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Column: Excitement, surprise, hope. The NFL draft delivered it all for the Chicago Bears.

NFL draft weekend always has been about excitement, the unbridled kind Ja’Tyre Carter felt Saturday afternoon when an unidentified number from Illinois popped up on his smartphone. Carter knew this was his life-changing moment and didn’t care that he had no clue who was talking to him when he answered.

“When they were saying their name, my family was screaming so loud,” Carter said. “I couldn’t hear no names.”

Was it Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles or coach Matt Eberflus? Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy or someone else?

“All I heard was, ‘What would it feel like to become a Chicago Bear?’” Carter said. “I was like, ‘I’m ready! Let’s get to it!’”

All afternoon, the offensive lineman from Southern University had been swimming in nerves.

“A lot of anxiety,” Carter said. “Scared. Just worried, thinking about what if I don’t get drafted.”

But then came that call from Halas Hall, the moment that turned the concern at Carter’s draft party into screams of delight. Suddenly, a Day 3 guard from the Football Championship Subdivision felt like he had rocket fuel pumping through his veins.

“I’m going to come in and try to start,” Carter said. “I’m going to try to take a spot. I’m very competitive. When it comes to sports, I want to be the No. 1 person.”

Thus began Carter’s NFL career — with a surge of eagerness and a sprint to the starting line.

Carter was one of 11 players the Bears picked last weekend, with each experiencing his own nerves and, ultimately, his own exhilaration.

Take, for example, fellow offensive lineman Doug Kramer, who grew up in Hinsdale with numerous Bears jerseys in his bedroom closet and a particular fondness for Brian Urlacher, Devin Hester and Olin Kreutz. Kramer was a wide-eyed 8-year old when those three players led his favorite team into Super Bowl XLI. Now he’ll be practicing on the same fields in Lake Forest where Urlacher, Hester and Kreutz came to work.

From Hinsdale Central to Illinois to the Bears.

“Dream come true for sure,” Kramer said Saturday. “I don’t think I’ve fully wrapped my head around the fact that the Bears just took me. It’s crazy to think about.”

That joy was shared a short while later by safety Elijah Hicks, who was already a (Golden) Bear at Cal and will continue his journey as a Bear in Chicago. Hicks had the hats of all 32 NFL teams nearby Saturday as he waited for his big call. But after an energizing pre-draft visit to Halas Hall earlier in the month, he said he was rooting to grab the Bears cap.

“Sitting down with the defensive staff and talking ball with them, I can see how much I can learn and develop,” Hicks said. “It felt really cool and I felt comfortable with everybody throughout the facility. It just felt right.”

In that moment, his smile grew.

“And it’s Chicago,” he added. “That’s a dope town.”

Hicks was so excited that when his new employer asked him to film a short video introducing himself to Bears fans, he pretty much lost it.

“I’m so turnt up,” he said in a message posted to the Bears Twitter account. “I’m going to show up and show out! Do everything I need to do. Contribute. Safety. Defense. Special teams.”

Then he dropped to the ground and started ripping off clapping push-ups.

“I’m turnt!” he said. “Just know I’m coming with that energy. I’m really like that.”

That kind of gusto on draft weekend always proves infectious. Now how will it translate?

In due time, all 11 rookies in this Bears draft class will learn that the glowing door that opened in front of them Friday or Saturday leads directly to a scary professional tightrope that demands sharp focus and extreme steadiness to cross. All 11 are now entering a cutthroat world that will challenge them daily to keep their football dreams alive.

Of the 72 players the Bears drafted from 2008 to 2017, only 16 played a fifth season with the team. Simple math suggests a vast majority of the 11 draft picks who will show up Friday for rookie camp in Lake Forest won’t be around by 2024 or 2025.

Still, if draft weekend reminds us of anything, it’s that ambition and self-belief can provide incredible momentum.

Hit or miss

NFL draft weekend always has been about surprise, the adrenalizing kind that surged through the Bears draft room a little before 6:30 p.m. Friday. That was when the coaches, scouts, front-office talent evaluators and, most important, Poles and Eberflus scanned their digital draft board and were thrilled to see Washington cornerback Kyler Gordon available.

In some league circles, it was presumed Gordon might be drafted in the first round — or at least before the second round got to the Bears at No. 39. Instead fellow cornerbacks Derek Stingley, Sauce Gardner, Trent McDuffie, Kaiir Elam and Roger McCreary came off the board in front of Gordon.

In the minutes before the Bears went on the clock for the first time, running back Breece Hall went to the New York Jets, followed by safety Jalen Pitre to the Houston Texans and edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie to the Atlanta Falcons.

Poles looked at the matrix of names in front of him — arranged during months of evaluations, then reconfigured during candid and detailed pre-draft meetings — and realized he had a layup, staring at a player with coveted coverage skills and an opening to become a Week 1 starter.

