Bears rookie defensive tackle Bilal Nichols has already turned heads in his young NFL career, but former Bears guard and current radio analyst Tom Thayer didn't want to talk football immediately with the first-year defender on Thursday night.
"I want to talk about your first name a little bit," Thayer said when Nichols joined him and radio play-by-play man Jeff Joniak on the Bears All Access radio show. "I'm not familiar with it, and I don't think a lot of people are either, because you kind of burst onto the scene."
Burst is one way to put it.
A year ago, Nichols was playing college football at Delaware, and the Blue Hens play their home games in a stadium that holds 22,000. When the Bears kicked off the season in Green Bay against the Packers, more than 22 million people tuned in on television.
Nichols didn't see action in that first game, but he's played in every game since, and his game, and name, are garnering more recognition, so much so that Thayer said a national broadcaster messaged him asking for clarification on its pronunciation.
So, about that name...
"My mother just kind of liked the name," Nichols said. "She tried to go for a unique name."
The 6-4, 290-pound tackle with a rare first name has been making a rare impression for a rookie.
After playing just 17 snaps through the first three games, Nichols saw the field for 34 downs in the Bears' Week 4 rout of the Buccaneers. He's tallied three tackles-for-loss and a half-sack through a quarter of the schedule.
A key to his success is his constant persistence on getting better at one thing each day.
"I put a lot of hard work into my career and getting better and better each time I step out there on the field," Nichols said. "I'm never going to be the same player."
The idea of a player trying to get a little better each day is an overused platitude in sports, but Nichols means it and backs it up with an example from earlier Thursday in practice.
"Today I got better at technique," he said. "As a defensive lineman, your technique can never be too perfect. You could always work on that."
The will to improve doesn't stop when he's off the field. While many took advantage of the bye week to relax and get away from the game, Nichols used it to hone in on his weaknesses.
"I'm a guy who likes to reevaluate things," Nichols said. "So having this bye gave me an opportunity to mentally and physically recharge and for me to sit down, because I'm always looking at things I could do better, for me to sit down and say, 'OK, I played in these games, this is what I need to work on.' … And I'm a guy who likes to turn my weaknesses into strengths."
The work ethic is self-motivated, but Nichols also credited his veteran teammates for their guidance and advice. The fifth-round pick in the draft said matching up against guard Kyle Long each day in practice has been tremendous in helping him improve his game. He also noted that some of the older guys on defense such as linebackers Khalil Mack and Danny Trevathan and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks have been good resources for him.
"These guys here are some of the most selfless guys ever," Nichols said. "They're always about just making the team better and helping us younger guys. … They aren't selfish with knowledge. They're always passing it along."
Hicks has been particularly good to Nichols. The seventh-year pro took Nichols under his wing during offseason practices and the two become drill partners, doing all the individual and team drills in tandem. When the preseason started, Hicks took it a step further, inviting Nichols to break down game film with him after games. They went through each defensive snap, breaking down every defensive lineman.
"You know words can't explain how much that means to me," Nichols said. "Getting that type of one-on-one from a player of his caliber, that's a guy that I want to be just as good as one day."
For the time being, Nichols is soaking it all in. But at the pace he's going, it won't be long before he's taking a rookie under his wing and dispensing his own advice from years of playing in the league.