Guest referee gig turns into Super Bowl trip as Markham woman named Bears Fan of the Year

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Shameka Leach has been a Chicago Bears fan since she was a little girl watching games with her father and brothers, but it’s the team’s outreach to others that has cemented the team in her heart.

“As a team, I love the Bears for the community service part of it. I’m a really big community service activist,” the Markham resident shared.

“What I love about them is they continuously — this is the part that I see and participate in — they do stuff for their community and across the state. That’s the part I love where they give back. … It’s not just the game for me. Why I love them is for the game and community service. A lot of people don’t get to see what the actual players or the organization are doing.”

Leach, who volunteers plenty of time herself both with the team and off the field, was surprised at a game when the Bears played the Las Vegas Raiders by being named the Bears’ nominee for 2023 NFL Fan of the Year.

“I’m the same person inside the game and outside the game. I love the city. I love my team. I will do anything for my team with regards to community service and the love of the game,” she said. “I’m not just a fan whether they win or lose. I’m a fan 100.”

The honor was a total surprise for Leach, who thought she was at the game to guest referee a halftime flag football game between Chicago’s Staley Da Bear and Las Vegas’ Raider Rusher.

“It definitely was a complete shock,” she said. “When they granted me the award, I was shocked, humbled and confused!”

The award “aims to honor and celebrate exceptional fans who inspire others through their passion for football,” according to a news release from the Bears. “Each NFL club has the opportunity to nominate a local fan to potentially become the ultimate 2023 NFL Fan of the Year during Super Bowl week.” This is the fourth year for the award.

The Bears nominated Leach because of her active support and volunteer efforts in the past six years at Bears Huddle events and monthly community service volunteer activities, including for the Pro Football Retired Players Association in Chicago, where she coordinates volunteers for a golf outing.

She also has attended training camp and participated in Bears watch parties. “It’s evident that Shameka is not only a passionate Bears fan but also a dedicated advocate for football, actively seeking to create opportunities within her community,” the release noted.

One of those community opportunities is a free football camp for kids she runs with former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver James Loving, a 1984 graduate of Shepard High School. Leach and Loving were neighbors at one time, although Loving now lives in Colorado.

Loving had been doing a free one-day football camp known as Loving Tomorrow’s Kids for two years before joining forces with Leach. When Loving’s fiancee, Kristine Marwitz, died from cancer in 2020, he reached out to Leach and told her he needed help. Leach told him to give her everything and she’d do it if he got former football players to show up.

More than 100 kids from Robbins showed up for the first camp, including three girls. “From then, the camp is so smooth and people have been wanting to come and help and be in it like she does,” Loving said. “She went to bat for all the kids, the coaches. She went over and beyond.”

Leach told Loving he’d just be responsible for the day of the camp in mid-July. “I come in two days before, and we run the camp. She took care of all the food, getting the donations of food, the teachers to play. Getting the coaches set up — 99% of the camp she ran,” Loving said.

Leach admitted she wasn’t sure she wanted to help Loving at first, “but he said he believed we could do it.” She asked local businesses to donate money, food and T-shirts for the kids, and Crown Trophies in Indiana donated plaques and trophies.

Although the camp initially was just for players in Robbins, where they grew up, that didn’t seem quite fair, so they expanded their reach to all of the Chicago area.

“I got players from the NFL. We have a brotherhood who want to come, but (the expenses) were coming out of my pocket to fly them in,” Loving said. “So we (invited) four players. But then we had 10 or 15 players who wanted to come and said they’d pay for their own” flights and hotel rooms.

The most recent camp, right before the COVID-19 pandemic began, had 40 to 50 kids making their way through each coach’s station for about 20 minutes. “Everybody is welcome. If somebody has their pet there doing workouts, we’ll have them,” Loving joked.

He said when Leach told him about the award, he was not very surprised, especially given her connections with many players. “When she loves something, she does it. I thought it should have come a couple of years before. She’s a die-hard Bears fan no matter what. Anything that (they ask) she’s there — no questions asked. She would never turn something down that would have something to do with kids.”

He added that he’s pleased she received the honor. “I’m really proud of her. I told her it’s well-deserved.”

Leach, who works for UPS as a revenue recovery supervisor, is also the brand ambassador for Great Lakes Credit Union and a planning and zoning commissioner for the city of Markham. She said the corporate offices of the credit union are in Bannockburn in northern Illinois. “Half the fans are Packers fans and half are Bears fans, so our game days are interesting.”

The 32 nominees are getting to know each other, including through a group chat the NFL set up, and are known as a “fanily.” She’s met the Fan of the Year nominated by the Green Bay Packers. “He said he would have to admit to having a friend who is a Bears fan,” Leach joked.

The award includes an all-expenses paid trip for two to the Super Bowl LVIII in Paradise, Nevada, including two tickets to the game and a VIP experience. The overall winner will be named during Super Bowl weekend.

Right away, people began jockeying to go with Leach, including the co-anchors of “Good Morning Chicago” who were sharing her story. But in the end an aunt earned the honor.

“It was a process of elimination,” Leach shared. “My dad can’t fully walk. I only have one son (Michael Armwood Jr.) but he’s not 21, and my mother — she loves me and the sport but she’s not a sports person. My aunt is into football in general, 100%. She’s a Bears fan.”

Leach is honored to be the Bears’ nominee. “I’m just excited to be there, but if that win comes about, it will be great.”

To vote for Leach, visit by Feb. 7.

As part of the Fan of the Year experience, Leach will receive a personalized, stitched jersey with No. 23 on it because it’s 2023. “Every team has a fan of the year, so we’ll all have on the same number, 23″ she said.

On game days, Leach picks her outfit carefully, always including one of her three Bears hats, a special purse, jacket, earrings, shoes and socks. “My whole game day is all Bear down,” she shared.

“I’m not as crazy as the people painting their face and their costumes. If you were going to walk into work, you’d know it was me,” she said, adding that one of her three bedrooms at home is “Bears ready,” as is one of her bathrooms, where “everything is personalized, including the toothbrush, towels, tissues, garbage pail and my pictures on the wall.”

Melinda Moore is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.


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