Bears

Could Alex Bars solve the Bears' growing tackle problem?

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USA Today

Could Alex Bars solve the Bears' growing tackle problem?

INDIANAPOLIS — Three years ago, Harry Hiestand needed Alex Bars to play tackle. The then-Notre Dame offensive line coach had a hole to fill after Ronnie Stanley left for the NFL, and with Mike McGlinchey locked in to one starting gig, Hiestand hoped his former four-star recruit could succeed as a right tackle. 

“I think for what we need for our team, he definitely needs to play tackle,” Hiestand said at the time. “We need another guy that can play tackle so he’s being pushed in that role right now. … But he’s a very good guard, too. He’s a very flexible guy.”

The point of bringing up this quote from an old media availability at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in South Bend is this: Hiestand, now the Bears' offensive line coach, needed Bars to play tackle Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts

With four-year NFL veteran T.J. Clemmings carted to the locker room with a right leg injury late in the second quarter of Saturday’s game at Lucas Oil Stadium, and with second-year tackle Rashaad Coward already out with an elbow injury, the Bears suddenly had a red-line need at tackle. Cornelius Lucas, a five-year veteran, was badly beat numerous times in the first half, which didn’t feel like an anomaly based on his prior preseason performance. Bradley Sowell, the team’s backup swing tackle for the last two seasons, was moved to tight end this spring, and shed plenty of weight to make that transition.  

So the Bears called on Bars, who last played tackle in 2016 with Notre Dame, to play left tackle for two quarters. The result was notably positive. 

“I thought he did a great job,” Nagy said. “I was happy for him. You never know what you’re going to get, but he does have experience playing at Notre Dame there at that position. You could see that come out, which was good.”

Bars had already made a strong push to make the Bears’ roster over the last month as a guard, the position he played at Notre Dame following that 2016 season before a torn ACL and MCL ended his 2018 season prematurely — and knocked him from being a mid-round draft prospect to undrafted free agent. Showing the Bears he can play tackle should only help his case to survive the cut.

Still, two quarters of playing tackle against mostly third-stringers won't necessarily lead the Bears to trust Bars in a similar spot when the games matter in the regular season. 

The good news for the Bears is starting left tackle Charles Leno Jr. has proven to be one of the team’s most durable players over the last few years — he played every offensive snap in 2016 and 2017, and only didn’t in 2018 because Nagy removed most of his team’s starters during a relatively meaningless Week 17 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Right tackle Bobby Massie played all 16 games for the Bears in 2018, though he did miss a single game in both 2016 and 2017. 

But the Bears’ depth behind Leno and Massie feels like a problem. Bars, at the least, offered a glimmer of hope Saturday night that he could be the solution to it. 

“When you got some of your linemen on the sideline coming up to you that aren’t playing telling you man, he’s really doing well,” Nagy said, “you know he stands out.”

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Bears DL Akiem Hicks' unfiltered, raw interview, video and transcript

Bears DL Akiem Hicks' unfiltered, raw interview, video and transcript

In a lengthy, 28-minute Zoom call with reporters Wednesday, Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks opened up in a way players rarely do. It was emotional and raw, as Hicks touched on sensitive topics that, frankly, players have been silenced on speaking about in the past. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, more and more NFL players have been speaking out. Hicks’ words are especially powerful.

Now is the time to listen and Hicks’ feelings are worth watching or reading in their entirety. Here is the video, as well as the full transcript:

Do you think the NFL’s stance on kneeling during the National Anthem will change?

"Hmmm … OK. Yeah, so it’s a tough answer that I have to give man. I would say that I think it was clear at the beginning of it all that there wasn’t a lot of support. Right? From just our business as a whole. Right? And every aspect of our business, whether that be fans watching or ownership or you know, I’d go as far to say some players around the league. Right? And I would say that the underlying meaning was understood. But regardless of what he was standing for, the picture was painted in a way to make him be as if he was the aggressor or he was trying to make the situation about something different.

RELATED: For Bears players, the future of kneeling protests is the NFL's great unknown

"Look, everything is clear now. Right? As we come up on the other side of this in 2020. And it’s unfortunate that a young man had to sacrifice his career to bring attention and light to it. And now in talking to a lot of players across the league, there are several guys I have talked to who feel they would have done something different, that they wish they would have done something different at the time, that they wish they would have been more supportive. And for fear of whether it was their job or fear of blackballing themselves as that did happen to Kaepernick, a lot of people didn’t stand up with him. Myself included. I would say this: everything is clear now. Do I feel like there is going to be effective change for our business as a whole? I don’t know. Can’t say. I’ve seen a lot. This isn’t the first case, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen something like this happen. So."

