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Mariellen Mardis grateful to live out dream with Bears

Entering her sixth season with the Bears, assistant athletic trainer Mariellen Mardis continues to bring the same "servant's heart" to the job that she developed as a young girl.

Story by Gabby Hajduk

Before Mariellen Mardis even reached school age, her future in athletic training was evident. Growing up with a father who worked in the athletic department at McKendree University in Lebanon, Ill., Mardis was always around sports and finding different ways to help.

She would stand behind the bench at men's and women's basketball games, eagerly waiting to hand a player water or fetch someone a towel. If she wasn't the first person to help them, she was disappointed. She also remembers often hanging out in the athletic training room, fooling around with the ice tubs or rolls of tape.

Still, Mardis didn't intend on becoming an athletic trainer. She enrolled at the University of Illinois in 2012 to pursue her goal of becoming a physician's assistant. But after just one semester in college, she found her way back to the training room and never left.

"Being in the training room, going out to practice and being around a team felt comfortable for me," Mardis said. "I liked being able to work towards a goal with other people. So I kind of married the two passions of mine – medicine and helping people, as well as being around that sports environment that I've always enjoyed. So I think that's kind of where it started, and then just propelled from there."

Now entering her sixth season with the Bears training staff – her third as a full-time assistant athletic trainer – Mardis feels more confident in her position than ever. While she didn't always feel that sense of comfort on the inside, those around her always saw her as confident.

When the Bears drafted receiver Darnell Mooney in 2020, Mardis was wrapping up her second season with the club. But Mooney assumed she was a veteran in the field by the way she carried herself and "knew what was going on at all times."

"When I first got here, she was an intern – I didn't even know that," Mooney said. "I thought she was a head honcho. Once she got the job, I was like, 'oh, I thought you been had that. I thought that was your job title anyway.' She's been doing her thing since I've got here and just making a note that she knows what she's talking about, not in an ego way but in a comforting way.

"She's still the same person as she was [then]. She doesn't think she's bigger than anybody, she's very helpful, very careful and she's just a great human being."

Training camp is arguably the busiest time of the NFL season and while players' experiences are typically highlighted, staff members are often just as pressed for time. In Mardis' case as an athletic trainer, she is one of the first and last people at Halas Hall each day, seven days a week.

Arriving at 4:45 a.m., Mardis prioritizes a workout each morning to help her "show up better as a person" physically and mentally. From 7 a.m. to about 10 a.m. when practice begins, she provides treatment in the training room then gets the players ready for the practice field. She then heads onto the field with the team to provide hydration, injury help, surveillance and emergency action during practice.

Once practice ends, the next two and a half hours are dedicated to post-practice treatment and injury evaluation. The rest of her afternoon is filled with meetings, walkthrough surveillance and one last cycle of treatment. By the time Mardis finishes her workday, it's typically 8 p.m.

Chicago Bears players and coaches on the field for Day 2 of pre training camp at Halas Hall, Monday, July 25, 2022, in Lake Forest, Illinois.

To survive training camp year after year, passion and continued interest in the job is crucial, but that's never been an issue for Mardis. Camp is often a time where she experiences the most gratification. She watches players who dealt with injuries and rehab in the offseason or the previous season return to the sport they love.

Two players Mardis experienced that feeling with this year were Mooney and safety Eddie Jackson, who both endured season-ending injuries last November and spent their entire offseason in the training room.

"I can vividly remember those two specifically, they were injured in the same game," Mardis said. "So to remember being in that moment, feeling that pain with them, feeling all of what they went through in the offseason, to be back on the field [and] knowing that you had a hand in that, even in a small way, is the best feeling."

While Mardis may see her role compared to the players' returns as "small," Mooney views the trainers' contributions as one of the most important pieces in their recovery.

"They play a big role because I see them every day," Mooney said. "I see them more than I see anybody. They're not just physically [helpful], mentally they have to be that positive impact on you and tell you straight up, 'hey, you're good, you're gonna get through this.' And then just give you comfort within that thing, especially if they know you personally."

Providing that sense of comfort, at least in Mardis' case, is by design. Bears head athletic trainer Andre Tucker preaches the importance of being a constant for players to everyone in the training room.

Mardis wants the players to know "we are always going to be a positive environment for them" no matter what they're dealing with on or off the field.

"One of the biggest things that I try to channel is an empathetic approach to them," Mardis said, "really just letting them be who they want to be that day. If they want to be talkative that day, I can be talkative. If you don't want to talk that day, we don't have to. If you're frustrated, I'll listen. If you're feeling good about it, I'll celebrate it with you. Whatever they need from me, I'll show up in that way."

The first time Mardis worked in an athletic training room, she didn't like it. In fact, she hated it. As a second-semester freshman at the University of Illinois, Mardis started volunteering with the football team's training staff during spring ball, but she found it to be overwhelming and uncomfortable.

The time commitment was much greater than she imagined. She didn't know where to stand at practice. When players would come in asking for things, she had no idea what they wanted or needed. While her mother convinced her to try to stick it out through an actual season, Mardis truly believed she'd complete the fall season then quit.

Instead, she fell in love with the job during the team's three-week fall camp in August 2013. As she began to grow into her role, Mardis realized she possessed the same positive qualities as the professional athletic trainers, including a servant's heart, a passion for sports and an ability to create trusting relationships with players.

"I saw the [trainers] really pour into the athletes as people," Mardis said, "so that when there was something that happened, whether it was an injury or they just needed advice on anything, they would come to the athletic training staff because they knew we cared about them more than just who they were as a football player.

"I really liked that. I was like, 'I want to be that for an athlete. I want to be someone that they know cares about them and not just someone that only cares about what they do on the field.'"


After spending the rest of her undergraduate experience evolving into a leader in the football training room, Mardis pursued a master's degree in athletic training at the University of Arkansas. There, she met her mentor – Tim Ridner – who interned with the Bears in 2011 before being hired back in 2018 as an assistant athletic trainer.

With a connection in Chicago, Mardis applied and interviewed for the Bears' seasonal program in 2018 but didn't receive an offer. Instead, she took a job with Athletico working at College of DuPage, less than an hour-long drive from Halas Hall.

"I thought, 'Well, if I come up to Chicago, maybe if I can get in front of the athletic training staff, maybe I can build a relationship with them. And then next year, maybe I can be hired as a seasonal if they get to know me.'"

Then in September, Mardis received the call from the Bears. The seasonal intern previously hired was no longer with the team and the Bears offered the open spot to her. She instantly put in her two weeks' notice at COD and started her dream job in October.

While her only other NFL experience was a summer internship with the Dolphins in 2017, Mardis believes the Bears organization has a special way of making every staff member feel important. From Tucker and Ridner's mentorship, to assistant general manager Ian Cunningham's involvment in the sports performance meetings to chairman George H. McCaskey's vocal support, Mardis has always felt valuable.

"When I take a step back, it's really just a sense of gratitude of being like, 'wow, I'm so thankful to be here and be given this opportunity,'" Mardis said. "I just want to continue to utilize it and make the most of it and be the best at it for as long as I can."

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