By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch

MACOMB, Ill. - As coach Mike Martz sees it, the arrival of the Chicago Bears here amounts to nothing more than "just practice."

Just practice?

For the 18,000 denizens of this west central Illinois town, nothing could be further from the truth. The Bears are in town for joint practices today and Friday with the Rams, with a scrimmage on Saturday.

According to Macomb Mayor Mick Wisslead, this will be a bigger event than the Heritage Days festival in June.

... Bigger than the balloon rally in September.

... Bigger than a Western Illinois football homecoming weekend.

"It's just super," Wisslead said. "This is going to be a great way that we can showcase Macomb, and we can showcase Western Illinois University."

In fact, the general consensus among the locals is that the Bears' appearance is bigger even than "Super Bowl 34 1/2" - the joint practices and scrimmage between the Rams and the Tennessee Titans in 2000, just six months removed from Super Bowl XXXIV.

Why? Because the Rams' opponent this time is 'Da Bears.'

"Oh, my gosh. The draw for the fan base between St. Louis and Chicago is enormous here," said Kim Pierce, executive director of the Macomb Area Economic Development Corp. "So we're really expecting to see enormous crowds. The town's really geared up for it."

Macomb is situated about three hours north of St. Louis and three hours south of Chicago. But let's face it, this is Illinois, not Missouri. And the Bears have been in business for 80 years; the Rams are embarking on just their 10th season in St. Louis.

The Bears once were the dominant NFL team here, but the Rams have made inroads on the fan base during their nine seasons of summer training in Macomb.

"Once you get into Macomb, it seems everything turns blue and gold," Rams defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. "So I don't really know about how much Bear country it is around here. They may have the state, but we've got one little piece of it right here. And they're coming into our area."

True, but don't be surprised if there are as many - or more - Bears fans than Rams fans around this weekend.

According to Sean Kelly of the Western Illinois ticket office, which is handling ticket sales for Saturday's scrimmage, about 55 to 60 percent of ticket sales have been to Bears fans.

"I would say this is more a Bears area," Kelly said. "There's a decent number of Rams fans here."

As of midday Wednesday, nearly 12,000 tickets had been sold for the scrimmage at Hanson Field, home of Leathernecks football. About 200 reserved seats - at $15 a ticket - remained. Those tickets were returns from the Bears and Rams organizations.

With basically all of the stadium seats sold out, the university began selling $10 general admission lawn tickets earlier this week. "We have about 2,000 (lawn) seats left," Kelly said.

There will be no separate Rams and Bears sections at Hanson Field. Instead, fans from both teams will be mixed together in the stands.

"Hopefully, no bad Cubs-Cardinals ties are still lingering here," Kelly said.

Kelly said the ticket office has received requests from fans as far away as Texas, Arizona and California. Macomb's 600 hotel rooms have been sold out for quite some time, with fans booking rooms as far away as the Illinois towns of Galesburg and Quincy.

The Bears, by the way, will be staying in the same Thompson Hall dormitory as the Rams. They will eat in the same dining hall, with slightly staggered starts for eating. Rams general manager Charley Armey has graciously agreed to move out of his first floor office and apartment at Thompson today to accommodate visiting NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

As part of the Rams-Bears festivities, there will be live music and a beer tent at the town square tonight, Friday and Saturday. On Saturday night, more than 300 classic cars will be part of a car show on the square.

Bolstered by the Bears' appearance, Pierce estimates that Rams camp will bring in more than $1 million in revenue to Macomb this summer.

Of course, the last thing on Martz's mind is fan loyalties, economic impact or ticket sales. He just wants to get in some quality practice work.

"The guys, after this amount of time in camp, they just need to line up against somebody different," Martz said. "It's a long haul through camp. It's a good change to see your guys against other people, and allow them to compete a little bit in practice."

The operative words there being compete "a little bit."

Things got out of hand four years ago when the Titans visited Macomb. After the first day of workouts, Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher chastised his team for getting "outplayed" by the Rams. Things got a lot more intense the next day, with Rams draft picks Trung Canidate and Kaulana Noa both suffering injuries.

But with good friend and former Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith now coaching the Bears, Martz believes things won't get out of hand this time.

"Knowing Lovie and how he'll approach this practice, it'll be like practicing against your own team," Martz said. "There won't be the fights and all that stuff that happens