LONDON — When the Bears’ travel party of 208 people boarded its Virgin Atlantic flight to London on Thursday evening, coach Matt Nagy and his players had one mission.
That was the goal for almost everyone on an overnight flight. And getting rest is essential for a Bears team facing a quick turnaround from their 9:30 a.m. Friday arrival at Heathrow to play the Raiders at 6 p.m. (noon, local) Sunday at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
“I’m gonna conk out, for sure,” quarterback Chase Daniel said.
NFL teams are accustomed to travel, but making the seven-plus hours trip to London presents unique circumstances.
Nagy chose to make it a short stay, with one practice Friday, because that worked for the Chiefs when he was an assistant for Kansas City. But even that has required months of thought and planning from Bears staff to make the team’s experience in London as similar as possible to any other road game.
“There are so many things, just as simple as the time change, what do you do when you’re on the airplane?” Nagy said. “How does your body react when you leave a few days prior? What do you do when you get there? How does your mind react to the sleep, no sleep?
“And then when you’re there, there’s distractions. Over the years there have been some things that have distracted teams. That’s my job is prevention, making sure I’m on top of all that and we’re on top of all that.”
The Bears’ trip arrangements, led by director of team logistics and travel Simon Gelan, went well beyond making sure players such as David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen secured their first passports, though that task already was started in the offseason.
In May, a group of Bears staff members went to London to scout the stadium, practice location and hotel. Since then, they’ve worked on getting equipment and food aligned with the Bears’ preferences.
“We’re going to another country, but it’s the same routine,” said Gelan, who previously planned a London game when he was the Browns football operations director. “Nothing is really going to change. We’re trying to keep everything as like we’re going anywhere here.”
That starts with making sure the Bears have every piece of equipment they use for practices and games in the United States, where they usually send shipments via trucks.
In July the Bears sent an ocean shipment of 15 palettes of goods, including water, Gatorade, ice buckets and taping equipment. They sent two more shipments as airplane cargo Thursday, with 80 percent — mostly what they’ll need for the game, including uniforms — leaving at 10 a.m. The remaining 20 percent, including practice gear that players will use Thursday before they leave, will be shipped at 4 p.m.
Every item is cataloged with details including height, weight and cost to help it get through customs.
“Everything we’ve needed for the team is going to make it over there,” Gelan said. “Any time we travel, it’s going to an away city, but it feels like home.”
The Bears also will expect some home cooking.
Gelan said sport science coordinator and dietitian Jennifer Gibson worked with the team hotel to ensure the Bears’ usual menu items are prepared the way they like — from how they want their eggs scrambled and pancakes made to what they expect of their pizza.
“Things we might take for granted here that everybody obviously understands, we want to make sure we’re not taking anything for granted when we go over there,” Gelan said. “It’s being extra detailed.”
In 2018 the Eagles sent their own condiments over to make sure they had the right ketchup, mustard and hot sauce. But Gelan said many of the hotels have gotten used to hosting teams and invested in the products Americans want.
The Bears had one other special food request, straight from the top.
The night before every game, Nagy ends his team meeting by treating his players to ice cream sundaes that must include chocolate and vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
“That’s probably the first thing when I got here that it was like, you’ve got to have it,” Gelan said.
So the Bears will have it in London.
A few things will be different. The team won’t have a police escort to games as they do everywhere in the U.S., meaning they’ll have to deal with traffic like anyone else.
The other major difference, of course, is they will be playing in a soccer stadium — but a new one designed with the NFL in mind.
Populous lead NFL architect Brady Spencer, who helped design several U.S. football stadiums, worked with the NFL to create a Premier League stadium that can accommodate American football better than most in Europe. The NFL and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium have a 10-year contract to play at least two games per year there.
It includes a retractable grass soccer pitch that can move under fixed seating in 25 minutes and stay alive there for up to 10 days thanks to grow lights, air ventilation, dehumidification and irrigation systems. Underneath is the NFL artificial turf the Bears and Raiders will play on.
One hospitality level has been converted into a press box — with sound-proof coaching booths, radio booths and operations suites for things such as instant replay. A portion of another club level will house the national broadcast because American football broadcasters need to be at the 50-yard line while soccer broadcasters often sit at a different angle.
And the stadium, which opened in April, includes locker rooms specifically built to fit NFL teams. The Bears will get the smaller locker room — as visiting teams usually do — but Spencer said it’s still big enough to meet their needs.
“They’re going to be very pleased with what they have there,” he said. “It’s definitely a big step up from having to fit the teams’ needs into a soccer locker room, which is the case with some of the other facilities they play at in Europe.”
Given that Sunday’s Bears-Raiders game will be the first NFL game at the stadium, Daniel hopes it will run more smoothly than when he went to London with the Saints in 2017.
The Dolphins and Saints had problems with their headsets, and Daniel had to run in play calls from coach Sean Payton to quarterback Drew Brees.
“We’ll have a great plan if that happens,” Daniel said. “It helps that we do a lot of tempo, but it’ll be interesting to see. You’ve got to prepare for all that stuff. It’s way more than just going and playing an away game. It’s the first NFL game ever there at the stadium.”
As for the rest of the players’ preparations for the trip, most agreed slipping into sleep mode on the flight and staying hydrated during travel were their biggest concerns. They seem to have gotten Nagy’s message that it’s a business trip first and foremost, though Nagy said there likely will be some controlled time to relax and enjoy themselves.
Asked if he would get a chance to see the sights, outside linebacker Khalil Mack said, “I mean, they might get a chance to see me. I’m not going out there for particularly anything other than to beat the Raiders.”