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Bears host area prospects at local pro day


Last summer Buffalo Grove's Maema Njongmeta, a linebacker at Wisconsin, attended a Bears training camp practice at Halas Hall as a fan.

On Tuesday, the former Stevenson High School standout was back at the Lake Forest facility along with more than 40 other NFL prospects participating in the Bears' local pro day in advance of the draft.

"I was here this past summer with my friends to watch practice," Njongmeta said. "That was really fun. But coming back and being on the other side of it is even better."

Njongmeta hopes to follow in the footsteps of T.J. Edwards and Jack Sanborn, two Bears linebackers who grew up in the Chicago area, played at Wisconsin and developed into playmakers after entering the NFL as undrafted free agents.

Njongmeta played three seasons at Wisconsin with Sanborn, trains with Edwards in Milwaukee and draws inspiration from both former Badgers.

"Sanborn was just such a consistent player at Wisconsin, and at the next level he's done the same thing," Njongmeta said. "And T.J. was a guy who was doubted on draft day, had to fight every single day to prove that he was as good as he actually is. I see a lot of myself in that story. No matter what happens on draft day, I know in this league you can earn your keep and sometimes you've just got to believe in yourself more than anyone else."

Njongmeta played in the East-West Shrine Bowl Feb. 1 on a team coached by two Bears assistants: Special teams coordinator Richard Hightower served as head coach, while linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi was defensive coordinator.

"It's great to rekindle that relationship and a great opportunity to get out here and put some tape out, show coaches what I can do and just get better," Njongmeta said. "It's a blessing. I mean, every opportunity is a great one."

North Central College receiver DeAngelo Hardy, another participant in Tuesday's local pro day, was an avid Bears fan while growing up just north of Halas Hall in Lake Villa. When he was in middle school, Hardy played in a pee-wee all-star game at Soldier Field before a Bears Family Fest practice.

"That's been my dream since I started playing football is playing at Soldier Field for the Bears," Hardy said. "The only team I watched was the Bears. My grandparents, my parents, they all were Bears fans. I live 20 minutes from Halas Hall, so that's just Bear country everywhere."

As a kid, Hardy's favorite players were Devin Hester, Brian Urlacher, Matt Forte and Jay Cutler. On Tuesday, the Lakes High School product was thankful to get a chance to work out at the same facility as many of his heroes.

"This is a great opportunity to get in front of a team I really want to play for in the future, show them my skills and show them everything I know about football," said Hardy, who attended the same high school as Edwards.

Minnesota receiver Corey Crooms also was a huge Bears fan while growing up in Country Club Hills and attending Hillcrest High School. Like Hardy, he cheered for Hester and Forte and was thankful to be invited to Tuesday's local pro day.

"Having a family that's all Bears fans and being able to potentially have the chance to play for the Bears, it's a great opportunity," Crooms said. "I told my mom and dad and my high school coach. They're all Bears fans and they were super excited when they got the news. I sent the email right to them and they were just like, 'Make the most of it.'"

It's no coincidence that there are several local products on the Bears roster, led by Edwards, Sanborn and tight end Cole Kmet. Last year general manager Ryan Poles told reporters that he likes to sign Chicago area players because they're often more motivated to perform at a high level due to their ties to the Bears and the city.

"It's really cool that they've done a good job of getting guys locally and keeping that kind of Chicago energy here," said Northwestern quarterback Ben Bryant, a LaGrange native and Lyons Township High School product who took part in Tuesday's local pro day. "It's a great opportunity, just having all the guys that either grew up in the Chicagoland area like myself or went to a school nearby, to come out here and show what we can do."

NFL teams are permitted to host local pro days for prospects who grew up or attended colleges in their area.

"It's a great opportunity because a lot of these kids grew up in the Chicagoland area cheering for the Bears, and it gives us another look at them," said Bears co-director of player personnel Trey Koziol, who grew up in Clarendon Hills and attended Hinsdale Central High School. "The more touchpoints we can have with these players, the better we get to understand them and who they are both as people and as players. It's fun for us and it's fun for the kids, so it's a good day."

During the local pro day, the Bears evaluated how the players move in space, take instruction during drills and apply corrections that coaches make. The prospects also are weighed and timed in the 40-yard dash.

All the data collected at the local pro day benefits both the Bears and the prospects.

"I think any players that our coaches get a chance to work with, it increases their chances [of joining the team] because there's a familiarity," Koziol said. "Whether it's after the draft or if we have somebody go down and need to have an injury workout, we can say, 'Oh yeah, I remember that guy from local day. I really enjoyed working with him.' And we can move forward that way. Any time we can spend with them is always helpful."

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