Several weeks ago, Windy City fathers proudly outfitted the two bronze lions guarding the Art Institute with huge Chicago Bears football helmets fashioned from upended Weber grills.

A few nights later, somebody stole them.

The cops got the missing headgear back, and there are plans to decorate the lions with them Sunday as the team meets the Los Angeles Rams at Soldier Field for the National Football Conference championship.

Just to make sure nothing goes wrong this time, a guard will protect the helmets.

The moral is clear to all Chicagoans: you can lose anything around here. Real fast. Without even trying.

Nowhere is the madness for the Monsters of the Midway at a more crazed level than here in this heartland metropolis.

All the svelte bankers, sweaty commodities traders, smooth-bore lawyers, wide-palmed cops, lunch-bucket blue collars, fedoraed ward heelers, threadbare reporters, all the citizenry of the nation's No. 3 city are in love with the team that its bull-necked, hard-nosed coach, Mike Ditka, fondly calls "a Grabowski."

Fans are mobbing souvenir stores, soaking up the sports pages, betting furiously, scalping tickets, and losing sleep over this team.

And why not? Few American cities have so long or so glorious a history of losers as Chicago.

Chicagoans can savor the glories of a 15-1 regular season for the Bears. They can embrace their heroes for walking off with the Central Division title nearly two months ago, for shutting out the New York Giants last week to breeze into the conference finale, one step from the Jan. 26 Super Bowl in New Orleans.

They can love lineman William (The Refrigerator) Perry, embrace quarterback Jim McMahon, and adore incomparable running back Walter Payton.

But Chicagoans cannot forget the undoing of the 1983 White Sox by the Baltimore Orioles in the American League baseball playoffs, or the demise of the Cubs a year later at the hands of the San Diego Padres in the National League playoffs.

They cannot forget that it has been 22 long, dismal years since the great championship season of 1963, when the Bears last reigned supreme. The record of final failure dogs everyone's enthusiasm.

Perhaps Dave Rieser, a 29-year-old lawyer born and raised in Chicago, said it best.

"I think everyone's for 'em, but everyone's just kind of hunkered down," he mused during a recent break in a day of litigation and brief-writing. "It's very scary. There's nothing the Bears have done all year long that could give anyone reason to believe they'll lose to L.A. . . .

"But there are the gods. There's fate. And there's the tradition of this city.

"Everyone's heart has been broken so many times. The Black Hawks, the Sox, the Cubs . . . . People here just don't know how to handle the pressure. The Bears played incredible ball all year, but you never know."

Former Washingtonian John Hedden, who has lived here a few years, senses these darker undercurrents blowing in the Windy City. "If the Bears are in the Super Bowl, it's a huge opportunity that if they blow, they're going to regret for ever and ever. If they blow it this year, they may not get back for another 10 or 15 years."

But among the throngs at the party spots along Rush Street and the upscale fern bars around Lincoln Park, as well as the rougher, tougher dank spots of the industrial districts, this city is thinking only of the Bears.

Partying Old Towners, upscale Up Towners, intellectual Hyde Parkers, Bridgeport precinct captains, Poletown regulars, the men from the Ukrainian Village, Greektown, Back o' the Yards, Pill Hill, and a hundred other ethnic enclaves are spending their money and their emotions on the team of Grabowskis.

Even in so unsweaty a place as the glitzy Water Tower shopping mall on North Michigan Avenue, the Bears rule. Twenty post-holiday bargain-seekers stopped in their tracks at a posh store to stare and smile in delight at images dancing on a glowing TV screen.

A woman of blue-tinted locks dug an elbow into a mink-draped friend.

"Look!" she cooed, "It's them! Those darlings!"

And the 20 mesmerized citizens began shufflin' in unison as their darling Chicago Bears strutted and sang a new rap song and music video, "The Super Bowl Shuffle."

Even Neiman-Marcus has found a need to fill: they will offer a "Fridge" sandwich, a tasty collection of sliced cold cuts, cheeses, onion slices, lettuce, and other deli delicacies on a submarine roll, carrying a Fridge-sized price tag of $17 for the whole thing, or $4.50 per slice.

A spokeswoman said one portion "will easily feed two people." She said the store had not checked out the ingredients with the 308-pound rookie lineman who has become a legendary presence in NFL-dom. "Maybe we'll send him a slice," she said.

Then she thought better of it. "He's probably interested in a snack, really. Probably the $17 sandwich."

Sports Arena, a local chain of specialty stores, has repeatedly sold out of $19.95 and $16.95 Bears jerseys carrying the Fridge's now-familiar No. 72.

Store manager Mark Klaber said one recent purchaser was a contestant in a Miss Illinois beauty contest who wanted a special outfit to catch the judges' eyes.

"Anything people see on television during the game, or on the news -- they want it," he said. "Ditka wore a sweater to one news conference and the next day, we were flooded with calls from people who wanted 'the Mike Ditka sweater.' " The store sold out of the item in a few days.

Bears fans, long-used to losing seasons, are holding their breath, crossing their fingers, and waiting. Maybe this time . . .