What was your reaction to the two-hour team meeting on Monday and did it give you any kind of hope that it will be different this time around?

"I would say that the bigger point is that nobody embraced it. You know what I mean? There was such a large piece of the population that said, 'What is he doing? He doesn't like the flag, he doesn't like America. He's not a citizen. He's this, he's that.' That's the bigger issue to me. We're on the field for 90 minutes, we're on the field for however the amount of allotted time that it is, right? But when we leave that field, we live with a different reality than most. I would say that the bigger issue to me is lack of support as a whole rather than just the NFL."

How would you characterize how you felt about Monday’s team meeting? And as a member of the team’s social justice committee, how can you go about taking these discussions and pushing them forward into action?

"I’ll start with my reaction to the team meeting. Well, to be honest with you, to be completely honest with you, I didn’t have much feeling towards it. I wasn’t excited to get on that call. I didn’t think anything positive was going to come from it. I didn’t know why we were having this moment where we were singing kumbaya and trying to get over what’s really happening in the world. I felt like it might be a control situation where they want to control the narrative and point us in a direction so when we talk to you guys there’s only going to be a certain message that you guys hear.

"It was the complete opposite. It was totally different. I watched young black men, young white men, older coaches from all across the United States and watching everybody rebuild themselves in a way that isn’t common in sport or masculinity in general, and express their real feelings. Out in the open. Out in positions where you feel like somebody could start pointing at you and say, ‘Oh, I don’t know if that’s a good guy. I don’t know [if] we want him or that’s the type of person we want around the building.’ Everybody let those feelings go and shared from the heart and shared their real experiences. There was some hurtful stuff in there. There was some stuff where people were changed and altered for life. And I won’t speak on it because that’s their story, and that’s what they’re dealing with. But I will say this: as a team, there was a level of healing involved in that call, and there was a level of us just coming together. We just got a little bit tighter because we had this experience together. It was a positive call and I think it changed the lives of some of the young men on the team, and it changed mine. It changed my perspective on life."

What can your white teammates do going forward?

“I don’t put any extra weight on anyone. I’d rather carry it myself, personally. So what I’ll say, is that for me, I’m not going to push anybody in any direction. I want your path to take you there naturally. Whatever course you’re on, let it take you there. Whatever you feel, whatever you hear, whatever touches you in a way, I’ll let that be your moment. What I will say about our team — we do a good job, I think, of stopping separation. Keeping guys together. I’ll give you an example. Days we’d come into the cafeteria and let’s talk about a position group like the tight ends, who have mainly been Caucasian. They’ll be sitting at a table and there will be three guys of the same ethnicity and they’re having lunch together and you’re not thinking anything of it. But we have guys on our team that will break those barriers. I’ll go sit with them. Danny Trevathan will go sit with them. Now this table isn’t just one minority. We’re all together in this. That’s something that I noticed Kyle Long do; he didn’t care who was sitting at the table, he was coming in there and having a conversation with whatever ethnicity was at the table and that it something that is part of our organization that starts at the top.”

How meaningful was it for the coaches and front office to give you that platform in the meeting?

"Very meaningful. Very meaningful. I would say, sticking with what I was telling you earlier about not knowing what this meeting was going to bring, whether it was going to be effective or not, after experiencing it I felt like it was a very positive experience. Kudos to Coach for making it a space where we could talk and get stuff on the table and not have to bury it deep down inside, or pretend like it's not happening. That sometimes can be worse than being part of the other cause. It's just pretending like nothing is going on. One of the things that transpired during the meeting that I thought spoke volumes of the team was that one of our veterans, he spoke and he said that one of the things that would be positive is seeing these actions from our leadership, them standing out in front of the cause. Positive things will come from those moments that we had."

What is your take on the protests? Can something positive come of this?

"Do I believe something positive is going to come out of this situation as far as what's going to come out of the protests and demonstrations? Man, I hope so. This is different. One thing that I've seen, more than I've seen in other situations where black men have died in the streets because of police brutality, is that there are a lot more ethnicities out on the front line speaking out and standing up. I saw one picture that really stuck with me. There was a line of white people that stood in front of a group of other ethnicities because they felt like their lives or their bodies would be in danger if they were on the front lines — with black people, with Spanish people, whatever ethnicity was behind them, because it looked to be pretty diverse. I thought that was super powerful. It's a picture that's going to stay with me for a long time."

In regards to the coronavirus pandemic, what is it going to take to feel safe again as a player when it comes to practicing and playing games?

"Well shoot I don't know. I'll say this. I have been quarantining for a really long time. I even made a drink. It's called a Quarantini. But I'll say this, it is scary. It's scary to think that most of my job is physical contact with other players. And so boy, I don't know. I don't know. I want to be safe and I'm sure they're going to do their best to make sure we're in the best possible situation in order to be able to play this game and do it, right? But it's scary. That's how I feel."

How is your body? Are you physically healthy?

"I'm excited. I'm ready to play football again. This has been a ... it's been a long time. Remember I didn't really get to play this season right? So my season kind of it wrapped up in October and then I had one last hurrah right there in December and as far as ... I played four games. I miss football. So I'm ready. My body is doing as good as it can. But man, being back on that field will probably make it feel a whole lot better."

Has it bothered you that your team hasn’t worked out Colin Kaepernick? And is there anything you wish you had done differently during his protests?

"I'll speak to my part first. I can't take anything back. I have a saying. At that time when Kaepernick was taking a knee I had the same thought that 85, 90 percent of the league thought at that moment. If I get down on one knee in front of this stadium, I am fired. My job, my career, my life is over. I will be blackballed. And then to come out on the other end and watch it actually happen to Kaepernick, it just tells me my feelings were real. It was the reality and hopefully it won't be going forward. Now as far as my team, how do I feel about my team not working him out, we've got enough stuff to figure out other than bringing other people in it from other situations. What I will say is this though, it's not a Chicago problem, it's an entire league problem. There's 31 other teams that I don't know who's worked him out, who's brought him in. But I will say this, it doesn't start with Chicago.

"I do wonder though, hold on, let me continue that thought though. I wonder, let's say that his career is past him. How do we rectify that situation. How do we make it better because we all — I'm sure everybody, I cant speak for everybody on this call — but we've seen what has happened in the sport. We've seen how he has been pushed to the side. I wonder if they're going to rectify that situation. I wonder if they're going to make it better for everyone, including him."

RELATED: Matt Forte calls for police accountability at peaceful Chicago protest

What exactly goes into a Quarantini?

"There’s been a lot of variations. What I will say is this: after I found out that, I read an article — and just like everybody else, you read an article on Twitter and every other form of media — they said that drinking alcohol could increase your chances of getting COVID. That kinda went down the drain at that point. But I will say this: tequila was involved."

How could the league make things better for Colin Kaepernick?

"I wonder if he gets a job. I wonder if now they say, ‘Hey we need to bring you back in. We’ve seen the injustice. We’ve seen the wrong in the situation that we put you in. And we want to fix it.’ Now is it signing him back? Is it giving him a position in the league? Maybe he works on the social justice committees. Maybe he’s involved in a greater role, to make sure we don’t have these instances again. I can’t speak to how to fix the situation. All I will saw is this: we watched it. We saw how it unfolded. And we see that he doesn’t have a job now. And this call isn’t to advocate for Kap getting a job, but I will say that he did sacrifice his position for where he is now. I can’t say (he’s in a) tough spot, but I will say this, his career was ended because of it, in my opinion.

"We signed Mike Glennon."

Allen Robinson said we could see more athletes kneeling this season. Do you think that will be the case and have you considered that option?

"I haven’t thought about it. I really haven’t considered it. Do I see it being a possibility? It could be, it could be. I guess in my mind, I want another step. I want to see something bigger, different. That already turned out negatively, and we understood what he meant by it. I will say this: let’s make the situation better. I’ll choose change over having to take another knee. I’d rather we just move on."

You have that platform with the organization on the social justice committee. Is that something that now becomes closer to the front-burner for you and is it is something that requires recruiting other teammates to become more involved in these things so it's not just a gesture on game days?

"The beautiful thing about our social justice committee is that it was built by the players. We've already been hands on. Raised close to a million dollars in one season and donated to charities across Chicago. Hands of Hope. Kids for the city. Boys & Girls Club. We work with the city already and I think our personnel does a really good job. Soup Campbell does a really good job of making sure when guys come into the city they know that we're not just football players, we are a part of this community. And that starts at the top with Mr. McCaskey, right? Everybody is involved in making sure that we're giving back and putting our best foot forward in that category. So I don't think that we need to put an extra emphasis on it because it's already at the forefront of what the organization is about. Bears Care, right? Long before I became a part of this team. We have things in place to make sure that we're affecting change in our communities."

