CHICAGO (AP) Rahm Emanuel traded Washington politics for the City of Big Shoulders because here, at least, he figured he could actually fix things.
The Chicago Bears were not on his list.
”There are certain things that are just above my pay grade,” the city’s straight-talking mayor laughed, ”and that’s one of them.”
When Emanuel announced in October he was bringing the NFL draft back to Chicago in 2015 – 51 years after the last one outside New York City was held here – the Bears were a .500 team, but still loaded with big-play talent, and he was on a roll.
Five months earlier, Emanuel had wrestled the Beard Awards show – ”The Oscars of Food” – away from New York. The month after that, he made filmmaker George Lucas an offer he couldn’t refuse – a prime piece of real estate on the lakefront – to build a museum here instead of San Francisco. Then came the news that he’d outmaneuvered Los Angeles once the NFL announced the draft was leaving New York and going back out on the road.
Asked why the NFL chose Chicago, which hosted the draft five previous times, Emanuel responded with a rapid-fire tourism pitch. If he had his way, no one would even consider going anywhere else – ever.
”I believe the reason the NFL picked Chicago is that we’re the center of the country, within 400, 500 miles are a dozen teams, with millions of fans,” he said. ”Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, there are more – that’s where you have the heart and soul of this country and the heart and soul of the NFL.
”If you’re going to go American, you come to the capital of America,” he paused triumphantly, ”and that’s Chicago.”
Noticing a skeptical glance, Emanuel sped up.
”Chicago is … Look, let me put it this way. New York looks to the world. LA looks to itself. Chicago is the center of the country, OK? … The most American of American cities, OK? … The main thing when I talked to the leadership at the NFL was `You picked Chicago. I’m not only to going to make you proud that you picked the city, I’m going to make you doubt whether you should go back to New York.’
”Or as I like to say,” he summed up, smiling, ”`You’re in your mother’s arms now, don’t worry about a thing.”
That kind of bravado will come in handy next February, when Emanuel – whose approval rating cratered at 35 percent of likely voters in a Chicago Tribune poll earlier this week – faces at least two challengers in his bid for a second term as mayor of this overwhelmingly Democratic town. If elected, he might need it again, two months after that, if angry Bears fans ruin the atmosphere of the April 30-May 2 draft.
When Emanuel landed the NFL’s premier offseason event, almost no one predicted the Bears’ would be 5-9 and banished from the playoffs. They were expected to at least make the postseason. That was before the defense failed to show up, and the guaranteed three-year deal the team gave Jay Cutler began to look like a $54 million ball-and-chain.
Now, the man with the rocket arm and perpetual frown has been benched and may be on his way out of town – making the already overheated question of what the Bears should do with a suddenly critical pick seem hotter still. It’s far from improbable that many of those out-of-towners Emanuel wanted to pack the galleries at the graceful Auditorium Theater will be elbowed aside by out-of-sorts Bears fans eager for somebody to blame.
Whether Emanuel knows about any of that, let alone cares, is hard to say. The former congressman and White House chief of staff works out daily, runs marathons occasionally and is as fit as a 55-year-old can be. But Emanuel was never much of a ballplayer – he wound up ditching soccer for ballet as a teenager – and is only so much of a sports fan today.
”He’s really smart, very funny, very competitive and he knows the legislative process inside-out because he used to do the work,” said Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, a longtime colleague. ”He also doesn’t swear nearly as much as his reputation makes it sound.
”But sports? I doubt he gives it a lot of thought,” Cullerton added a moment later. ”I went to the Cubs opener with him this year and he didn’t seem to know much about it.”
Yet even that could work to Emanuel’s advantage. He conceded watching only ”snippets” of past NFL drafts and listened with interest to the story of how Donovan McNabb, coincidentally a Chicago native, was booed long and mercilessly by a busload of Philly fans at the 1999 draft when the Eagles took him with their first-round pick.
”If that’s the experience,” Emanuel said finally, breaking into a wide grin, ”it’s a natural for an elected official.”
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL