Practicing in pads Monday for the first time since last season provided a slice of normalcy for defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and his Bears teammates at Halas Hall.
The spirited 90-minute workout, which included 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, came after all offseason practices were cancelled due to COVID-19.
"For all the guys that have a real passion for football or a real love for football and have been doing this their entire lives, this whole situation has put us out of whack," Hicks said. "Coming back to football has given us a sense of regularity. It does feel good to be back out there and it does feel like football again."
After the Bears conducted their offseason program entirely on a virtual basis with players and coaches meeting via Zoom video, Hicks is happy to be back at Halas Hall in-person with his teammates and coaches.
"You just get back into it," Hicks said. "You get fully immersed back into your regular routine, your regular schedule. Being around the guys and being around the football facility just makes it that much easier. You find your groove again. It just becomes natural. It feels natural.
"We have a lot of precautions and things going on around here to make sure that we're safe as we can be. After you get past all that, it turns into a regular day—a regular day of just preparation for your season."
The unprecedented offseason provided unique challenges for Hicks and his teammates. Not only were they barred from Halas Hall, but public workout facilities across the country were also closed due to the coronavirus.
That didn't stop Hicks from working extremely hard to prepare for his eighth NFL season, however. Coach Matt Nagy recently remarked that while Hicks has reported to all three of their training camps together in very good shape, "I think this is the best one. He showed up in great shape and I'm really proud of him. I know it's not easy."
"It was tough on everybody," Hicks said. "It was tough for guys to find whatever regimen or routine that was going to work for them and make sure that they could get their body into a place where they felt like they could perform and play football.
"I think for older guys that have been through an offseason before and have had different situations where they train with different trainers or they train themselves, I think it was pretty efficient. For me, even though I didn't have a great work space, I ran at my local park. I worked out in my garage, my home gym in my garage. I felt good. I feel good being back.
"No matter what you do in the offseason, though, you can never get into football shape. It's an entirely different world when you're running around and you're hitting guys and you're doing those different football-type movements. But I think everyone here took a special interest in making sure that we were prepared to come back. I remember in the Zoom meetings, it was something that Nagy really pushed toward and made sure that guys understood that there was going to be an expectancy of being able to perform when we got here. I think everybody did a really good job of that, not just myself."
Another reason that Hicks is so excited about being back on the practice field is that he missed 10 of the final 11 games last season with an elbow injury he sustained in a Week 5 loss to the Raiders. He's more than determined to revert to his 2018 form when he was named to his first Pro Bowl after helping lead the Bears to the NFC North title by topping the team with 12 tackles-for-loss and ranking second with 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and 16 quarterback hits.
"I learned a long time ago that not everybody's going to respect what you do," Hicks said. "Not everybody's going to be high on you as a player and believe that you're one of the chosen few to be at the top of the ratings and stuff like that or PFF (Pro Football Focus) or whatever, what have you.
"For me, my personal motivation is myself. I want to make sure that my time playing the sport that I love, that I've given the majority of my life to, is worth something. For me, being in my ninth year, I find that wanting to perform at my best, taking all the wisdom that I've garnered over these past years and applying it, that's my motivation. It excites me."