Cheese League will remain just a fond memory

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Something significant is missing here.

For each of the past 11 summers, a chunk of Platteville’s identity has faded into the backdrop of history as NFL teams prepare for preseason training camp. Not long ago, people say, this used to be their moment for a five-week romance between a town, a team and a legion of sports fans; used to be their streets overflowed with visitors; used to be Platteville’s name splattered in newspapers across the country.

Used to…

Subtle reminders of this past still linger, etched into the very fiber of the town. Faded, blue bear paw tracks greet guests at the chamber of commerce entrance near the city limits, with “Bear County” stenciled in block letters on the sidewalk. A mural on the corner of East Main and North Oak streets downtown features the city’s most prominent figures, including Dr. Herbert Spencer, a 1944 Nobel Prize winner for medicine, Dr. Wilson Cunningham, builder of the town’s first hospital — and Walter Payton, dubbed “Platteville’s Favorite Bear.”

From 1984 to 2001, the Chicago Bears were directly tied to Platteville, home of the team’s preseason training camp and a getaway destination from the hustle and bustle of the Windy City.

“The community changed for five weeks every summer,” says Kathy Kopp, executive director of Platteville’s chamber of commerce. “It was a fantastic time. We definitely felt that we had celebrities in our midst. We looked forward to it every year.”

Bears fans from across Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin drove en masse to Platteville — located in the southwest corner of the state — stuffing hotels, downtown boutiques, restaurants and taverns. The influx of people considerably boosted the economy and spilled into nearby towns in Dubuque, Iowa, and Galena, Ill.

“It was kind of a small Grateful Dead following if you will,” former Bears quarterback Mike Tomczak says. “A little cult. Because people were kind of migrating to Platteville. They had never been there before. There were huge Bears fans. The reception was unbelievable.”

But 11 years after the Bears last walked off the practice field at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, an emotional and financial void remains. Platteville, with a population of 11,224, still pines for the days when folks lined the fence outside the university’s practice facility on Southwest Street for player autographs, up close and personal with NFL stars.

The Bears moved to Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., in 2002, a change spurred by the Illinois state legislature after it approved a $587 million renovation of Soldier Field.

Chicago wasn’t the first NFL team to leave Wisconsin’s famed preseason Cheese League, and it wouldn’t be the last. The Jacksonville Jaguars (1995 in Stevens Point), the New Orleans Saints (1988-99 in La Crosse), the St. Louis Rams (2008 in Mequon) and the Kansas City Chiefs (1991-2009 in River Falls) all left their respective Wisconsin university towns.

Each team retreated to practice closer to home, where more fans, more money and eventually better practice facilities awaited — moves that rendered the Cheese League practically nonexistent.

“I don’t think people realized how important it was to have an NFL team around until they were gone — almost like when somebody dies,” says Dale Jacobs, a bar owner in Platteville. “Everybody took the Bears for granted. Once they left, you definitely could tell we missed them.”

Something significant is missing here. And the people of Platteville and other Wisconsin towns left behind by NFL teams know it won’t be coming back anytime soon.

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Mike Ditka was searching for the perfect training camp destination for his team, and one look at Platteville was all he needed to know he’d found the right fit.

Platteville offered milder summer weather, fewer outside distractions and surprisingly good university football facilities. UW-Platteville had four fields on which players could rotate to avoid wearing out the grass, as well as meeting rooms and on-campus dormitories. Meanwhile, the Bears didn’t have the fields necessary at their old training camp in Lake Forest, Ill., to accommodate two practices a day for 80 players.

Ditka, the outspoken former Chicago Bears coach, took over the team in 1982 and helped facilitate the move. He had played in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys from 1969-72, when head coach Tom Landry pulled the team out of the Texas heat for training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

If Ditka ever coached a team, he thought then, he’d do something similar.

“I wanted to get them out of Chicago,” Ditka says. “When you practice in Lake Forest, the families are all around. The guys couldn’t concentrate on what they needed to concentrate on. At least if families want to come up, it’s going to be a two-and-a-half hour drive. They weren’t going to sneak out and go home. That’s why we did it, really.”

