There are only two scenarios in which people notice the long snapper. The first is when he makes a mistake. The second is when he plays a team-record 16 seasons and a team-record 245 games and is voted captain seven times.
Patrick Mannelly is the second kind of long snapper.
Now, Pat will tell you that he did actually make one mistake: he botched a snap on a field goal during the oppressively windy game against the 49ers in 2005. That was the game that made Robbie Gould miss a 39-yard field goal wide right by perhaps the width of a second set of uprights.
Other than that, Mannelly built his reputation in Chicago on excellence and consistency. In this condensed interview from the end of January (seven weeks ago, just before the Super Bowl), Mannelly talks through the evolution of the Bears special teams unit from his draft in 1998 to the Super Bowl season of 2006, and shares the background of classic Bears special teams plays, including the Johnny Knox-Devin Hester fake punt return; the time Mike Tice kicked him out of a meeting; the time Mannelly and Brad Maynard realized Robbie Gould was the kicker of the future; and the time two Bears offensive linemen made a bet on the field during a game about whether their own kicker would make the upcoming kick — while he lined up for it.
I looked today at the Tribune from when you were drafted, and Mark Hatley was quoted as saying that they drafted you specifically as a long snapper, that they had you graded as the top collegiate long snapper, that they didn’t want to risk you being snatched up by another team in the draft. So set the scene of the ’98 Bears special teams, so we can see how the 2006 special teams came to be.
I think it all started with (special teams coach) Keith Armstrong. He’s a big personality. He’s a fantastic coach. Obviously he was younger back then and now he’s doing a great job in Atlanta and has built a nice program there. He was the intensity. The fire. He brought that on the practice field and in the meeting rooms and guys bought into that. That’s when I realized the pride of special teams in the NFL.
The guys I played with were Andre Collins, Jim Schwantz — a veteran of great special teams play with the 49ers and the Cowboys who went to a Pro Bowl (with Dallas). Those guys were two of the older guys who took me under their wing. They understood that it was kind of my position to lose, and they helped me out. Andre Collins was the guard next to me on punt, so he was kind of my eyes and ears and walked me through the transition from college to pros, which is a difficult thing to do because the rules are different.
The other one we had was Jeff Jaeger, as the kicker — I think he was maybe in the 12th year of his career. And he was awesome to me. He was like my dad. Would take me to a movie with his wife and my wife. He’s the one who really introduced me to the NFL and the life around the NFL.
And then we had Todd Sauerbrun, who was Todd Sauerbrun. He’s an interesting dude and we became friends over time. He was skeptical of me at the beginning. It took me probably six months to start talking to me once I got drafted (laughs), before he let me into his friendship circle.
But to go back about Keith Armstrong and our special teams unit, it started then. I knew then that the Bears make special teams a high priority, and it went on to other coaches — Mike Sweatman and Dave Toub. But Keith Armstrong instilled in me the importance of special teams and what it can do and how it can change the outcome of games.
We drafted Olin the same year as you, so you came in knowing you were a long snapper, and that was your place on the team. Is that correct?
I did. I had grand visions of maybe playing o-line in the pros. I played o-line in college. But once I walked into the room and saw Big Cat Williams, Todd Perry, Chris Villarrial — giant men like that — and saw them practice and saw them on the field, I was like, “Uhhhhh — I don’t think I can do that. I’m going to stick with the long snapping thing.”
I listened to a number of recent interviews, and somebody asked about the kickers you’d played with and you said, “Obviously I’m listing the big ones: Jaeger, Edinger, and Robbie.” Then you mentioned ’99, when it cycled through. Do you remember the names of those guys?
(Laughs.) I don’t.
I ask because I remember thinking at the time, “This is a trip.” It was like every four games we had a new kicker.
Yeah. And it wasn’t only that. Every Tuesday, they would have — you know, they call it the “kicking circus” or the “clown car” come in to Halas Hall, and every Tuesday I would have to be up there to snap for their workouts. That’s maybe the reason why I don’t remember the names of all the guys I played with, because there were so many guys who came through that building on Tuesdays.
Rick Spielman was the assistant G.M. at the time, and he would always be the one calling my house saying, “We need you up here at 11 o’clock. We’ve got the kickers coming in. We need you to long snap.” About five or six weeks into that phone call, I decided I wasn’t going to pick up the phone on Tuesdays. So there were one or two Tuesdays where I knew it was him and they would leave messages and I would be like, “I need a day off. I’m not going there and putting five kickers through a workout.” Maybe that was selfish and the wrong thing to do, but it was driving me nuts. ’99 was just an incredible number of guys.
