier Field while a slab of bacon sizzled on his grill.
Ullman, 51, of suburban Carol Stream, was among the tailgaters who packed into the parking lots around Soldier Field hours before the Bears’ 3:40 p.m. kickoff in a wild-card game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Ullman had a full spread that included Philly cheesesteaks and two tables filled with liquor. On the rear of his car, Ullman left an open invitation to a Hall of Fame linebacker: “SOME DAY BRIAN URLACHER WILL COME TO THIS TAILGATE.”
“It’s just fun before you go in the game, but we don’t miss the game,” Ullman said. “We have a rule: You got to be inside by the national anthem.”
By midday Sunday, Bears flags hung from several cars as music blared from tailgaters, and anticipation grew. The Bears’ last postseason game was a loss to the Green Bay Packers in January 2011. This is the fourth time Chicago has faced Philadelphia in the playoffs, with their only victory coming in the 1988 Fog Bowl.
Bob Vescovi, 61, of Lockport, was having a few drinks to get ready for the motivational speech he gives to anyone in the vicinity before each game. He’s been a tailgating regular since 2004 and is known around the parking lot as “Fiesta Bob.”
“Tailgating at Soldier Field, you got to get the experience,” Vescovi said. “The game, we can’t control how they play, but we’ve never had a bad tailgate party in all those years.”
More than an hour before kickoff, Vescovi stood on an impromptu stage and told a crowd that he wanted to be at Soldier Field every January. He took off his customized Bears jersey and, bare-chested, took a swig of alcohol, shook his fist in the air and led the crowd in a “Let’s Go Bears” chant.
For Rich Madole, 53, of Libertyville, tailgating means bringing the comforts of home to the South Lot. Madole had a VuQube (satellite TV antenna) with NFL Sunday Ticket and surround sound set up inside an ambulance.
“We make time for sports,” Madole said. “It’s a love-of-life problem.”
An ambulance may seem like an unusual choice of vehicle, but Madole’s wasn’t the only one. Across the South Lot, another group of ambulance tailgaters was making competing claims about being the first.
For Joan Macklin, 86, creating the right atmosphere was in the details. For decades, she has placed orange carnations atop her Bears table spread. “Hard to find blue,” she said.
“Today was my father’s birthday,” said her son John Macklin, 55. “He would have been 88 today. It’s special to us, because it’s not only the playoffs, it’s my dad’s birthday.”
For others, it’s all about the food.
Al “Ace” Giuliano, 86, presided over one of the largest grills in the lot — a customized cooker ready to take on 135 pounds of food.
“This is the greatest tailgate in the whole South Lot,” said Giuliano, who wore a weathered chef’s hat from the 1985 Super Bowl and held a diminishing glass of red wine in his right hand.
Giuliano said the tailgate started decades ago with four friends and a Weber grill. Sunday’s menu included filet mignon and pork roast. “You name it,” he said. “All gourmet.”
“We’re going to the ’19 Super Bowl together,” said Giuliano’s son Jerry, 59, who has tailgated with his dad for 51 years.
Brad Meyer, 49, of Elmhurst, was also in Ace Giuliano’s camp. “If you show up with hamburgers, hot dogs or chicken, we throw it out,” he said, behind dozens of handcrafted bloody marys.
“People that don’t drink bloody marys drink my bloody marys,” said Meyer, as he held up Clamato, his “secret ingredient.”
“Don’t over-alcohol, don’t over-spice,” Meyer said. “You’ll lose a customer every time.”
For Ken Vedder, 56, of Elburn, tailgating is more about meeting people and visuals rather than food. He used to spend a lot of time on food preparation, but Sunday, he and his 20-year-old son planned to eat subs.
And the 25-year season ticket holder brought the van. Not just any van, but one that also serves as a photo booth. With a giant stuffed bear sitting on top of the roof, the inside of the van was decked out with Bears gear, a neon sign and memorabilia Vedder has collected over the past five years.
“We do this for everybody,” Vedder said. “We give you props, we decorate you, and you take your pictures. It’s pretty cool.”
Cassandra Lucaccioni, 32, of Washington, D.C., comes back to Chicago to tailgate with her dad, uncle and sister because “it’s a family and friend affair.”
“We’ve been tailgating since we became season ticket holders in 1985,” said her father, Tom Lucaccioni, 64, of Palatine, who attended his first Bears game when the team played at Wrigley Field and has brought his daughters since they were teenagers.
“At the end of the day, it’s always a good time when you’re in the South Lot,” said Cassandra Lucaccioni.
“No matter whether they’re winning or losing, we’re here,” said sister Tiana Lucaccioni, 26, of Printers Row. “The rule in the Lucaccioni family is you like football, or you like football.”
About 40 minutes before Sunday’s game started, Kathy Follenweider started packing up the leftover brats from her tailgate. She was at the edge of a larger tailgate made up by families in the meat industry. Her husband works at a Palatine-based meat company and is a season ticket holder.
Follenweider, 56, has tailgated at Bears games for the past 30 years. Her main duty typically consists of keeping everything in order, and she was excited to watch the game inside Soldier Field.
“Hell yeah, we are going to the Super Bowl,” Follenweider predicted before the game. “We’ve earned it, it’s time. (Quarterback Mitch) Trubisky is going to take us, and Matt Nagy is the best coach, ever since (Mike) Ditka that is.”
As game time approached, fans trampled on smoked cigars as they made their way across the beer-coated asphalt toward Soldier Field. Some clamored at a tailgater dressed in shades of green making his way through the crowd.