Bears general manager Ryan Poles grew up around football, learning the game beside his father, who coached at St. John Fisher University in Rochester, N.Y.. Poles' playing career took him to Boston College followed by a brief stint with the Bears in 2008, but even then, he only thought of pro sports as the players and coaches.
In reality, NFL organizations are filled with staff members from every walk of life who hold roles in areas such as athletic training, communications, analytics or scouting.
That was Poles' message to 15 high school students – nine boys from Leo High School and six girls flag football players from Simeon Career Academy – July 27 when he and Bears Care hosted their second annual Scout School at Halas Hall. While the program, which Poles launched last December, focuses on the roles of professional and college scouts at an NFL club, the students also receive exposure to other potential career paths.
"I thought [training] camp was a good setup for the kids to come up and get a good idea of what our scouts look at on a daily basis," Poles said, "but also expose them to a panel of our employees that have jobs in different spaces too they can learn, and it helps them focus when they go back to school. If they're loving math, maybe there's an analytics job that maybe that's their goal. So we thought it was a good opportunity for the kids to come up."
This year, the students were split into groups of two or three and paired up with a Bears scout to shadow them during that day's training camp practice and learn about their role in the club. College area scouts Reese Hicks, Tom Bradway, Ryan Cavanaugh, Drew Raucina, Brendan Rehor and John Syty all took part in the practice portion of Scout School.
Prior to practice, Poles addressed the students in the team auditorium. He asked every kid to introduce themselves, name their favorite subject in school and say what career path they're interested in. The kids named various fields in and out of football like sports nutrition, psychology, broadcasting and even zoology.
The students also heard from the Bears assistant director of college scouting Breck Ackley, who explained the two different sides of an NFL scouting department: college and pro. The kids then broke into their groups and talked with their scout about the position group they'd be evaluating at practice.
Once practice started at 10 a.m., the groups headed onto the field and the students began picking the scouts' brains on everything from player techniques during individual drills to where players went to college to what traits make a player stand out.
Hicks, the Bears' West Coast Area Scout who is assigned to offensive tackles during practice, was paired with Nicholas Armour from Leo and Alexaundria Washington and Janiya Greenfield from Simeon.
"It was a really cool experience getting to talk to the kids and getting a feel for their background, their interests," Hicks said. "We got to know them pretty well. I was watching offensive tackles, which is my cross-check position, and teaching them a little bit about that, what to look for.
"The [students] were asking for things that I look for as a scout. Not just offensive tackles, but every position. I kind of gave them some tips and things like that that I've used throughout my career. They had some really good questions."
All three of the students paired with Hicks have football experience. Alexaundria and Janiya are quarterbacks on their girls flag team and Nicholas plays defensive tackle at Leo.
Hicks and Janiya discussed the current value of athletic quarterbacks in the league, as Hicks explained "having that dual element is big, which is what we like about Justin [Fields]." Janiya also told Hicks, "this seems like a good job," and asked him why he enjoys this role.
"I like just watching film and evaluating players and writing what I think they are," Hicks told Janiya. "I used to play, but if I can't play anymore, I at least want to be around it. This gives me that opportunity. … I used to do pro scouting with Atlanta, but I like college better because there's a projection [element]. You gotta project these kids that are 21 years old, what they're gonna be three or four years down the line."
When talking with Nicholas, Hicks expanded on the technique and footwork of the offensive linemen and explained the difference in stance or positioning between offensive and defensive linemen.
At the beginning of practice, Alexaundria expressed her interest in psychology to Hicks, who then introduced her to Mike Wiley Jr., the Bears' director of mental performance.
While Alexaundria knew she wanted to go into the psychology field since she was 13 years old and is headed to college this fall to study it, connecting with Wiley "really boosted [her] confidence." She said Wiley explained the importance of making connections and being passionate about the job, as he often works 12-hour days.
"It's important for kids at [this] age to have exposure to certain things," Hicks said. "I wish I had an exposure like this. Something that was mentioned earlier was the only thing I really know about pro sports was either players or coaches.
"There's all these other positions that are jobs and careers in professional sports and having access to that early gives them an opportunity to transition to things they want to do later in life and [develop] career goals."
To further expose the students to additional career paths in professional sports, a Lunch and Learn panel was held in the Bears' draft room following practice.
Nine Bears staff members were included in the panel: equipment manager Tony Medlin, head athletic trainer Andre Tucker, assistant athletic trainer Mariellen Mardis, executive director of football technology Mike Santarelli, director of video operations Darby Dunnagan, director of football analytics Krithi Chandrakasan, football communications associate Jarvis Carter, scouting assistant Keith Earle Jr. and strength & conditioning associate Cesar Castillo.
For over 30 minutes, the students heard about each staff member's path to their role with the Bears, the value of mentorship and networking as well as advice on how to find jobs in the sports industry. The kids then had the opportunity to ask the panel questions such as "What motivates you to show up every day?" and "What does a normal workday look like?"
One of the chaperones on the students' trip to Scout School, counselor and girls flag coach Erin Pruitt, was pleased to see the kids learn more about career opportunities in areas they're interested in, but don't know a lot about.
"School starts in a few weeks," Pruitt said. "So now when they're sitting in those classes and doing those careers searches, it should feel a lot more relevant to them because they've had this experience."
Before Scout School concluded, the students were also introduced to Bears President & CEO Kevin Warren and chairman George H. McCaskey.
With a second successful year of Scout School in the books, Poles is proud of how the it pivoted to more of a personal experience this year and is excited to continue expanding these programs.
"I want it to grow year after year," Poles said. "Part of our mission is giving back to the community, and I think this really helps young kids have focus in whatever they're trying to do and whatever passion they have, so they focus in school a little bit better."