Oh, one name that just popped in my head was Chris Boniol, who I believe is one.
Yep, he played the most.
We had a kid from Northwestern I believe. Do you know the names? I remember Jaret… (pause)
Jaret Holmes. There we go.
And Brian Gowins from Northwestern.
Brian Gowins. That’s it. It was unbelievable. Another funny story is that Chris Boniol, he was at the tail end of his career and was starting to struggle and was missing a lot of kicks in practice. There was a game we were playing against the San Diego Chargers, and the linemen across from each other bet each other that he was going to miss it, but he ended up making it, and it was a game winner. That was a rough year of kickers.
I missed something. Who made a bet?
Two Bears offensive linemen. You could hear one on the far right betting one of the guys on the far left, saying, “Hundred bucks says he misses it.” I turned back toward him before the snap because I couldn’t believe I’d just heard it. I was in my second year in the NFL and lo and behold he made it, but you hear about stories about things that are talked about on the offensive line or the defensive line or guys talking back and forth. When I heard that, it was, “Welcome to the NFL.”
Holy crap. Alright, but there was a real highlight on special teams in ’99, and that was Glyn Milburn.
Yes. Glyn was awesome. He was like the mini-Devin Hester. That’s when I realized a big-time returner can change the outcomes of games, change your outlook for a team. Back then, guys were waiting and watching him return because he was so electric.
Yeah. So 2001, obviously a special year. Edinger’s second year. And Maynard’s first year here. We know the impact that special teams had in the Lovie years. What was the dynamic of the special teams unit in ’01 compared to the defense compared to the offense? How was that starting to take shape?
Again, it goes back to the personality of your special teams coach, and at that time we had Mike Sweatman who, I think he retired a couple of years after that as a 30-year coaching veteran in the NFL. He was part of the ’86 Super Bowl-winning New York Giants. He has a lot of history in the NFL. A very good special teams coach. But just a different personality compared to Keith Armstrong. He was a very simple game plan kind of guy. He just put guys in a position to win by having simple schemes and saying, “Just out-execute them.”
Rules were different back then too. You could run the big four-man wedge (on kick returns). He was a big believer in that. He was very physical with that, putting o-line and d-linemen on that, trying to run you over with that and gash you. He was a stern, former military guy, but he wasn’t a real loud guy in meetings where he’s calling you out and yelling at you. He just kind of gave you that stern way and we just took his personality in that regard. We just went out and tried to do our jobs the best that we could. The game plans were simple. And we still believed that special teams were a big part of the game. He would show a lot of highlight tapes of other teams in the past or in the weeks prior and would say, “These plays can change the outcome of a game, so you better take it seriously and you better do it well.”
Yeah, the Urlacher touchdown on the fake field goal.
We called that “Ninja.” That was called “Ninja.”
Ninja. The great thing about Mike Sweatman was that he was around for so long, that he had a reel of fake punts, field goals, all sorts of things, that went back to like the beginning of time in the NFL. And the last time that play was ran, it was run by Lawrence Taylor when Sweatman was with the Giants.
And then we had another fake that we ran against the St. Louis Rams, where it was kind of like a Statue of Liberty. I snap the ball back to Brad on a punt, Brad went through the motion of punting but held the ball behind him, but before the ball was snapped, our left wing — not our left gunner but our left wing — Rabih Abdullah came in motion so that everybody went after him thinking he was being handed off the ball, and then Brad tucked it down and ran it for a first down. Mike Sweatman showed us the video of that from like 1962 or ’65 or something.
That’s crazy, because I don’t remember that but I remember the Titans in a preseason game doing the same thing.
Yeah. But he guaranteed us. He said: “No special teams coach in the NFL will have seen this.” It hadn’t been run in 30-something years. “I’m one of the only guys who has a tape of this. I guarantee you a first down.”
Wow. That’s wild.
Yeah. He was smart. That’s one thing about the veteran coaches: they’ve seen it all and they can prepare you for every single situation possible.
Man. So then march us through building that Super Bowl special teams unit. What to you were the key pieces as it went along, the guys who came in and led you to say, “Yeah, he’s a keeper.”