Former Bears running back Matt Forte, with comedian Sebastian Maniscalco by his side, announced the selection from the draft stage in Las Vegas.

“All right, Bears fans. With the 39th pick in the 2022 NFL draft, the Chicago Bears select DB from Washington, Kyler Gordon.”

The Bears draft room celebrated. Naturally.

Poles insisted that, even when Gordon remained available during a handful of the Bears’ pre-draft simulations, he wasn’t expecting a chance to actually pick him.

“We kind of laughed it off,” Poles said. “It was like, ‘There’s no way.’ … So when it actually happened it was a really cool moment.”

The headliner of the Bears draft class is, in the words of area scout Francis St. Paul, “an elite mover,” quick on his feet and fluid with his agility. Poles praised Gordon’s “reactive athleticism” and noted how a couple of interesting childhood pursuits had proved to be serendipitous training grounds for Gordon’s future career.

Gordon was active as a kid in kung fu and more serious about competitive dance, participating in competitions all over the country. On the football field, he looks like a dancer. “You see it in his balance,” St. Paul said. “You see it in his change of direction.”

Poles could have justified taking a receiver or an offensive lineman with his first pick as GM with the Bears trying to get quarterback Justin Fields more help. Poles had his chance Friday to take a swing at receivers John Metchie III, Wan’Dale Robinson, George Pickens or Alec Pierce.

But …

“I just think it would be a huge mistake to say, ‘Let’s just ignore that really good player over there and we’ll go over here and take someone (else) just because we need that right now,’” Poles said. “We were disciplined in following the board.”

Later in Round 2, that same board led the Bears to Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker, whose disappointment that he wasn’t selected with one of the first 47 picks became the Bears’ delight.

In addition to Brisker’s talent, the Bears were attracted to his toughness, hunger, football acumen and team-first mentality.

“Everything you’ve heard myself and Matt talk about the last few months, he has that in him,” Poles said.

Another Halas Hall high-five session ensued.

Think big

NFL draft weekend always has been about optimism and hope, creating buzz inside 32 NFL buildings and convincing fans from San Francisco to New York, from Miami to Seattle that their teams are on the right path.

Thus it was little surprise that Poles emerged from his first draft as GM on Saturday night with confidence the Bears had made progress. The energy within the team’s draft room convinced him.

“From start to finish, with a lot of the guys we brought in, our scouts were excited, the coaches were excited, the coordinators were excited, the head coach was excited,” Poles said. “So I’m pumped about the direction this team is going.”

Without a first-round pick, the Bears faced a high degree of difficulty to turn this draft into something monumental. At the very least, Poles succeeded in multiplying his picks, making four trades Saturday that allowed the Bears to select 11 players rather than six.

The more swings the better, right?

Plus, Poles saw an opportunity to reward his scouts for their commitment. In fact, when the Bears reset their draft board for Saturday, Poles put his evaluators through an exercise.

“I asked the guys to walk in front of the board with a notepad and write down three guys that they’re absolutely convicted about,” he said. “We put stars on all their tags. And we ended up with a majority of them.

“Anytime someone has conviction about something it means something. They’ve spent a lot of time (on this). There’s no wavering. That was important.”

In due time, it almost certainly will be proven that the Bears draft board was more of an unreliable compass than an answer key. That’s just the nature of the draft — for every GM in every organization.

Four or five years from now, some internet genius will reorder the first couple rounds of the 2022 draft, and the revised board will look nothing like the one that came together last weekend.

But why waste anxiety on that right now? Why douse the flames of hope with glum warnings?

Wouldn’t it be a buzzkill to point out that Ryan Pace’s Halas Hall draft boards pointed the Bears to Mitch Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes; Adam Shaheen over George Kittle; Anthony Miller over Fred Warner; and Hroniss Grasu over Danielle Hunter? Or that in the 2014 draft, Phil Emery chose Ego Ferguson two picks ahead of Davante Adams, a year after taking Brandon Hardin over T.Y. Hilton and Josh Norman?

Such aggravating flashbacks are available for the 31 other teams, too, providing mountains of evidence that the draft almost always equates to a pull on the lever of an old-school Vegas slot machine. It’s full of chance, a fingers-crossed exercise in dreaming. But as those columns are spinning, grand visions are not only encouraged but inevitable.

Maybe one of these 11 Bears rookies will emerge as the next star. Who knows, right?

Maybe this can be the draft class that ignites the major breakthrough that propels this team back into championship contention.

Maybe the attitude of San Diego State offensive tackle Zachary Thomas, one of the Bears’ sixth-round picks, creates exactly the kind of mentality everyone is looking for at Halas Hall.

Asked Saturday what he knew about the Bears, Thomas grinned.

“I know that they have the most Hall of Famers (of any NFL team),” he said. “I know they need a second (Lombardi) trophy for that trophy case they got going on.”

That they do, Zachary.

“I can’t wait to get to work on that,” Thomas said.

From the vibe of things last weekend, he’s not alone.


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