What types of actions as players can you take here in Chicago? And how censored now, given what you shared about the past, do you feel you have to be as an NFL player and an African American man?

"I feel like I've been censored my whole life. So for me to feel like I have to keep people at ease to make sure there's a calm while I'm in the room, those are natural things to me. And these things were taught to me in a way, right? Because at an early age, not just being a larger kid, but a larger black kid, I was seen as the antagonist in a lot of situations. I was seen as the bully. I was seen as a person, you know, just not in the best light, right? Developing my mindset going forward, I understood always that I had to make other people feel comfortable before myself. I'm going to continue to do that. I'm going to continue to make sure people feel comfortable around me. Is it unfortunate that I have to live that way? Call it what you want. But I do it because that's how I'm able to move through society and have people OK with me. Anyway, moving forward."

What kind of actions can players take with the platform you have?

"I think everybody right now is in a place of hurt in some instances, especially what I saw on the call the other day, right? Not the best feelings or emotions and I think that was one of the benefits of Coach having that call, is that it gave us a place where we wouldn’t be judged by society to speak on how we felt. So I don’t think anybody has made any plans or ready to move on anything. What we’re looking at right now is just having a better understanding, right? Keeping guys who may be frustrated or hurt by the things that have transpired in the past weeks, keeping them focused and making sure that we’re going in the right direction as far as a team and taking care of the person first. I think that’s what our organization is doing, is taking care of the person, making sure that everybody is in a good state to go forward."

Earlier you said, “We signed Mike Glennon." Do you think if Kaepernick hadn’t protested he would have gotten a starting job a big contract?

"You heard that? Yeah, I said that. I said that. It was a feeling. Do I think that Kaepernick would have gotten a good deal? Yeah, I think he would have gotten a good deal if he had not protested. I couldn’t even begin to speak to that. Do I know that he came to New Orleans when I played for New Orleans and played some really good football against us, won a game at the end of the game, like in the fourth quarter, 60-yard bomb, you remember all your stars. What I’ll say is he did take a team to the Super Bowl. Does he have all the qualifications that we seem to be looking for in NFL quarterbacks? Athletic, he can get the ball down the field, you know what I’m saying? I think that he fits a lot of those categories. Do I know if he would have gotten a huge deal and gone onto be a Hall of Fame quarterback? I don’t know these things. I just know that when he took a knee, he was silenced — or they attempted to silence him.”

Everyone asking you questions on this call is of one ethnicity. None of us can possibly understand what you’ve been going through. So how are you doing?

“Thank you for asking that. I appreciate that. Yeah, it is pretty interesting. It is a really interesting thing to be on this call, and as I swipe through, I don’t see once face that looks like mine. But what I do see is a lot of people I’ve had interactions with on a daily basis that have treated me with respect, have been honest, have worked with me on a lot of the things I’ve done over my four years here. And so what I’ll say is this: racism doesn’t exist in every situation. Have I experienced it or encountered it in my 30 years on this planet? A lot of times. But I can’t live my life or do my job if the first thing on my mind is, ‘This person doesn’t like me because of the color of my skin.’ Now do I experience it? Do I ever feel it? Yes. But I have to interact with every single one of you and to have that mindset it wouldn’t do me any justice.”

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Why NFL, Bears might be ready to support more Colin Kaepernick-like protests

Why NFL, Bears might be ready to support more Colin Kaepernick-like protests

Akiem Hicks arrived in Chicago in 2016 on a two-year contract — which, really, was a one-year deal with the way it was structured. 2016 is the year Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality. 

Is it all that crazy to think one of the NFL’s best, most dominant defensive players could’ve been out of the league had he taken a knee too?

“At that time when Kaepernick was taking a knee I had the same thought that 85, 90 percent of the league thought at that moment,” Hicks said Wednesday. “If I get down on one knee in front of this stadium, I am fired. My job, my career, my life is over. I will be blackballed.

“And then to come out on the other end and watch it actually happen to Kaepernick it just tells me my feelings were real. It was the reality and hopefully it won't be going forward.”

Hopefully. Hopefully the NFL does not banish a player for a peaceful protest. 