I’ve got to say that Dave Toub is the one who set the tone. When he came in he was a young coach. We had just come off of Mike Sweatman who was this old, crusty veteran who knew everything. And Dave was young. I wouldn’t say he was exposed at all but we could tell as players that he wasn’t at that time as good as Mike Sweatman was. But he had all of these other qualities. He could lead a room. He was willing to work. He listened to us. I’m not saying we were trying to overthrow the coach or trying to do that. But he was doing it the right way as a young guy. He led the room the proper way and we bought in to whatever he was doing 100%.
And I can’t say we lucked into Devin Hester. We drafted Devin Hester. But when you see a talent like that catching the ball and having his hands on the ball on all the special teams plays, the guys in front of him want to block for him. They want to be part of a great special teams program. That’s what helped lead us to be what we were — first Dave Toub, and then having a dynamic and electric guy like Devin Hester who could change a game as soon as he touched the ball. That raises everybody’s level of play. It raises everybody’s level of interest. That gets everybody to meetings five minutes early. They stay five minutes late. They’re buying into everything you’re doing on the practice field. Buying into game plans. That built our special teams into what it was that year.
Do you remember who Robbie replaced at kicker?
Darnit, you’re asking trivia questions. I’ve had too many guys, man. He replaced (pause), I’m looking at him. (Pause.) Say his name. I know his name.
Doug Brien. That’s it. I had his face, I just couldn’t think of his name. I was getting him and Boniol mixed. Yeah, I sure do. He had a back issue.
So then Robbie coming in ’05, that’s obviously another huge piece of that special teams unit. At what point did you feel like he was gonna be a guy who was locked in?
Brad Maynard and I noticed. Again, it was one of those Tuesdays where we brought in all these kickers. We were really struggling at that point. And Robbie came in with Martin Gramatica, Steve Christie the old Bills kicker, who was old as can be then, and a couple of other guys who had been around for a little while. Robbie gets up there and he might have been the last kid kicking, and all of a sudden he’s hitting these balls that looked way different than everybody else. A lot more height. A lot more pop behind it.
Brad Maynard and I looked at each other and were like, “This kid’s pretty good. But he’s raw.” And they signed him and once he got to Halas Hall everyday we saw how hard he worked and how much better he got throughout the ’05 year. And then because of how hard we worked together, and especially him, during that offseason, you knew you had something special. He got on a roll early and he hasn’t stopped since.
When you say he was raw, what did you see? What are the signs of being raw?
If you watch a guy’s technique, he couldn’t repeat the same swing every time. He’d really never had any coaching. A lot of these college kids, they don’t have special teams coaching or specialist coaching. You could tell that he had talent, but he was raw. He didn’t repeat the same motion every time. He didn’t know exactly what he was doing — why it went left, why it went right. He could just do it. And then after time with more reps, he fine tuned himself into who he is now.
Ayanbadejo in ’05 was another big pickup.
Yeah. Besides Devin, and we had some other good players at specialist positions, he was the key ingredient. He was the guy. He was the pure special teamer that now all the teams have around the league. He played at such a different level. He raised everybody’s play to that level, and I mean the guys who were, say, the backup safeties, the backup corners, the guys who are not journeymen but trying to make the NFL, they were really worried about their other position. He brought them along and said, “No, this is your position. You play as hard as I am or else you’re going to get exposed, because you’re not running down as fast as I am, you’re not hitting as hard as I am,” and guys bought into that. He was amazing. Really amazing.
You hear a lot about that the leadership on that team, that Urlacher and Kreutz set the tone. But you had so many leaders on that team. At what point did you feel like a leader? At what point did you feel like you had transcended this quiet position?
The only thing I tried to do was to be the best long snapper I could be. And then I wanted to make it where I was the best long snapper in the league. and to do that, you have to work hard. I go back to Olin Kreutz: there was nobody who could work harder than him in that building, and I always tried to follow him and his work ethic. So that’s one thing that made Olin a great leader, and it helped me because I was like, “Wait, I can’t work that hard but I’m going to try.” I think in doing that, guys saw how hard I worked, and then saw success and that I wasn’t messing up, and I just tried to be consistent every day, and I think if you do that then people can come talk to you or ask for advice, and then maybe they start following you. I think that’s maybe how it happened.
Okay. And I would say that another element that got fans excited about the special teams was the way that the defensive starters seemed to take a lot of pride in their role covering or blocking kicks. You look at so many of Devin’s punt returns for touchdowns, and Peanut is the last guy holding a block for Hester. Everyone remembers Peanut, Hillenmeyer, Urlacher, Briggs and others blocking on the missed field goal returns. Why did these defensive starters want to play special teams?