Then, in a fortuitous set of circumstances, the Bears produced one of the great seasons in NFL history and won the Super Bowl on Jan. 26, 1986. Afterward, even more fans flocked to Platteville — and NFL teams, it seemed, were lining up to join the Bears in Wisconsin.

Steve Zielke, who worked at UW-Platteville, was instrumental in recruiting the Bears. He served as a liaison for other UW schools at annual NFL owners meetings, enticing teams with the promise of milder Wisconsin summers. He recruited the Saints, who came to La Crosse in 1988. At an owners meeting in Orlando, he then convinced the Chiefs to practice in River Falls beginning in 1991.

Soon, the Cheese League was born. Green Bay had been practicing in De Pere, Wis., since 1958, and the Minnesota Vikings were in Mankato, Minn., just across the border. When the Jacksonville Jaguars came to Stevens Point in 1995, six NFL teams were within a few hundred miles of each other — five in the same state.

“It was unbelievable,” Zielke says. “It was really something. Wisconsin is known as a friendly state. All the schools certainly did a tremendous job in hosting all these NFL teams. I got nothing but compliments from all the teams.”

The opportunity to have a practice partner also served as a major appeal to NFL teams. The Chiefs and Vikings training camps were 115 miles apart. The Bears and Saints were separated by 106 miles. And the Jaguars were located squarely between the Saints and the Packers.

“It was refreshing,” Tomczak says. “It was a chance for us to get away, just bond, not have distractions. For me, it was all football.”

For the towns, the money certainly didn’t hurt while the festivities lasted.

*****

During a five-week stretch every year, Platteville became a tourism hotbed with the Chicago Bears in town. According to a 1993 study conducted by the Grant County Development Corporation, the estimated total attendance at training camp that summer was 42,000 fans. The estimated financial boost to the Grant County economy was approximately $1.47 million.

“Every day for five weeks, it was like a carnival atmosphere,” says Jacobs, the Platteville bar owner. “Everybody was in a good mood.”

The number of hotels in Platteville doubled from two to four because of the Bears. Kopp, the Platteville chamber of commerce director, said a Super 8 Motel was built in 1988 and a Country Inn and Suites opened in 1999. Several restaurants opened downtown during that time as well.

While Platteville thrived, so did other Cheese League towns. In 1993, the Saints generated an estimated $2.5 million for the La Crosse area’s economy, according to Joe Sweeney, former president of the Wisconsin Sports Authority. That year, a scrimmage between the Saints and Bears held in La Crosse drew roughly 10,000 people.

Meanwhile, the River Falls Bureau of Tourism in 1991 projected the economic impact of the Chiefs at more than $1 million. That first year, the Chiefs paid about $275,000 to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, including $55,000 for housing and $125,000 for food.

The projected economic impact of the Chiefs on River Falls ballooned to $2 million by the 2000s, according to a study by UW-River Falls researchers.

“In many areas, what’s as important if not more than the economic impact is what it does for the visibility of the state and the community,” Sweeney says. “Tell me how many people outside of Wisconsin had really heard of Platteville, Wisconsin. But after the Bears won the Super Bowl, people talk about Platteville all the time. There’s a value in name recognition and appreciation of a community that’s mentioned all over the country.”

But football is a business. And no matter how successful teams were in Wisconsin, it made more sense from a business perspective to move camps closer to home, where fan interest and money would increase.

In Stevens Point, roughly 350 fans showed up to watch the Jacksonville Jaguars practice each day in 1995. With the team struggling to gain footing in its inaugural season at home, Jacksonville officials moved practices back to Florida, where they estimated the number of fans would leap to about 5,000 per day.

The Saints followed suit in an effort to remain closer to their fans. In 2000, they moved their training camp to Nicholls State in Thibodeaux, La., 60 miles from New Orleans. The Saints now train in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie.

The St. Louis Rams ventured to Concordia University in Mequon for 2008 but moved back to Earth City, Mo., 20 miles from their stadium. In 2010, the Chiefs left River Falls for St. Joseph, Mo., just a 50-minute drive from downtown Kansas City.

