Four days before the Bears faced the Lions in Week 17 of the last season, cornerback Greg Stroman Jr. was added to the team's practice squad then elevated to the active roster the day before the game.
Stroman made his Bears debut against Detroit and, in the final week of the season, started against Minnesota and grabbed his second career interception.
That takeaway solidified what Bears assistant defensive backs coach David Overstreet II already saw in Stroman.
"Stro has great football instincts and what I mean by that is he's a player that can kind of just feel the game," Overstreet said. "And he's a smart player. There's no calls or checks we can put in that he won't understand. And then he's able to take those things from the classroom and apply them to the field with just some feel that he has. As you saw in that Minnesota game, he can take the ball away. He did the same thing during training camp – he takes the ball away."
While Stroman's physical traits on the football field caught the coaching staff's attention initially, his veteran presence and ability to mentor younger players became invaluable. Overstreet thought, "man, we gotta try and keep this guy around," and at the conclusion of last season, the Bears signed Stroman to a futures contract.
Nine months later, Stroman stepped up again for the Bears when he started at nickel back in last Sunday's game against the Buccaneers. After cornerback Kyler Gordon was placed on injured reserve with a hand injury he suffered in Week 1 against Green Bay, Overstreet told Stroman, "you're gonna have to be ready next week."
Stroman prides himself on staying prepared for both the inside and outside corner positions, always listening into Overstreet's conversations with the nickels like Gordon. In the middle of last week when Stroman learned he would make the start inside, he took a couple reminders from Overstreet and quickly "felt like I was back in the flow."
"By the grace of God, I'm still here, so I just took that opportunity [last week] and just made sure I prepared for it the best I could," Stroman said. "I just laid it on the line for my teammates, just everything that they've seen us all go through this last year and coming into this year. We all work hard in camp, so I just owed it to them [and] my coaches to go out and give my best effort."
Playing 46 percent of the defensive snaps against the Buccaneers, Stroman highlighted his readiness by totaling seven tackles. He added a tackle-for-loss in the second half to set up a third-and-long that Tampa Bay failed to convert.
"He just made some really big plays on third down," cornerbacks coach/passing game coordinator Jon Hoke said. "Especially in the second half, we started getting them off the field and putting ourselves in position and he was a big part of that. He's very conscious of studying and he takes really, really good notes. He studies the opponent really well, so he always gives himself a chance. He really made some good plays for us."
The inside corner spot has been Stroman's primary home during his career, but his ability to have success at the nickel position when necessary, has always stood out to his coaches. Overstreet calls Stroman "our utility back," always telling him, 'Man, we can put you anywhere." Overstreet said that versatility is extremely valuable to a Bears secondary that relies heavily on the nickel. Overstreet also noted that versatility played "a great deal in our decision to keep Stro around."
During the first week of August, Gordon missed a few training camp practices, leading Overstreet to move Stroman inside to nickel. Because of the position's physical nature, particularly in the run game, he told Stroman, "I need you to hit people. That's something that really needs to stand out." Almost immediately, Overstreet saw that physicality show up.
"When I made that assessment to him, he accepted it fully," Overstreet said. "He really dove into it. You saw that the very next practice. You saw that switch turn where he was really taking on blocks, hitting people. You saw in the Tampa game; he didn't miss a tackle. He had a tackle-for-loss. That was one of things I said: 'Hey, I really want you to improve in this area,' and he just jumped on it and made that improvement."
Stroman's strong play last Sunday isn't surprising to any of his teammates or coaches, who expressed their full trust in him. However, reaching this point of his career hasn't been as smooth of a ride.
Starting out with the Commanders as seventh-round draft pick out of Virginia Tech in 2018, Stroman played in 15 games with three starts as a rookie, tallying 38 tackles and an interception. Between 2019 and 2020, Stroman appeared in just five games while battling multiple injuries.
In Week 4 of the 2020 season, Stroman suffered a Lisfranc injury in mid-October and went to injured reserve, missing the remainder of the season. Stroman said he "was in a rough spot," mentally and physically while he debated whether or not to have surgery.. That's when he decided to "officially give [his] life to Christ."
"I felt like that was God calling me to rely on him for my whole career and anything he wanted me to do," Stroman said. "That's when I kinda saw a turn in everything. I just turned everything over to him. That allows me to go play free and just be able to enjoy the game like a kid again. It's helped out a lot and I feel like that was definitely the turning point in my career. I still had to go through times after that that were tough, but I was able to lean on God and know that I'll come out on top."
Near the end of his career in Washington, Stroman met veteran cornerback Kendall Fuller, someone Stroman said "brought me up." Fuller was there for Stroman through those injuries, helping provide advice and showing him "that God has a plan."
Now as a veteran who has endured various challenges, Stroman makes it his mission to help his younger teammates just like Fuller did.
"I learned perseverance, resiliency and everything happens for a reason," Stroman said about his time in Washington. "I feel like God has a plan for everyone. I learned a lot about myself being in Washington, being released from Washington, trying to work myself back on a roster. Hopefully I'm able to help guys understand and realize that through the ups and the downs, it's gonna all shake out how it's supposed to for you. Everybody has their own plan."
Rookie cornerback Tyrique Stevenson is one of the many Bears players Stroman has left a meaningful impression on. Stroman's willingness to speak up in meetings or ask tough questions is something Stevenson values about the veteran.
Since joining the Bears in May, Stevenson has leaned on the fifth-year pro for advice on and off the field, also appreciating the energy and mentality that Stroman adds to practice every day.
"Having him around is like having an extra big brother," Stevenson said. "When I first got here, just talking to him a couple times and having him spit some knowledge about life, about taking care of your body, but also spit knowledge about how to stay in this business, in this game that we love. Having his mentality in our room with some rookies, it's an amazing feeling."
Battling for roster spots the last couple years and understanding how quickly things can change in the NFL, Stroman finds peace in knowing "God has it planned out for you."
As Stroman aims to continue improving in the Bears defense, his drive is fueled by the unknown. But that uncertainty provides him with gratitude, allowing him to stay focused on the work now while still enjoying the long journey ahead.
"We always preach day-by-day, just working to be better every day," Stroman said. "Going hard, giving it my all — it's not guaranteed at all. Every day is not guaranteed. I've been at home, so it's easy for me to turn that switch on and go give it my all because I know it's not guaranteed. That's it — day-by-day, keep working and just have fun."