It starts with Dave Toub. He had a great system where he would grade us. If you made a block, you got x amount of points, if your man made the tackle you got minus a certain amount of points. There was a point tally. And every Monday when you came in, you would see where you stood. Guys wanted to climb up that list, so they would play harder each week and not mess up or not make mental mistakes and make more tackles or get more effort to try to climb that list. In our special teams meetings, defensive players and offensive players would sit in there. I think the only group that were left were quarterbacks and o-linemen, so the rest of the team were in there. I think guys just wanted to get their name on that list.
The other part is that guys wanted to play with Devin Hester. They wanted to be on the punt return team. They wanted to be on the kickoff return team. They wanted to be part of that celebration in the endzone. I think it started with Peanut maybe wanting to be on the punt return team. But he’s a different animal. That guy just loves playing football and will do anything for the team. But there were guys who were begging to get on the punt return team, or big defensive linemen who wanted to be on the wedge because they wanted to block for Devin Hester. So it started with Dave Toub and his point system, and it also was with Devin Hester being who he was and guys wanting to be on the field with him.
Alright. So speaking of Devin Hester — Super Bowl. What was the special teams plan going into that game?
Well you know, we didn’t realize it was going to rain as bad as it was. And then two, were they going to kick to Devin or not? We thought that for the kickoffs, they were not going to kick to him at all. So we didn’t think that was going to be a problem. We just thought that was going to be a squib kick. We had stuff in called “squib alert” where instead of putting tight ends or linebackers in the middle of the kick return team, you’ll put a return man, a running back or somebody — you’ve seen it, where they squib the ball down to Devin, they don’t kick it high, they kick it a couple of yards off the ground. Our gameplan for that was that it was going to be squib kicks all the time.
Right. And it ends up in like Rashied Davis’s hands or something like that.
Bingo. Perfect. That’s who we put in there. That’s exactly what we would do. So we were shocked that Devin got the first kick. I can’t remember how many kicks he got after that. But punt return-wise, we knew they were going to try to kick it out of bounds or trap him between the numbers and the sideline.
So Dave Toub had game plans for that. Sometimes he would make it look like we were going to return it wide to the wide side of the field, sometimes it’s, “Whatever side you get it on, just run up the sideline and get as many yards as you can.” Those were game plans we had for those situations. That didn’t change the whole year for punt returns for Devin. After that, when the rain started falling, it was, “Just make sure you secure the ball. Don’t turn the ball over.” Secure the kicks, secure the punt returns.
Hester had one punt return, and that was his only other return after the touchdown. The play I remember was Gabe Reid fielding a kickoff and then getting trucked and losing the football. Because they weren’t kicking to Devin after that.
No, they started to squib kick if I remember right. That made it even more difficult because you’re squib kicking with a wet ball and guys who aren’t used to fielding those ground balls. That’s very difficult on them.
Was there any talk in the locker room at halftime about ways to get Devin the ball if they’re not kicking it to him? Or was it just, “Let’s be conservative and give our offense a chance”?
The only way you can really get it to him is either put him in the middle of that squib alert, the squib return, or you pitch the ball back to him, and you’re not going to do that in the rain like that. I just remember hearing “secure the ball.” “Secure the ball.” They didn’t want any turnovers.
And the Colts botched their point-after after the Reggie Wayne touchdown. So it had to be on everybody’s minds.
100%. That’s the wettest I’ve ever been in my life. As a long snapper, you actually like a soaked ball as opposed to one that is sprinkled on. It’s more of a consistent grip when it’s completely soaked than when you just get the sprinkles going. … If you’re in a wet game and they throw in a new ball and they place it on the wet ground and it gets wet right on the panel or quarter panel where your fingers are, and your thumb is dry, then it’s not a consistent grip. That messes with you mentally, and it doesn’t feel consistent between your thumb and your forefingers. In that case, you have to follow through just a tick longer. Make sure you feel the ball come off your fingertips. Make sure those laces are spinning off your finger tips. Because if they don’t it will come off wobbly and you can have a bad snap.
So last things on the Super Bowl. Peanut told a story once about Urlacher telling everyone in the defensive huddle toward the end of the game to “Remember this feeling, because we’re going to be back.” I’ve heard other postgame stories. And your Demi Moore umbrella story is a trip. Do any postgame player reactions stand out? Anybody really freaking out or being angry or being upset?
