For the second straight day, Akiem Hicks had a big smile on his face Monday at Halas Hall.
It was no coincidence that it was also the Pro Bowl defensive tackle's second straight day back on the practice field after he had been sidelined for eight weeks—since injuring his elbow in a Week 5 loss to the Raiders in London.
"I won't lie; it was super tough," Hicks said about dealing with a serious injury for the first time in eight NFL seasons. "You know you play this sport and you know that it's violent and rough and they say there's a 100 percent injury rate.
"I always felt I was above that. I never really had to really experience some of the things that teammates of mine have experienced or opponents of mine have experienced. Yeah, it was hard on me. But everything that has a beginning has an end, right? Being here in this place right now and being able to practice with my teammates, there's nothing better."
Hicks' return to practice Sunday provided a huge boost for his teammates, especially those on the defensive side of the ball.
"Very excited to have a guy like Akiem back," said inside linebacker Roquan Smith. "He's a tremendous leader. A lot of guys look up to him. He's done a lot of great things throughout his career. So just having that guy back, one of the alphas, that means a lot. Got a lot of respect for him."
While Hicks can practice, he isn't eligible to return to game action until a week from Sunday when the Bears visit the Packers. Win or lose Thursday night against the Cowboys, the 6-4, 352-pounder fully intends to play in Green Bay.
"If I can get my body to a place where I feel like I can compete at a high level, there's nothing that would stop me from being on the field with my boys," Hicks said.
Even if that means not being completely healthy.
"Nobody in the NFL right now is at 100 percent," Hicks said. "I look forward to going back out there and competing at a level I can be proud of."
After spending his first four NFL seasons with the Saints and Patriots, Hicks has blossomed into one of the best players at his position since signing with the Bears as a free agent in 2016. He registered 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles-for-loss in 2017 and then earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl last year when he recorded 7.5 sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss.
"We all know what a game-wrecker he is when he's in there," said defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. "He changes the game. He commands double teams. He can whip one block. He can whip two blocks. He can get push in the pass game, from a pass-rush standpoint. So it'll be good to get him back."
While there are no live tackling drills in practice, Hicks isn't worried about whether his elbow can take a hit.
"We're testing it right now," he said. "We're making sure that it can do the moves that I'm accustomed to doing and we're giving it our best shot. We're going to try to be out there as soon as possible and play some good football."
Eight weeks without playing football taught Hicks a valuable lesson.
"One of the things I've learned is that I've got to be more of a patient person," he said. "You're in there and you want to be with your guys. You want to play football. You want to play the game, do the thing that you love and you just have to sit back and let the body heal itself."
It was very difficult for Hicks to miss so much time, especially being unable to help his teammates during a four-game losing streak. But he's extremely proud of how young defensive linemen such as Bilal Nichols, Nick Williams and Roy Robertson-Harris performed during his absence.
Although Hicks was unable to play, he remained fully engaged with his teammates, attending meetings, practices and games, even road contests.
"You never want to get out of the flow," Hicks said. "It's important that even though I was unable to compete, and even practice, it was important for me to stay around the guys, so I still felt like I'm doing my day-to-day routine."
Remaining so involved helped Hicks cope with his injury.
"I think that's beneficial," he said. "It's a great environment to be in when you're going through something, because everybody picks you up. I'm thankful for the type of teammates I have."