And even the Bears, who drew between 1,500 to 2,000 fans daily in Platteville, moved to Bourbonnais under pressure from state legislators. There, an estimated $3.4 million funnels into the local economy. Brian McCaskey, the Bears senior director of business development, says the team draws 4,000 to 5,000 fans per day and now averages 125,000 fans during the course of a training camp.

“Our staff and our organization has grown,” says McCaskey, who met his wife in Platteville. “We’re three times bigger than we were in the ’80s, so we needed more facilities. The other part is being able to market training camp and make it a touch point for fans.”

*****

Will NFL teams from outside the state ever return to Wisconsin for training camp?

Even the most optimistic people say it’s a long shot because of the changing economic landscape. Aside from the financial incentive of practicing near home fans, teams now have their own state-of-the-art training facilities that far surpass anything small colleges in Wisconsin can offer.

NFL teams also have fewer preseason practices than ever before, making it even more difficult to justify holding training camp so far away.

According to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement from July 2011, teams are allowed to report 16 days before the preseason opener and have 15 days of practice. The first day of training camp is limited to physicals and meetings. The second and third days do not feature pads or contact. The rest of the days can include only one padded practice per day, limited to three hours. Any second practice must be a walkthrough.

“I think it’s sad,” says Hall of Fame offensive tackle Willie Roaf, who played for both the Saints and the Chiefs while they trained in the Cheese League. “It takes away from those towns in Wisconsin. But it really makes no sense to go up there because they have so many stipulations on how many practices they can do. It’s not what it used to be. If you’re hot, you can go inside and practice on your own turf.”

Of the 32 teams in the NFL, only five hold preseason training camp in a different state from their regular stadium, but three of those teams’ locations are interchangeable. The New York Giants and New York Jets practice in New York but play in New Jersey. And the Washington Redskins practice in Ashburn, Va., and play in Landover, Md. — just 49 miles apart.

The Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals are the only other teams to train in a different state. Carolina, which plays its games in Charlotte, practices 72 miles away at Wofford College in South Carolina. Cincinnati practices 69 miles away at Georgetown College in Kentucky.

Ditka, for one, laments the fact that Wisconsin towns have been left out in the cold.

“There’s a reason you try it,” Ditka says. “It’s a great place. It’s a great locale. Great people. If I was running a team, and I had a training camp site, I would go to Platteville. Now I have no say in it, so whatever they do, they do on their own. But you’re close enough to your fans for 16 weeks of the season. I mean, what the hell? To get the team away for a while is the best thing you can do.”

*****

Folks in Platteville express sadness but not bitterness about the Bears’ departure. Instead, they convey gratitude for the 18 years in which an NFL team graced their presence and invigorated a local economy.

Sweeney admits it would require a diligent effort on the part of state communities to concoct a plan to woo another NFL franchise to Wisconsin. Even with those efforts, there is no guarantee an NFL team would entertain the idea. Times are different, and people here are reminded of that every year in late July when teams report to training camp.

Kopp doesn’t know if any franchise would ever be interested in returning to a place like Platteville for a few weeks each preseason, but the door certainly remains open 11 years later.

“If anybody wanted to start a dialogue, I’m sure there would be a meeting,” Kopp says. “Nobody’s going to turn it down, that’s for sure. It would be awesome. I would absolutely love to have a team come back to Wisconsin.”

Most of what remains is memories, though tangible proof of the town’s past continues to endure.

Before the Chicago Bears left, they donated a gift to the university, paying $250,000 for the construction of a computer lab on the second floor of the UW-Platteville student center known as the “Bears Den.” A plaque inside the room salutes the relationship between the two sides. It also reads like an epitaph:

THE CHICAGO BEARS AND THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-PLATTEVILLE. A GREAT TEAM FOR EIGHTEEN YEARS. 1984-2001.

The people of Platteville still take pride in celebrating their plaques, murals and sidewalk stencils. But it appears that, much like other Wisconsin towns, a once-great era of the NFL has passed them by for good.

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.