There was nobody really freaking out. I just remember the somber feeling. You just played in the Super Bowl, and we LOST it. Because when you go into a Super Bowl, you’re not expecting to lose. If you are, I don’t want you on my team. So that thought of losing, you really never think about. You’re thinking about what that celebration’s going to feel like, and what it’s going to feel like to go back to the hotel with family, what that cold beer is going to taste like.
I never thought about what it was going to feel like to walk off that field with that confetti pouring on you watching the Colts celebrate and then going back to my locker and taking my pads off for the last time for the 2006 season. I never thought about that. So to watch everybody, I think everybody felt the same way. I wouldn’t say it was shock, because you lost the game. I just don’t think anybody knew what it was supposed to feel like to lose the Super Bowl. When I looked around the locker room, it looked like everybody was in a sad mood. It was a very sad feeling. Nobody was throwing a helmet or screaming or anything like that. We just couldn’t believe we’d lost the Super Bowl.
Fast forward to 2012, and something I’ve wondered about. I was in the locker room the day that Lovie was fired. And I remember talking to guys, and even guys who were in their first year on the team were visibly upset. Blake Costanzo said Lovie reminded him of his father, and he was in his first year with the Bears. Players would say, “Lovie’s an even better man than he is a coach.” I wanted to get your take on this because this is something that’s been on my mind. Is it a problem if someone describes you as being a better man than a coach? Is that something that anyone would say, for example, about Bill Belichick or Tony Dungy? The thing that people always talk about with Lovie is that he loves his players, he treats you like men, he shows you respect, he’s got everybody’s backs. But then is there a flip side to that that’s negative?
No. I gotta say no. But that’s a very interesting question. I think what we mean by that as players, and I feel the exact same way, is that the way he was as a man was so great that it’s almost impossible for his coaching ability to reach that. He’s a guy to me as well — I felt like he was — I’d say he was more like my granddad. He was a guy I revered and loved and loved playing for and just loved the way he was the same person every day, and the way he treated us like men. The way going into Halas Hall, every day, was awesome. I loved it. But to answer your question, I think because he was such a great man, it’s impossible for anybody’s coaching ability to attain that level.
Okay, alright. And I meant no judgment toward him either way. It was just something that’s always —
No, that’s a great question man, because he’s a tremendous coach. He knows how to coach the defense. And you know the way I feel about him as a head coach, and the way we responded to him. I think offensively we struggled a little bit with some coordinators we had there and some continuity, but as far as the head coach — yeah, that’s a really good question. I like the way you put that. He’s such a great man that in his coaching ability, it would be hard to reach that. I don’t think anybody could.
Fast forwarding again, one thing that I always talk to players about, and it came up the more that I interacted with guys, is I would ask about their health. Dez Clark says, I’m fine and it’s not something I think about at all. Thomas Jones says, If I had to go back and do it over again, I would not play football. So how’s your health?
Everything’s great except my right hip. I’ve got a bad right hip that has probably accelerated by 20 years. That’s part of the reason why I retired. I got that hip surgery after 2013, and I wanted to play one more year, but it didn’t work, so I knew I had to get my hip replaced. I’m 41 years old and the doctors said, “You could get it done now, if you want. It’s just how you deal with the pain.” But I wouldn’t trade my career for anything. I know I’d probably get a hip replacement at 60 anyway, so what’s the difference between 60 and 40? It doesn’t change my lifestyle. It doesn’t change me playing golf or anything like that. That’s the only thing I have wrong: my right hip.
There was a time in the locker room where you and I — maybe we had just finished an interview, because it’s my recollection that we were off the record, or maybe we were about to start something — and again, this is something that I saw and didn’t say anything about at the time, but you had your coffee with you, and you pulled out an eyedropper of something —
Yeah what is that?
It’s like a sweetener. It’s a natural sweetener.
Ah, there you go. I was like, damn, what is this crazy stuff he’s pulling out of his locker and squeezing out of an eyedropper to put in his coffee? I was like, these NFL players are no joke.
(Laughs) No, well, yeah, I got into the health food movement. That helped me play a lot longer. I started eating healthy and realizing that when you’re close to 40 years old, you can’t put McDonald’s in your body everyday. It helped me to this day. I’ve changed my diet, changed the way I eat, and a lot goes back to my wife. She has a blog called “OhLardy.com,” which is about eating real food and kind of changing the food industry. Not having the GMO foods, things like that.
