The storyline has already been formed: If the Bears are forced to go with undrafted Cornelius Edison as their center, the 2016 season is lost.
“I mean, how ridiculous to think that an undrafted free agent could be the starting center for the Chicago Bears, and they win,” deadpanned Jay Hilgenberg, making less than no attempt to mask the irony in his voice.
With very good reason.
Because Hilgenberg himself came into the NFL as an afterthought, undrafted out of Iowa in 1981 and then going on to an 11-year career with the Bears, capped by a Super Bowl ring in 1985. Seven Pro Bowls, five All-Pro selections.
Edison may come nowhere near the heights reached by Hall of Fame nominee Hilgenberg. Or of Hall of Fame Miami center Jim Langer, also undrafted. But Hilgenberg has a strong bit of advice for Edison, who started Saturday in the Bears preseason game vs. Kansas City and could be their starter on Opening Day, depending on health elsewhere on the interior of the Bears offensive line.
“I would say to him, ‘You’re in an NFL camp because you can play football,’” Hilgenberg told CSNChicago.com. “Don’t let how you entered that camp take anything away from you. You deserve to be there. You just need to prove it a little bit more than the first-rounders.’”
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It may not always be easy, of course.
Hilgenberg, who fought his way onto the final roster in 1981, once famously turned to then-teammate Revie Sorey on the bench during a blowout of the Bears in Hilgenberg’s first season, and said, “Revie, we’re the worst team in the NFL.”
Sorey, never one to duck the truth, nodded.
Hilgenberg added, “And I’m the worst player on this team.”
Again, no disagreement from Sorey.
“So that makes me the worst player in the NFL, doesn’t it?” Hilgenberg concluded.
Silence from Sorey.
Hilgenberg turned out to not be the worst player in the NFL, but not without epic struggles, and he knows what Edison will be going through. And how the young center can make it.
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“To be honest there is always a little insecurity in you,” Hilgenberg recalled. “I had confidence that I belonged but I had to fight every day. And the truth is, I wanted it more than anything else in the world. I was going to make it.
“I didn’t have Plan B. I didn’t want to go back to Iowa then, so I didn’t have Plan B.
Hilgenberg used teams’ not drafting him as motivation, and Bears teammates recalled him savoring facing supposed elite defensive linemen, No. 1 picks, and handling them. Beyond his attitude, however, was a method.
“I played against a lot of big, strong guys in the NFL, and I wasn’t going to back down from anybody,” Hilgenberg said. “As soon as you learn how to play with the right fundamentals, you learn that there’s no Supermen out there. If you can play fundamentally and with good technique, you can block anybody… .
“Offensive line play is honestly all about how bad you want it. How much are you willing to do? How important is it to you? What does it mean to you?”
Edison is in the process of answering those exact questions.