Because it seems apparent quite a few players, after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, are going to peacefully protest in some way during the 2020 season. 

MORE: Akiem Hicks on the Bears' powerful team meeting Monday

So is the NFL actually ready not only for more demonstrations by its players, but also to support them?

A number of things that happened on Wednesday, 10 days after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, suggest the league as a whole might be.

First of all: All three players who met with Chicago media — Hicks, linebacker Danny Trevathan and wide receiver Allen Robinson — all talked openly and frankly about Kaepernick’s message, demonstration and ultimate blackballing from the league. Hicks, notably, said when finishing a thought on Kaepernick (who was a free agency in 2017): "We signed Mike Glennon." 

But four years removed from Kaepernick's first protest, there was some hope among some of the Bears' most important leaders that something similar wouldn't be received the same way in 2020. 

“I feel like a lot of people have more time to think about it than back then,” Trevathan said. “Back then it was just, like, made about one situation, about the military, and that’s what everybody was focusing on. ‘People are disrespecting the flag, disrespecting the military.’ I’ve got people in my family that fought for America in the military, different branches. So it wasn’t about that.

“It was about something bigger than that issue. It was about police brutality and the way we treat people. Right now, I feel like we are taking a different stand because people are sick of it.”

Kaepernick’s message was “hijacked by the wrong voices,” as Robinson said. But it seems like we’re past the point of that message being hijacked anymore. Look at the swift condemnation of Drew Brees, who said when asked about players possibly kneeling again when the season starts: “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.”

Those are players, though, speaking out against Brees. But what about the NFL establishment — the league officials, owners, general managers, etc.?

“I do think that they would be tolerant of it,” Robinson said. “Do I think (kneeling) is the next step? I’m not sure if that’s the next step but I think that’s probably in the talks of being a possible kind of action taken.

“… I think that could possibly be something that would just kind of show the unity of the league and teams acknowledging the wrong that they had with that and just how that kind of whole situation went down. But is that the exact cause of action? I’m not 100% sure, but I’m pretty sure that will probably be thrown in the mix somehow.”

Hicks, though, hoped more action would be taken going forward than taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality.

“I guess in my mind, I want another step,” Hicks said. “I want to see something bigger, different. That already turned out negatively, and we understood what (Kaepernick) meant by it. I will say this: Let’s make the situation better. I’ll choose change over having to take another knee. I’d rather we just move on.”

MORE: Matt Forte calls for police accountability at peaceful Chicago protest

Bears coach Matt Nagy didn’t specifically commit to supporting players who would take a knee in protest, but did commit to doing a lot of listening and expected whatever his team did, they'd do together. 

“I’ll look for advice from the players,” Nagy said. “Hey, how do you think we should handle this?”

Those demonstrations may not necessarily look like Kaepernick’s. Maybe they will. Players have three months — assuming the season starts on time amid the COVID-19 pandemic — to discuss and decide how to use their gameday platforms to try to effect change and make our country safe and equitable for the Black community. 

But it feels like players are feeling not only emboldened to do more, but feel more secure in doing so. And that's key, because one of the most important things I heard today was Robinson talking about not letting the activism and the pushes for progress get lost as we get farther and farther away from the killing of George Floyd.

Here’s what he had to say:

“I think the biggest thing for me is challenging everybody — African-American, other ethnicities, white, no matter what it is — to even when we get past these next days, weeks, months, to keep the same energy and keep the same mindset that you have now,” Robinson said. “As open as your eyes and ears are right now in this current moment, in the future, to have that same kind of humility, to have your eyes and ears open.

“To people who are protesting and to some people who are looting, that fire and that passion that you have for your community and for your peers of whatever ethnic group you’re from, have that same energy when it comes to being able to give back in the community when things aren’t happening when a man is being killed for being Black and being arrested. Have that same kind of passion and compassion in the future.

“I think that if we can do that you’ll see a greater change where it doesn’t take all this happening for somebody to hold up a sign, to go march in the street. You can still get your voice out. You can still give back to the community. You can still do all those things.

“The caucasian people we may know, to go out there, it’s the same thing. It doesn’t take this for somebody to be, okay, we’re acknowledging what’s right or wrong. If you’re walking down the street and you see something that isn’t right happening, to let your voice be known that that isn’t right. I think if we do that as people, I think everything will start to become better, a better place, and just start to naturally start to become better.”

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