That was a little example of me changing my diet. Instead of putting Sweet’n Low in my coffee every day, I put in a drop of Stevia, which is a natural sweetener. It’s from a plant. That’s a better way to treat your body.
Got it. And one of the interviews you did that I listened to, you said that if you could ask one question of Congress, it would be “What’s in our food?”
Yeah. It’s amazing now — my wife and I have gotten so involved with it, especially my wife, to find out about the food industry, and Monsanto, and genetically modified foods. Why are people dying earlier? Why are there so many more cancers? If you look at our food industry, we’re not eating real food. You go back and talk to your grandparents or great grandparents, they ate the food off the land. They didn’t eat food off the land that went to a truck to get processed to get canned and then put on your kitchen table. It was from their local farmer, their local market, they cooked it and ate it. They ate real fat, real butter, real cows. And we’re not eating that anymore.
And at what age did you really start to pay attention to your diet in a way that would give you longevity?
I think it was 2007. I think it was the year after the Super Bowl that we started making the change. And then probably in ‘08 or ‘09 is when I really started making the change.
What had to go?
Fast food was number one. I cut out fast food. And I had kind of done that earlier in my career, but instead of having fast food once or twice I week, I would have it once a month or once every two months. That’s still the way I’ll do it. I’ll have a cheat day. I have a couple beers one night and the next day I won’t feel good. So I’ll go get my spicy chicken sandwich from Wendy’s. (Laughs.) That’s four times a year. So that was number one. And then we changed from where we were buying our food. We bought our meats from Wallace Farms, which is a farm in Iowa. And now we do a CSA over here in Prairie Crossing where we’ve got our vegetables every week, and that’s what we will cook up.
Community-supported agriculture. It’s like a local harvest. So you get your veggies, your chickens, the good eggs, all that kind of stuff.
In one of these interviews, you mentioned something and said, “We’ll come back to it,” and unless I missed it I don’t think you did. Mike Tice kicking you out of a meeting room?
(Laughs.) Yeah, we got done with the podcast and he was like, “Crap! I forgot to bring up the Mike Tice story.” Mike Tice gets there in — this was my 13th year, so 2010. I’d been going to o-line meetings for my entire career. My first four years I was a practice squad guy for them, where I would be a fill-in lineman in practice. And then I injured my ankle in training camp with Dick Jauron, and he tapped me on the foot while I got my ankle iced, and he said, “No more contact drills for you while you’re playing.” And I was like, “This is awesome.” I didn’t have to go through 9-on-7 and do all that stuff anymore. I didn’t have to beat my head in during practice anymore.
So I continued to go to offensive line meetings, and we went through Bob Wylie, Pete Hoener, Harry Hiestand. Was there another one? Maybe it was just those three. And I continued going to o-line meetings, but as I got older, I would kind of sneak out toward maybe the third bathroom break, when there’s 20 minutes to go in the meetings, and go get started to get ready for practice, because special teams practice was always the first part of practice, and as I got older I took a little more time to get ready. I would leave a little early and get part of my workout in for the day.
So Mike Tice gets hired and I explained to him everything I just told you. I always sat in the back, left corner seat, for 13 years, just out of the way, and I said, “I’ll just sit there, I won’t bother you.” He said, “Okay, great. No problem. I’d love to have you in there.”
I didn’t go during the offseason — during OTAs or things like that — because I didn’t feel that I needed to be there. We have our first mandatory mini-camp, and I say, “Hey Mike, I’d love to start coming to meetings now.” He said, “Okay, it’s about time!” I said, “Great, I’ll be there.” He calls a meeting at 7:30 in the morning, and we have an 8:15 practice. Well our first meeting was supposed to be after the first practice, so I don’t go to that 7:30 meeting because we have special teams at the beginning of practice. I have to get loose. I have to get out there early and get Robbie loose for field goal period.
We get out there for the first field goal period and all of a sudden Mike Tice in his booming voice shouts, “What the hell! You can’t come to my meetings?” And he’s yelling in front of the whole team because everybody’s standing around the field goal period. “You ask to come to my meetings and then you don’t even show up.” And I’m, “Yeah, whatever Coach.” We start laughing and we go through our drill.
We get done, we have lunch, and I go and sit in my seat in the o-line room. Mike Tice starts the film, watches about half a play, turns and looks at me and goes, “What the bleep are you doing in here?” I go, “Excuse me?” He goes, “What the bleep are you doing in here?” We go through that about five times, and I’m like, “Are you serious?” He goes, “Yeah! Get the blank out of here!” And I said “Are you serious?” And we went through that five times more. I said, “What the heck is going on? This guy’s insane.” He goes, “Get the hell out of here! I don’t want you in my room.” So I get up and walk out and never went back again.
