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Carla Suber instrumental in Bears rookies' transition to NFL
Story by Gabby Hajduk

In honor of Mental Health Awareness month, sheds light on the adjustment rookies have to make when starting their new lives in the NFL. The transition can often bring new challenges that impact the players' mental wellbeing. Inside Halas Hall, Bears director of wellness Carla Suber is described as a "light in the building" who helps guide rookies through that jump from college to the pros.

Throughout the Bears' pre-draft process, Carla Suber plays an invaluable role in scouting top prospects by evaluating their personality, motivations, locker room fit and life situations. Suber reviews prospect interviews conducted at college all-star games, pro days and the NFL Combine and meets with most players who come to Halas Hall for top-30 visits to create her complete evaluations, which factor into the team's draft selections.

While the "scouting" aspect of her job is crucial, the pre-draft process is just the beginning. Once the draft wraps up and a new class of rookies join the team, Suber's work ramps up. As the club's director of wellness, Suber is one of the most important pieces in helping the new group of players have as smooth and healthy of a transition to the NFL as possible.

"I think the overall transition of it is the hardest part mentally," Suber said. "I think it's the transition because everything happens so quickly. Also understanding what the expectations are. I'm not saying we don't do a good job with that, but going into it, you've been playing football since you were six, or maybe you got a late start, and you started playing in high school. But now you're in the NFL, and I think the business aspect of it is what's probably the main eye opener, because it is like, 'oh, this is a game that I get to play, but I'm getting paid for it, so now the expectations are different.' That's probably the one thing across the board that hits at some point during that rookie year. It's realizing 'oh, this is my job. This is a business. I've got to move differently.'"

Suber's first major touchpoint with most of the first-year players — aside from those who had top-30 visits — is the week after rookie minicamp when NFL teams begin rookie programming. A league-mandated initiative, rookie programming introduces all new players to the resources available to them.

Led by Suber and director of player engagement Erika Marmolejo, the Bears' program addresses topics including stress management, total wellness, time management, healthy and unhealthy relationships and financial literacy that are spread out over the course of the season. Between rookie minicamp and the end of OTAs in June, Suber meets with the rookie class once a week to discuss a new topic.

Erika Marmolejo and Carla Suber
Erika Marmolejo and Carla Suber

Suber believes having open conversations surrounding mental health and how that manifests into other areas of players' lives – such as football or relationships – as soon as they walk into Halas Hall is a key to their growth.

"These players have been dreaming about this [moment] since they were kids, but what happens is not understanding that this is now your job," Suber said. "So it feels different. It looks different. Sometimes people don't expect the loneliness that can come with it, the challenge of trying to build a community for yourself that may not necessarily be within with your teammates. Not saying that they don't do things together, because they do. They do the position group dinners, and we have some really good vets who try to help the rookies. But also now you're trying to make your way in the world and it's overwhelming.

"So I think that sometimes people take for granted that behind all the glitz and glam, sometimes it can be a very isolating and lonely experience because they also have to readjust how they move around socially."

L-R: Safety Elijah Hicks, Carla Suber, cornerback Greg Stroman Jr.
L-R: Safety Elijah Hicks, Carla Suber, cornerback Greg Stroman Jr.

Quarterback Tyson Bagent, who first met Suber during rookie programming last year, remembers how her presence and the way she delivered the information helped him settle in as an undrafted rookie from Division II Shepherd University.

"When you get here as a rookie, it's the most life-changing moment," Bagent said. "It's good, bad, stressful, everything in between. I had left home for the first time in my entire life. They handed me a 1,000-page playbook and I'm trying to study it all while being kind of scared that I'm not at home.

"Then meeting Ms. Carla and hearing her present early on, I probably should've used her more [last year], but knowing that she was there, knowing that it was a common thing that rookies go through with being stressed and anxious and just wanting to impress, wanting to fit in and fight for a spot, was very helpful."

One of the main things Bagent took away from rookie programming was understanding how to maintain his battery throughout the long NFL season. Bagent learned how maintaining physical, mental and spiritual health all contribute to keeping that battery "fully charged."

Developing an understanding of what drained and charged his battery throughout the season kept Bagent afloat during his rookie year. He also continuously utilized one of the tools Suber provided them.

"Ms. Carla said 'find something you can do for two minutes, something you can do for two hours and something you can do for two days depending on the time that you have,'" Bagent said. "Two days could be a quick trip to somewhere peaceful, it can be sitting at the house relaxing for two days. Something you can do for two hours — an activity, maybe it's LEGOs, maybe it's reading. And then two minutes, a breathing exercise, sending someone a text, something that can relax your nerves. I always liked that."

Running back Roschon Johnson also met Suber for the first time during rookie programming. The Texas product knew he had a good understanding of mental health from college, where he learned the importance of taking care of himself holistically. While he was able to carry most of those learnings into the NFL, he was also starting an entirely new chapter, which required adjustments.

Learning better time management skills during rookie programming was essential for Johnson to maintain a healthy lifestyle throughout the season.

"Really just balancing our time as we go throughout the season and things start to play up," Johnson said. "The season feels long and as a rookie, they call it the rookie wall that you might hit, so she just talked us through ways to allocate our time so we wouldn't hit that wall. Or if we were to hit a wall by any means, it wouldn't be as bad as if we didn't listen to her. I think just really allocating our time, taking time out to do things for leisure and balancing work and our social lives in the right way."

Cornerback Tyrique Stevenson — who the Bears selected in the second round of the 2023 draft — was one of the few rookies last year who had a top-30 visit with the team. While the Miami product remembers feeling great energy around Halas Hall as a whole, he knew "Ms. Carla's energy was just different." He ended up spending over the allotted 45 minutes in her office.

"We just sat and talked. I expressed to her about me having sisters, my journey and everything," Stevenson said. "She just did the best job of making me feel like I earned this, like I deserved to be here. With the draft happening, I was still like, 'this can't be real. It's happening.' She just made it feel clear. It was just great for me that I had a 30 visit with her, and then to be drafted here was crazy."

When Stevenson came back to Halas Hall following the draft for rookie minicamp, he felt comfortable knowing Suber would be just steps away from the locker room.

"It made me feel good to already have somebody in the building that I felt like I gave a part of myself to," Stevenson said. "Normally when you're in a position that I am in, you can't express yourself as emotionally and be able to be vulnerable to a lot of people.

"Just the fact that I was able to go in her office, without even knowing her, and talk about some [personal] things — how I feel about being in the position I am, it made me feel good to be here and have her as somebody in my corner if everything became too much while being a rookie."

Tyrique Stevenson and Carla Suber
Tyrique Stevenson and Carla Suber

While rookie programming is Suber's main source of discussions with all the rookies, she continues to be an integral part of their success throughout the season and into the rest of their careers.

Each rookie utilizes Suber in their own way. Whether it's Stevenson, who met with her every Thursday to check in on the goal sheet they created for him, Johnson, who views her as a companion he can talk to "about regular life things on a normal day" or Bagent, who has quick, simple conversations with her in the hallway every morning, each player views Suber in the same light.

"Just joyful," Stevenson said. "Sunshine. Always the same energy. Always happy. Always enthusiastic."

"I would describe her as this very bubbly personality," Johnson added. "Very loving and caring. Just open arms and a good, kindhearted person."

"A very wholesome, nice, bright woman," Bagent said. "I've never seen her talk to anybody without a smile or without a lot of positive energy. Really a light in the building."

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