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updated: 12/12/2012 1:20 PM

500,000 coats later, Bears drive is still going strong

Gary Haeger started coat drive in 1988

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  • Last year, the Chicago Bears Coat Drive collected an estimated 30,000 coats.

    Last year, the Chicago Bears Coat Drive collected an estimated 30,000 coats.


Twenty-four years later, Tony Medlin remembers the start like it was 500,000 coats ago.

Which the Chicago Bears Coat Drive is.

In 1988, Gary Haeger was the Bears' head equipment manager and Medlin his assistant. They were driving to Soldier Field on a Sunday to set up for a game.

Out on the street were people shivering in the cold. Haeger and Medlin wondered how they could help. The idea of the Bears collecting coats was born.

"He started it," Medlin says of Haeger, "and I picked up on it."

Medlin replaced Haeger as head equipment manager in 1997 and became chairman of the coat drive.

That makes Medlin, no matter how the Bears' season is going, the Most Valuable Person in Halas Hall every December. This year's campaign will end Sunday.

These aren't the best of times for the Bears on the field. They have lost four of five games. Head coach Lovie Smith is under fire. Key players are suffering injuries at an alarming rate.

But as bad as things have become for the Bears, none of them will be without winter clothing. Medlin worries about the team's fortunes but has a warm spot in his heart for others, too.

"It's hard to have a cutoff point," Medlin says of all the things the needy need. "You know you can't help everybody, but you can't have a cutoff point."

So Medlin and others within the Bears' organization work to make the coat drive a success. They do it for unfortunate adults, for innocent children, for as many people as they can provide with a more bearable winter.

During the early years of the coat campaign fans could drop them off at one designated Bears game each season. Haeger's father's automobile dealership in Des Plaines was the other place people could make a donation.

Between 7,000 and 10,000 coats were collected that first year. In 2012, it will be an estimated 30,000. The 24-year tally will be about a half-million.

Different corporate sponsors and charitable agencies joined in over time: Some came; some went; some stayed. Among the primaries partners working with the Bears and Medlin now are the Salvation Army, Jewel-Osco and William Meyers Movers.

Coats aren't collected at a game anymore. They can be dropped into boxes inside any of Jewel-Osco's 189 local stores.

On Oct. 30, Bears defensive end Julius Peppers made an appearance at the Jewel location in Libertyville and hundreds of people lined up from the front of the store to the back to meet him. Medlin estimates that 300 to 400 coats were collected there that day alone.

The Bears' coat drive officially benefits the Salvation Army and public schools around the Chicagoland area.

The Salvation Army distributes the coats, and it's mind-boggling how many folks need the bare necessity of winter wear.

The good news is that there always are more people ready to donate a coat; the bad news is there always are more people who don't have one.

Schools phone and ask for coat vouchers for their students. Shelters request them for the homeless. The suddenly unemployed need them for their families.

Tony Medlin says when asked what it feels like to help so many people, "It's a thrill."

Now Medlin, the Bears and other Chicagoland coat drives need you to help them help others stay warm this winter.

Please, see what you can do before the Bears' deadline Sunday.

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