I was ticked. I felt like I was in their fraternity and I got kicked out of it. But the good thing that came out of it was that I had more time to myself, more time to get ready for practice, more time to work out and do other things that needed to get done. But I don’t respect him for the way he used me to get a message across to his o-line room. I thought that was kind of low. I was a 13-year veteran, and okay, I’m a long snapper. But don’t use me as your example to show that you’re the alpha dog in the room. I just don’t respect him for that.
I’ve always heard that Lovie is a guy who even if you messed up, he would speak with you about it, and maybe he was strict in action but not over-the-top in presentation and language. Was he ever perturbed by the way that other coaches handled themselves?
You never saw that if he was. I’m sure they were talked to. I know the way he handled things. He would bring you up to his office. I was never privy one-on-one to this, but I know guys would get called up one-on-one. He’d sit across from you at the desk and talk to you like a man. I think that’s one reason guys respected him. He wouldn’t scream and yell at you. He would say, “You did wrong, and we can’t have this, and you better do better.”
Just an example I had, I had a personal foul against the Green Bay Packers. I got pushed over a pile late on the field goal and I reacted by kicking a guy in the knee and I shouldn’t have. It was a bad kick where I almost hyper-extended his knee, and next thing you know, the entire pile is on top of me. And then Mike Carey the referee is in there pulling us apart and he says, “Hey 65, you’re out of the game.” And I was like, “Oh shit, I just got kicked out of an NFL game.”
So I go to the sideline, and Lovie’s saying, “Jiminy Christmas, what the heck happened?” He doesn’t cuss. “Jiminy Christmas” is his bad word, and if he says that you know you’re in trouble. But he’s kind of saying that while I’m walking by him, and Mike Carey’s announcing, “Number 65, personal foul. He’s out of the game.” And he’s about three yards away from Lovie and Lovie looks at him and says, “That’s our long snapper!” And he goes, “Really? Well okay, just a personal foul. He’s not out of the game.” (Laughs.)
After Lovie went through all that and I know I’m going to get talked to, he didn’t say a word to me. He just looked at me with this face of disappointment. And I felt like I let down my grandfather and my dad. He never said another word to me again (about that). He knew he didn’t have to. He read my face. That was kind of the Jedi powers that Lovie had. He could just do it as a look.
Is that something you now pass along to the college long snappers you’re coaching and prepping for the draft?
You mean don’t kick guys in the knee? (Laughs.) Lovie changed the way I look at life because of that. I believed in the old school college or high school coach screamer and yeller. And I learned from him that you can get your point across by being consistent every day. That’s why I talk about going to Halas Hall when he was head coach: you knew what you were getting every day. He ticked up a little bit or ticked down a little bit, and you knew if he was happy or mad. But he was consistent every day, which made life so much easier going in there.
I kind of bring that to the kids who I work with now. I’m not a screamer or yeller. If they want to be good or great, I don’t have the magic potion. They do. They are the ones who are going to make themselves great. I can pass along some knowledge or some insight to make them better. But it’s up to them, and yeah, I can go back to Lovie saying that and learning that way to coach guys that you just be consistent every day, and then let them be great if they choose to.
I’ve always worked with kids around the area or St. Louis for people who want to drive in. I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years but not to this point where I’m centering my coaching on guys going into the combine or trying to get into the NFL.
How many guys are you working with for the 2017 draft?
Right now I’m working with Scott Daly out of Notre Dame and Colin Holba, he (was) in the Senior Bowl. I worked with him two weeks ago for two days. And then Cole Mazza, who (was) the other snapper in the Senior Bowl. Those two (Senior Bowl) guys signed with my former agent. I’ll be working with Cole in February.
This is kind of new to me working with draft guys. I think this is something I would like to do going forward, dealing with guys trying to make it in the NFL. I just found that I enjoy working with — maybe this sounds bad — but I enjoy working with that talent level more than the introductory level. I like to help guys who already have the snapping ability to become even better.
Cool. So let’s finish up. I’ve got some quick hits for you. We were talking about keepers and recognizing, “Okay, this Robbie kid, he’s a keeper.” You watch the Bears. What keepers do we have on special teams right now?
