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Let's finally make Soldier Field meaningful
By Mike Imrem | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 9/23/2009 12:01 AM

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The Walter Payton/Soldier Field statue issue has retreated publicly a mere week after it first flared.

Apparently the monument will go up elsewhere in Chicago. However, another more significant matter continues to beg attention.

The symbolic Soldier Field still has to become a substantive Soldier Field again.

That so many wanted to honor Payton at the stadium wasn't odd. What was odd was that so many don't realize or care why Soldier Field is Soldier Field.

Few fans arriving Sunday for the Bears-Steelers game stopped to notice that under the stadium's name on the facade is, "Dedicated to the Men and Women of the Armed Forces."

Listen, Walter Payton is the greatest football player ever. That places him way behind anyone who ever gave his or her life defending this country.

If any good can come of the statue discussion, it's a heightened awareness of why the place is called Soldier Field.

Younger generations of Bear fans might not know the stadium is a memorial to soldiers who died in World War I. Heck, I am of an older generation and sometimes forget the stadium's true meaning.

The problem is that over the years Soldier Field became a football field that happens to have a noble name instead of a monument to soldiers where football happens to be played.

The stadium shouldn't be special because the champion Steelers played there. The Steelers should feel special for having played there.

Perspectives need to be refocused because lines have been blurred by games being referred to as wars and players as warriors.

Lakefront parks are graced by statues of war heroes. When did the last one go up? Who knows? These days we send our neighbors to war and erect statues of athletes.

Seriously, the point has been reached where calling it Soldier Field is like sticking a "Support Our Troops" sticker on a car bumper while ignoring the plight of countless veterans.

The Walter and Connie Payton Foundation benefits needy children, but maybe it can add needy vets to its list of causes.

Meanwhile during every game day the Bears and the Chicago Park District should emphasize that Soldier Field indeed is a tribute to real warriors, not pretend warriors.

At Sunday's game, uniformed troops presented the colors for the national anthem and a decorated Marine was introduced to the crowd.

But those sorts of gestures are made at stadiums not named Soldier Field. More should be done at the only one that is.

Game tickets could be distributed to men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military bands could play at halftime. Scoreboard messages could encourage contributions to the likes of the USO and permanently disabled veterans.

The Bears used to play an annual exhibition called the Armed Forces Benefit Game in Soldier Field. Perhaps that event could be revived or the service academies could rotate playing a game there every season.

Just as sometimes we have to be reminded that we're at war, sometimes we have to be reminded that Soldier Field is Soldier Field for a reason.

The Walter Payton statue issue provided an opportunity for both.