Silva impacts thousands of people in role with Bears
Story by Larry Mayer
Gustavo Silva enjoyed working for his older brother repairing fitness equipment back in 2005, but there was so much more he wanted to get out of life.
At the time, Silva was also coaching wrestling at his alma mater, Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville, as well as youth football. He loved working with kids and making a difference in their lives and decided to turn that passion into a full-time endeavor.
So, at the age of 32—as a husband and father of two— Silva enrolled at Judson University in Elgin in pursuit of a teaching degree. It's a path that eventually led to him becoming the Bears' manager of youth football and community programs, a position he's held since 2018.
"One day my brother sat me down and said, 'Hey, as much as I love you working for me and you're a great worker, this isn't what you were put on earth to do,'" Silva said.
"Being a service technician was good, but it wasn't his passion," said Silva's brother, Fernando Jr. "You could just see that when he talked about coaching and told me stories about the kids and the lives he changed, that's really where he needed to be. Working with people to change lives is in his DNA. It's just something he loves to do."
Silva continued to work to support his family while attending classes at Judson. But that didn't prevent him from being fully invested in his schoolwork.
"I told myself, 'If you're going to do this, it can't be half-hearted,'" Silva said. "I made sure I graduated at the top of my class; nothing less than an 'A' was going to be acceptable. I was an adult and I was mature and I had to set a good example for my own kids who were watching me go through the process. And for the people who supported me, I felt like I owed them something."
Silva earned his degree from Judson in just three years, graduating with honors. The impressive feat did not surprise his wife, Julie, however.
"For the average person, it would definitely be mind-blowing," she said. "But Gustavo is so different. When he puts his mind to something, he accomplishes it. No matter the barriers that came along with it, he didn't waver. He's very driven. When he sets a goal out, he sees nothing but the finish line. Gustavo has a work ethic like nobody else."
Part of Silva's motivation to excel as a student came from knowing that his children were watching. Luke, who's now 22, Royce, 18, and Isabella, 14, all attended their father's graduation ceremony in 2009.
"It was cool to have my kids there," Gustavo said. "It's easy enough to kind of set that standard. You tell your kids, 'You go to college; that's what I did.' But it's different when they actually see you at the kitchen table, or locked in the bedroom all Sunday because you're studying. In hindsight, I don't know how I did it. I don't know that I could do it again. But when you have to, you find a way."
“You could just see that when he talked about coaching and told me stories about the kids and the lives he changed, that’s really where he needed to be. Working with people to change lives is in his DNA. It’s just something he loves to do.” Gustavo Silva's brother, Fernando Jr.
From humble beginnings
Silva's tireless work ethic was ingrained in him as a child. Growing up in what he describes as "pretty rough neighborhoods" in Los Angeles—South Central, East L.A.—he watched his father, Fernando, toil in multiple jobs and gradually work his way up from a busboy to an established cook.
"It's hard work," Silva said. "Working 12-16 hour shifts in 100-degree kitchens, just scrapping by. But he's always been a hard worker. I can't recall one time when my dad was ill, missed work for any reason at any of his jobs. He was always working 2-3 jobs. He'd sleep for a couple hours and get back to work. He had a relentless work ethic.
"One thing that my dad taught me, too, is that there's no shame in being poor. The shame is in doing things that are not right. He felt through hard work, you would eventually overcome. And for him, it was never about where he would get in his life or anything that he did. It was like that with both of my parents. It was about opportunities they were creating for us and then, ultimately, their grandkids."
Silva's mother, Teresa, had the same work ethic as her husband.
"In California, my mom always worked pretty much in sweatshops, sewing by the piece," Silva said. "You sew 10 garments for a dollar. She'd take a couple buses to downtown L.A. where these sweatshop factories were and she'd do that for 8-10 hours. And then she would bring bags of garments home on the bus to sew more at home. She'd feed us and then she'd go back to sewing."
