ORLANDO – Akiem Hicks fell in love with football when he was about 14 years old. The Bears defensive tackle would stay up until three o'clock in the morning watching NFL Films highlights and dream of one day becoming an NFL player.
It was that unbridled passion that fueled Hicks into his late teens and early 20s and enabled him to overcome a series of formidable obstacles en route to fulfilling his football fantasy.
First, the northern California native was forced to attend a junior college, Sacramento City College in 2007-08. He transferred to LSU but never played for the Tigers, sitting out the 2009 season due to a recruiting issue.
During his year off, Hicks moved in with his sister in Colorado Springs, where he took a job with DirecTV selling NFL Sunday Ticket. Unable to play immediately at another Division I college because of the LSU situation, he decided to resume his football career at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Hicks drove his 1995 Dodge Ram 22 straight hours from Colorado to Regina, passing through Wyoming, South Dakota and North Dakota before entering Canada.
"Why do it?" Hicks said. "Because I had a goal and my goal was to be a player in the NFL. That was my dream from the day I fell in love with football. Even though I met that adversity at LSU, met the adversity first having to go to junior college instead of getting a scholarship out of high school and met that adversity at LSU, I overcame it."
He did indeed. Concluding his seventh NFL season and third with the Bears, Hicks will play in his first Pro Bowl Sunday at Camping World Stadium in Orlando. He is an integral part of one of the NFL's top defenses and one of the most popular players on a resurgent Bears team that won the NFC North title in 2018 with a 12-4 record.
Before every NFL game that Hicks has played—home or away—he walks out onto the field as soon as he arrives at the stadium and reflects on the unique and rocky path he traversed to achieve his dream. He peers out at the manicured field, the sprawling rows of empty seats and the giant video screens.
"I've done that at every stadium ever since my rookie year," Hicks said. "I just take a moment. I look around the entire stadium and say, 'This is what I dreamed about.'"
That dream took a major detour when Hicks learned that he would be unable to play immediately for another major college program upon leaving LSU. But he's fiercely proud of the two years he spent at the University of Regina.
Asked about the greatest adversity he's faced, Hicks said: "It was not being able to go to another Division I school. It's one of those things that you never forget. It's a missed opportunity. I don't have a Division I college jersey hanging in my locker, but I have a Regina Rams jersey and I'm going to enjoy that."
Hicks laughs when asked about the time he spent working for DirecTV in Colorado.
"I sold the Sunday Ticket and I sold the mess out of it," he said. "I enjoyed myself and I thank DirecTV for getting me past that point in my life. If they ever need me to sell the Sunday Ticket again, I'll be there."
After leaving Colorado, Hicks was thrilled to be playing football again. But he concedes that grinding every day in Saskatchewan wasn't easy.
"My dream kept me going," Hicks said. "My dream kept me pushing. My dream kept me up at night. My dream kept me working, even when it was 10 degrees outside. I would say that all those challenges that I met were what made me [what I am] today."
Hicks had a breakout 2011 season at Regina; he was named Canada West's outstanding lineman after recording 42 tackles and 6.5 sacks. He then impressed NFL scouts at the East-West Shrine Game and was selected in the third round of the 2012 draft by the Saints—when Bears general manager Ryan Pace worked for New Orleans.
Hicks became a full-time starter in his second season but was traded to the Patriots four games into his fourth year after New Orleans had switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. He played 13 contests with New England in 2015 before signing with the Bears in 2016.
Hicks has started all 48 games in his three seasons in Chicago, recording 163 tackles, 23.0 sacks, 38 tackles-for-loss, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
He possesses tremendous power and strength, enabling Hicks to bull rush some of the toughest offensive linemen in the league. Then again, the obstacles that the Bears defensive tackle overcame en route to realizing his dream were far more daunting than any opponent he faces on the field.
"It was a tough road," Hicks said. "I guess I never pick the easy way to do anything. What I'll say is this: At the end of it all, I want to be able to say that it wasn't all for naught, that I did the things that I was supposed to do, worked as hard as I could and I loved it."