When Michael Marchese was a teenager growing up in Vernon Hills, he would often make the 20-minute trek to Halas Hall and dream of playing for the Bears.
For at least one glorious day Thursday, fantasy became reality for Marchese, who was among the Chicago area prospects who participated in the Bears' local pro day in advance of the April 27-29 NFL Draft.
"I used to drive around my car and see the practice fields and just kind of dream like, 'I want to be out there,'" said Marchese, a tight end who attended Stevenson High School and the University of Illinois. "So, it's pretty cool. When I was rolling in, it gave me goosebumps."
Marchese arrived at Illinois as a walk-on in 2017, initially playing safety before moving to linebacker in 2020 and then tight end in 2021. Last year he appeared in 13 games, catching nine passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns. In the classroom, he earned a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in management.
Marchese describes himself as a "huge" Bears fan who would love to join his favorite team.
"Growing up a Bears fan, it's my childhood dream," he said. "[Auditioning] for the coaches and the front office, it's really just a dream come true. It's awesome to come out here and be part of the Bears today."
Great experience for local kicker
Thursday's local pro day provided a full-circle moment for Andre Szmyt, who was born at nearby Lake Forest Hospital and played grade school basketball with Marchese while also growing up in Vernon Hills.
A kicker who attended Vernon Hills High School and Syracuse University, Szmyt recalled that he and his classmates at Hawthorne Middle School South would sing "Bear Down, Chicago Bears," during their lunch period.
Szmyt's mother once worked in the same business park where Halas Hall is located and he, too, would occasionally approach the sprawling facility.
"I've only driven up to the gate," he said. "That's as far as I've ever gotten. Just looking at it from afar was pretty cool."
Szmyt's view was much better Thursday.
"It's a great experience being here," he said. "It's cool to see the facility and everything. I'm thankful for the opportunity and that I was invited to come out here."
Szmyt starred at Syracuse, winning the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker and earning unanimous All-America honors as a redshirt freshman in 2018 after converting 30 of 34 field-goal attempts (88.2%) and all 61 extra-point tries. He left Syracuse as the school's all-time leader in points (454), field goals made (85) and field-goal percentage (81.0).
Area QB grateful for opportunity
Wisconsin-Whitewater quarterback Evan Lewandowski, who attended Lake Zurich High School with Bears linebacker Jack Sanborn, has been a diehard fan of his hometown team "since the day I was born."
Lewandowski owned "a bunch" of Bears jerseys while growing up, but his favorite belonged to Hall of Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
"Playing quarterback, it's a little weird cheering on a defensive guy, but I just loved Urlacher," Lewandowski said. "Now my guys are [Justin] Fields, and I've got a Sanborn jersey, of course."
Close friends since first grade, Lewandowski and Sanborn grew up playing football, basketball and baseball together and graduated in the same class at Lake Zurich.
Sanborn, who emerged as a regular contributor as an undrafted rookie last season, offered Lewandowski some friendly advice heading into the Bears' local pro day.
"He said, 'just sling the rock,'" Lewandowski said. "He's been telling me that since high school. That's his advice; just go out and be myself."
Lewandowski was thrilled to show what he could do Thursday at Halas Hall.
"This is the greatest opportunity of my life," he said. "You can't ask for more than working your life at a specific skill or the sport of football and getting this opportunity. You can't ask for anything besides that."
Local safety a huge Hester fan
The local pro day was special for Illinois safety Kendall Smith in part because the Bolingbrook native grew up idolizing record-breaking return specialist Devin Hester.
"He was the most exciting player," said Smith, who attended Bolingbrook High School. "His big-play ability, that's something I always wanted to do. I wanted to be like Devin Hester. Anytime he was on the field, the crowd stood up. I know how excited I would get just watching TV. It was like, 'OK, it's punt return, Devin Hester's out there, something might happen.'"
Smith arrived at Illinois as a receiver before moving to safety in 2018. He was primarily a special-teams contributor before playing in 13 games with eight starts last year, registering 39 tackles and five interceptions.
Smith, too, was happy to show the Bears what he could bring to their roster.
"It was nice being out here," he said. "I've been watching the Bears since I've been growing up. It was cool to be out here and work out for the team."
Some of the prospects at Halas Hall Thursday may return after the draft. Last month at the NFL owners meetings, Bears general manager Ryan Poles discussed why he likes having Chicago area natives on the roster—a group that includes Sanborn, Cole Kmet, Doug Kramer and free-agent acquisitions T.J. Edwards and Robert Tonyan.
"There's something to it for me," Poles said. "I think when you have pride of your local team that you grew up watching—you knew what this club meant to the city and you saw some good times and some good players—I think you're a little bit more motivated to perform at a high level and also lead because you've seen guys do it at a high level before you. I always like that aspect. I think it just means a little bit more."