There were quite a few mouths to feed. Silva is the middle of seven children; he has one sister and two brothers who are older than him and one sister and two brothers who are younger.
"I remember being a little kid and my mom would hardly eat," Silva said. "She wanted to make sure that we had enough. She always kept a jar of change by her sewing machine so that I could get a couple quarters and I could go to the corner store and buy a bag of chips. That's my parents in a nutshell."
Seeking a safer environment for their children, Fernando and Teresa Silva moved their family to Illinois when Gustavo was in sixth grade. They lived in an apartment in Rolling Meadows for a few months before buying a home in Carpentersville.
"Six kids and two parents living in a three-bedroom house," Silva said, "and that was a step up from where we'd been and the neighborhood we'd lived in."
Middle class was "a step up"
Silva's parents and three older siblings were all born in Mexico. He was the first child in his family born in the United States. The Silvas lived in poverty, but it's not something that Gustavo realized until they moved to Illinois.
"Where we lived in California, everybody was the same," Gustavo said. "Everybody was poor. We all got free lunch. We were all in the same boat. There was kind of a comfort in that.
"Carpentersville is not affluent; it's middle class. But middle class was a step up for us. That's when you start to realize that you're poor and that maybe the jobs that your parents do are not considered to be as good as the jobs that other people's parents do. It's not as glamorous. My dad works in a kitchen and my mom sews. That's when we realized we were poor. You get a free lunch and maybe other kids don't. That's when you start to realize, 'Man, we are different.'"
Silva concedes that those differences made him uncomfortable as a teenager. But years later—he turned 48 last Saturday—he marvels at the adversity his parents overcame.
"I'm ashamed to say that during those middle school years I was not proud of who I was and where I came from and what my parents did," he said. "As I've gotten older and graduated high school and started mentoring my brothers, I started to realize all the sacrifices that they made. I started to be very proud of them—to the point now that I almost boast about where I came from and what my parents did. I'm extremely proud of them, and as an adult I've been able to verbalize that with them."
New path led to job with Bears
After graduating from Judson, Silva sought a teaching position at the high school level. Instead, he landed a job as a physical education instructor at an elementary school. Although he was hesitant at first, he ended up loving it.
It was through that position that Silva first had contact with the Bears. He visited Halas Hall a couple times as part of a "Fuel Up to Play 60" initiative that encourages kids to exercise and live healthy lifestyles. Silva never thought about the possibility of actually working for the Bears—until he saw a job listing the team posted for manager of youth football and community programs.
"Just out of curiosity I looked at it and saw all the requirements and all the skills and I kind of checked them off one-by-one and I thought, 'You know what, I could do this,'" he said.
Silva called his wife to discuss the position. She encouraged him to apply and he ultimately was hired. In his role, he's responsible for all programs that involve youth and high school football such as clinics, camps and recognition initiatives. He also still visits elementary schools to promote health and wellness.
"I love my job," Silva said. "It's amazing because everything that I loved to do is actually my job now. Before, I did a job so that I could do what I loved. When I became a teacher, I realized that those things can co-exist. And in this job it's like a step further. I not only get to support football players, but I get to support the people that support football players. I get to support coaches. I get to create programming that benefits hundreds and potentially thousands of people.
"And to be able to work for the Chicago Bears, especially from where I come from, you don't dare dream that dream. That's not something I could say that, 'Hey, that's something I want to do.' It was so far out there you don't even think about it. To get to represent and be an ambassador for that brand, and then to use and leverage that brand—it's a like-minded organization that cares so much about the community—to me it was like a match made in heaven.
"People probably get sick and tired of hearing me talk about how much I love my job. I've done some stuff I didn't love, so I really have an appreciation because it took such a long time and it was such a hard and difficult process. It really makes me appreciate and have gratitude for every day. I don't take it for granted."
"When he puts his mind to something, he accomplishes it. He’s very driven. When he sets a goal out, he sees nothing but the finish line. Gustavo has a work ethic like nobody else.” Gustavo Silva's wife, Julie