By Joseph Lewis
Rookie OTAs and mandatory veteran minicamp have come and gone, and we are officially a week away from the start of training camp. Meaning it's just over fifty days until we can witness the first regular season snap for the Bears in 2021. Though the thought of Bears football being right around the corner may offer a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel for some, the past year has been a painstaking process for many Chicagoans. We all spent a year inside our homes, a year adjusting to life apart from loved ones and a year adjusting to sickness and death at rates that one can never fully prepare for. It was a time when many of us were looking for an escape from the dread of our local news cycle: reports of how many of us had contracted the dreaded COVID-19 virus filled our televisions, radios and smart phones. It was inescapable. Through the dread, however, hope started to emerge. We learned of vaccines being produced in record times, people began to “mask up” and adjust to life in the “panny”.
Amid this life altering event sports were able to continue, albeit under reduced circumstances. Stadiums would only be partially filled, and the roar of the crowds were absent from our local broadcasts. Things were different in the press box as well; sections of desks and tables were quartered off for a limited group of media members and the beautiful noise that fans create during games were absent. In fact, the tackles, screaming, and groaning from the players themselves echoed from well above 50 feet. It was an eerie feeling that unfortunately, was the reality for us all.
Rookie OTAs were relaxed and focused on the rookies adapting to the timing and structure of the NFL life. No longer would these standout players be considered the “big dogs on campus” as they had in their respective schools, instead, they would have to start over(again) and learn a new level of football.
Justin Fields, Teven Jenkins, Larry Borom, Khalil Herbert, Dazz Newsome, Thomas Graham Jr, and Khyiris Tonga were the focus as they sought to establish roles for themselves and learn the game. Most days saw each player learning to adapt their game to this new level with a chance to learn from veterans in a short time. At the start of veteran minicamp, most veterans would be in attendance, even standout wide receiver, Allen Robinson would attend. Outside of injuries, there were no major holdouts except for defensive lineman Eddie Goldman, who would remain absent throughout the entirety of minicamp.
The air at Halas Hall was filled with a level of optimism that was not only brought on by the Draft but brought on by the
lessening of the virus. For those members of the press who were vaccinated, an agreement was reached with the Bears allowing us to take off our masks and interact with one another in a way that hasn’t been done in over a year. This optimism translated to a relaxed but focused atmosphere at Halas Hall. Players were excited, vocal, and “flying” all over the field for the first time since 2019’s minicamp. The defensive backs and Wide receivers focused on catching drills, while the lineman tweaked their technique as the veterans shared their wisdom to the rookies there. Every day of practice led to Coach Matt Nagy screaming, “Offense! Defense!” and though there were no pads on, both sides of the ball were eager to face off against each other. Andy Dalton oversaw the 1s, and his veteran presence made an immediate impact on how the team got to the line of scrimmage and ran its plays. Justin Fields and Nick Foles led the 2s and 3s respectively and each got a chance to show off their arm strength. Minicamp featured standout plays from defensive back Kindle Vildor and Wide receiver Damiere Byrd. Vildor found himself picking up about an interception a day from Andy Dalton, while Byrd was able to pierce through the defense for lightning-fast receptions.
The focus, however, never left Justin Fields. With every throw he attempted, the smartphones and DSLRs of journalists snapped away. His quiet demeanor was in focus for everyone and his ability to learn and process football at the professional level was felt from everyone at Halas Hall. Even receiving compliments from second year wide receiver Darnell Mooney who exclaimed at how he “smiled” when Justin Fields launched a spot-on ball as Mooney caught it on a go-route. Throughout the zoom-call interviews, players would routinely hold back their excitement for the young player, always making sure to highlight his humble-ness and leadership.
All in all, this year’s rookie OTAs and veteran minicamp gave Chicago fans something they have not felt in over a year: Hope, that some sense of normalcy is returning. We will see how long it lasts.