Former Bears players meet with rookies

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Cornerback Duke Shelley’s first day at Halas Hall as a member of the Bears Thursday was one the sixth-round draft pick from Kansas State will never forget.

Shelley met with coaches, got fitted for equipment and received an iPad with his playbook on it as the team kicked off its rookie minicamp. But the 22-year-old said the highlight of his day was the chance to speak to former Bears cornerback Charles Tillman.

The two-time Pro Bowler, who was known for forcing fumbles with his patented “Peanut Punch” during 12 illustrious seasons with the team from 2003-14, was one of 14 former Bears players who shared stories and offered advice while dining with the rookies.

“I picked his brain a lot,” Shelley said. “I asked him about receivers he went against. He told me a story about when he went up against Randy Moss as a rookie when Moss was in his prime. For me coming in as a rookie and hopefully getting a chance to go against some of the top receivers in the game, [I want to] just bring that attitude and that fiery motor that he had, and hopefully it’s going to make me successful.”

Former Bears defensive end Alex Brown, who played eight seasons with the team from 2002-09, urged the rookies to continue doing what has made them successful.

“You’ve been waiting all your life for this moment, don’t get here now in the biggest moment of your life—one you’ve been dreaming of your entire life—and change what you’ve been doing,” Brown said. “You’re here because they like what you’ve been doing. They believe you can do it. So get past the part of trying to convince yourself that you belong. You do belong. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here, you wouldn’t be given this opportunity.”

Former Bears running back Matt Forte, who played eight seasons with the team from 2008-15, spoke to the rookies about the mystique and history of the organization.

“It’s different being here than any other team,” Forte said. “Football started here, the National Football League. The number of guys in the Hall of Fame from here and just the legends, you’ve got a lot of weight on your back to carry that type of standard. I just wanted to convey that message that this is not any old team. This is the Chicago Bears, and everything about Chicago Bears football has got to be about toughness.”

Other former Bears who met with the rookies Thursday evening included Brian Baschnagel, Jay Hilgenberg, Ike Hill, Israel Idonije, Patrick Mannelly, Jim Osborne, Tom Thayer, James Thornton, Nathan Vasher, Bob Wetoska and James “Big Cat” Williams.

Shelley was especially interested in how the Bears alumni played so many seasons.

“I talked a lot with those guys about how they were successful,” Shelley said. “Most of those guys lasted a long time in the league—eight-plus years—so I was just picking their brains, trying to figure out ways to stay in the league like they did. Those guys already did what I’m trying to do, so I’m trying to feed off that.”

When Brown joined the Bears as a fourth-round pick in 2002, he was eager to face first-round selection Marc Colombo, an offensive tackle.

“I wanted to go against him,” Brown said. “If they took him in the first round and I could show that I could beat him, then maybe they’d feel a little bit better about me.”

Back in 2008, Forte arrived at his rookie minicamp wearing a business suit.

“I was just laser focused,” Forte said. “I had nothing else on my mind but coming here and making a name for myself, and also just doing the best that I could to improve this team. That’s got to be your mindset. You’re here for a purpose and that’s to improve the team and you’ve got to find out how to do that any way possible.”

Brown spoke to the rookies about taking advantage of their opportunities. It’s something he did when he made his first start in the fifth game of his first season. A star pass rusher at Florida, Brown was humbled when he was a healthy scratch in the Bears’ 2002 season opener.

“When opportunities come up, you’ve got to be ready, and my opportunity came five games after probably the worst moment in football for me at that point, which was being completely healthy and not playing at all,” Brown said. “I had never been in that situation. The fifth game of the season I got a chance to start and the guy that was ahead of me never started again. So it’s just about taking advantage of that opportunity that comes up regardless of how it comes up.”

As a rookie, Brown benefitted from the sage advice of veteran teammate Ted Washington, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle.

“Ted Washington was perfect for me,” Brown said. “His locker was right beside mine. He would give me little quotes and stuff it seemed like daily. There was one that really stuck with me. He said, ‘You’re not here to make friends. If you make friends, great. But you’re here to win. If you don’t win, we’ll all be gone.’ That kind of stuck with me. I’m a pretty friendly guy, but you’ve got to focus in and understand that it’s about winning. If you don’t win, they’re going to change everything.”

Forte learned how to be a pro by studying his most accomplished teammates.

“I actually learned by watching the veteran guys, and not just on offense,” Forte said. “I watched how [Brian] Urlacher operated, what he would do after practice, how he took care of his body, when he would lift weights. I watched [Tillman], how hard he worked in practice, how much he knew about the game. It’s important to know more than just your position. Just watching those guys and how they were pros, they had made Pro Bowls and had played for a long time. It set the standard and was kind of the blueprint for me to do my work.”

Take a look as the Bears 2019 NFL Draft class and undrafted free agents arrived at Halas Hall for the first time.

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