Almost without exception and not expressly by design, the Bears this offseason have brought in a succession of free agents from teams with a history of success: Arizona (Ted Larsen, Bobby Massie), Denver (Danny Trevathan), Indianapolis (Jerrell Freeman), New England (Akiem Hicks), among others.
But while playoff appearances were only incidental, football character has been a decidedly prominent target in the search process, and in no small part, that character has centered around the driving motivations inside players who felt overlooked or slighted as far back as their draft years. Using slights as motivation is time-honored, and multiple Bears are carrying an inner grudge that they are translating into something positive: Don’t get bitter; get better.
Put another way: The players have the requisite pads on their shoulders, and underneath those, some giant chips on those shoulders.
“I see a lot of guys with that chip on their shoulder,” said linebacker Willie Young, himself a former seventh-round draft choice by Detroit and who has never felt secure in the NFL. “My biggest thing and it kind of goes back to what I said about Day 1 in Detroit. Regardless of what … I had to figure out how to survive with what I was given. You come into the league as a seventh-round draft pick, you’re expecting to be nothing but a practice-squad guy.
“But I never heard that. I never paid that no mind. I continued to live life on the edge — playin’ ball on the edge, take my chances… . Every day … it’s a jungle out there, man. I’ve never had a break. I don’t expect to get a break.”
Young paused. “I’m always working. I’m always working.”
Trevathan comes from Denver with a Super Bowl ring and two Super Bowl appearances in the last three years, but also with an edge from falling to the sixth round in his (2012) draft.
“I feel like, that you know a lot of people doubt them or some guys were hurt last year or this and that, but you know they're playing like they're hungry, with a chip on their shoulder,” Trevathan said. “They're playing like they're hungry and that's what I'm used to and that's where you need to start.”
It is not an emotional burn to take lightly, even among greats.
Michael Jordan used doubters as fuel. Jay Hilgenberg, an undrafted free agent center who went to seven Pro Bowls, knew draft rounds of defensive tackles he had coming up, and the higher the pick, the better.
Hilgenberg never lost the chip. He is not alone in holding a constructive grudge.
“No question, that chip never leaves your shoulder, especially a free agent like I am,” Freeman said. “I know [Trevathan] was a late-round pick… .It’s always going to stay on you. That’s just why we play like we do; just running around, aggressive, just flying around because we have that … I know I have that free-agent mentality. I just feel like I’ll always be a rookie free agent in everybody’s eyes, so I’m out to prove [myself to] everybody.
“I don’t think anybody in the NFL has taken my path: Division III [college], CFL, NFL, being cut. I just have the mentality [that] I just don’t want to go home. I feel like I’m out to prove myself not week-to-week, just every day, in the weight room, training, on the field, My journey has kind of shaped me into who I am.”
The result even in these earliest stages of the run-up to the 2016 is palpable and on the minds of numerous veteran players, not to mention perhaps rookies like running back Jordan Howard (fifth round) who would like nothing better than to show opponents that passing over them was a mistake.
“I can definitely see a chip on a lot of guys,” Young reiterated. “Seems like there are a lot of similarities.”