Bears top draft pick Cole Kmet—a tight end from Notre Dame—isn't the first member of his immediate family to experience the exhilaration of joining the NFL team he grew up rooting for.
Although a serious leg injury he never fully recovered from kept Frank Kmet from ever appearing in a regular-season game, Cole's dad also fulfilled a lifelong dream when he signed with the Bears in 1993.
After playing on an Illinois state championship team at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Frank was a star defensive lineman at Purdue who was being projected as a first- or second-round pick in the 1992 NFL Draft.
But that was before Kmet broke his leg in a loss to Wisconsin midway through his senior season. The injury caused his draft stock to tumble. Unable to work out at the NFL Combine and not expected to be able to practice until training camp, he wasn't selected until the fourth round by the Buffalo Bills.
Before the draft, Bears vice president of player personnel Bill Tobin—whose son, Duke, had teamed with Kmet at Hersey—told the Chicago Tribune that he felt Kmet was a year away from competing for an NFL job.
"He got hurt late in the year and it was a pretty severe injury," Tobin said at the time. "A guy like that has to be patient, and he may get his opportunity down the road. In our opinion, he is not 100 percent healthy yet."
Still hampered by the injury, Kmet failed to earn roster spots with the Bills, Packers and Browns. A year later in 1993, he was planning to play in the World League of American Football—later known as NFL Europe—but instead jumped at an opportunity to sign with the Bears.
"I was actually going to the World League because I wanted to really get 100 percent and feel comfortable going to a training camp where I could contribute and show my skills off," Kmet told ChicagoBears.com. "But then when the Bears called, I just got so excited. It's my hometown. I wanted to stay here, so I decided to sign with them and not go to the World League."
Kmet spent the 1993 season on the Bears practice squad. He returned to the team for the offseason and training camp in 1994 and '95, but was not eligible for the practice squad. During the 1993 season, he was switched from defensive line to guard/center on offense—a move that was made one day after longtime veteran guard Tom Thayer had been released.
"[Coach Dave] Wannstedt came up to me and said, 'Hey, we're going to move you over to the offensive line,'" Kmet said. "I said, 'Do I have an option?' He said, 'Well, you have an option to go home.' I said, 'OK, I'll go to the offensive line.'"
Shortly after the move was made, Kmet was sitting in the offensive line meeting room when quarterback Jim Harbaugh entered and presented every lineman with a Rolex watch as a token of his appreciation for their hard work. Kmet declined, feeling he didn't deserve it because he was so new to the group. But Harbaugh insisted and Kmet reluctantly accepted the expensive gift.
"I said, 'I can't take it; I just got in here,'" Kmet said. "[Harbaugh] said, 'No, no, no, you're absolutely going to take it and enjoy it,' so I took it. Less than two hours later I got a call from Tom Thayer saying I took his watch."
The transition to offense was a difficult one for Kmet. He was still bothered by his leg injury and wasn't able to play as fast as he needed to because he was learning a new position.
"You're just not going 100 percent physically because you're thinking too much," Kmet said. "I didn't know enough about the position really to excel, and physically I just really never came back from the broken leg to the point where I could move like I did."
The metal rod that still remains in Kmet's leg to this day—28 years after it was inserted—is a reminder of the injury that ended his career. But the 50-year-old isn't bitter. He enjoyed his three seasons with the Bears, interacting with some of the 1985 Super Bowl champions who remained on the roster and forging lifelong friendships with teammates such as Jim Flanigan and Chris Zorich, among others.
"My career was short and sweet, but it is what it is," Kmet said. "I had a great time. I wish it was 10 years and I made millions of dollars. But that wasn't the book that was written for me. Years later, I'm really thankful I had that opportunity, for a number of reasons."
One of the positives was that Kmet learned how to deal with a serious injury, especially from a mental standpoint—something he passed on to Cole.
"The most important thing I taught him is mentally you've got to go 100 percent positive full-steam ahead and you can't look back," Kmet said. "You can't tiptoe when you come back. You've got to go.
"I said, 'You're going to get hurt in this game. It's part of the game.' It's not so much your physically getting back; it's about mentally getting back and mentally getting back starts as soon as recovery starts, and it's hard because you're alone. It's your first time, if you're in a team sport, where you're really alone. You're on the sideline by yourself, you're doing your rehab by yourself. Mentally, it's draining because you're seeing guys do the things you want to do. You can't contribute, you're hoping to get back, you're pushing yourself. But mentally you've got to have strength in order to do this."
Cole applied the lessons he learned from his father last season when he missed Notre Dame's first three games with a broken collarbone. The 6-6, 262-pounder returned with a vengeance in his first game back, catching nine passes for 108 yards and one touchdown against third-ranked Georgia.
"Five weeks prior to the Georgia game, he was in surgery getting a plate put on his collarbone," Kmet said. "You don't come back from that where you're lifting a ton of weights and you're going to do this and do that. It's basically the bone heals and you've got to go. You don't get your bench press back. You're just trusting your bone holds together and it's scary.
"You watch the Georgia game and Cole's blocking wasn't very good because you're going against 300-pound guys and you don't have the strength yet at all. But you saw him go up for passes and he knew he had to do it 100 percent, and I think that if I taught him anything it was mentally you've got to be 100 percent in this game because it's so fast. Guys are so much quicker and smarter than you've ever played before that you've got to have every advantage possible."
Frank and Kandace Kmet raised their four children in Lake Barrington before moving to Arlington Heights a couple years ago.
The video of the family erupting in celebration when Cole received a phone call from Bears coach Matt Nagy on draft day April 24 went viral. The next day, a 45-minute-long convoy of friends in cars passed by the Kmet home.
Three weeks later, it all still seems a little surreal to Frank.
"Every day I'm shocked," he said. "It's like, 'Holy cow, my son's a Chicago Bear!'"
With the 43rd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Bears select TE Cole Kmet