You’re going to laugh, but I think Josh Bellamy. He’s a great special teams player. And he’s getting better. The more I watch tape of him, the smarter he’s getting. People talk about the drops he had as a wide receiver, but being a special teams player like that, that’s not your job. You’re normally the 5th, 6th, or 7th wide receiver on the roster. And he’s gotten better and better in each game I’ve watched the last two years. I think I’ve read the quote from John Fox that, “I would take 20 of him,” and I can see why. Just the way he plays those special teams. That guy’s a keeper.
I thought Pat O’Donnell had a pretty good year. It’s interesting the way the NFL is going now with those flip-flop kicks. You notice he’s not kicking the big spiral ball. He’s kicking the field-position flip-flop kicks that limit returns. He does a real good job at that. That’s what Jeff Rodgers wants and what John Fox wants. He’s doing a great job of that.
I’m trying to think of some other guys. Throw some names at me.
Um, I think at that position he did fine when he got here. But if I’m a GM, I’m always looking for the next Robbie Gould. I want a guy who can come in and make clutch kicks, make big kicks, and not miss. Guys know in the NFL are making 90-plus percent of their kicks. I think that is a position where you can upgrade. He walked into a tough situation stepping in for Robbie, and he handled it pretty good. He bounced back from his first few misses at the beginning of the year. But I think that is a position where you can upgrade.
Deonte Thompson in the return game.
You can definitely upgrade that. I don’t like his decision making back there. It’s not all his fault. There are guys in the front line who are not making blocks. But I don’t like his decision making, and the fact that he’s only a kickoff returner. If you’re going to keep a guy like that, he needs to be a punt and kickoff returner.
Okay, and then the obvious one: Patrick Scales.
I thought he did a great job. But there are three things you’ve got to do. You have to snap, protect, and cover. I don’t think he’s the greatest cover guy, but he does a fine job. It’s hard to find guys who can do all three well. But he did a great job snapping and a great job in protection.
Alright, Bears career, your career, what were your favorite special teams plays? Like ones where you were like, “I can’t even believe we’re drawing this up, and is this going to work? And oh my god, it worked.” What were the best special teams plays that you remember in your career?
I’ll just go in order. The Mike Sweatman one, Ninja, the pass to Urlacher. I knew how excited Brad was to make that throw and how nervous he was. He’ll never admit it, but you could see it in his eyes when he made that call. I loved the Statue of Liberty fake where we were playing the Rams, Rabih Abdullah faked the handoff and Brad ran for a big gain. Those to me were two sandlot plays that felt like they were drawn up in the sand, and “Let’s go run them and see what happens.” and they worked perfectly. That one in the Redskins game, that won the game for us. That changed the game.
So those two to start with. And then, man, you just go with Devin Hester. I just loved sitting on the sideline watching him. The one play against the Minnesota Vikings where he caught the ball, backed up on the south endzone, ran all the way to our sideline, ran all the way back to the right, and then took it back to the house like 90 yards. That’s one where you’re like, “He’s the best athlete on the field.” That’s one that sticks out in my mind.
Robbie Gould’s field goal against the Seattle Seahawks in the division game in 2006. Knowing we’re going to have another game at Soldier Field against the Saints the next week.
How about that Knox-Hester fake against Green Bay. It was a punt, and Devin ran under nothing, because it was going to the other side.
Oh yes, yes. We had Johnny Knox as the corner on punt return. That’s one for sure. Dave Toub drew that up. The great thing about Dave is that he would show you why it was going to work. He said, “Tim Masthay, every one of his plus-50 kicks goes to the left side. Every single one of them.” And him and (assistant) Chris Tabor were drawing up on a piece of paper like they do every week, and they chart all the kicks. They show you: “If he’s in between the 40- and 50-yard line, the ball’s going to land right here.”
We spent the whole week practicing it, and Johnny Knox would have to run 40 yards back and have to catch the ball over his head, and he did it numerous times. He did a great job of it during practice. After Lovie watched it a few times, he was like, “Yep, no problem. We can call that.”
Oh, and I have one that did not work. (Laughs.) This was a Monday night game down in Champaign. We lined up in field goal formation, and we had the swinging gate to my left. Marty Booker was the quarterback in shotgun and Urlacher was the running back behind him, who was behind me. So I ended up being eligible because I was the end man on the line of scrimmage off the line of scrimmage. I reported eligible. Green Bay thought I was ineligible. I snap the ball to Marty Booker. They run kind of an option. I run kind of a post route toward our sideline. Brian was about to get drilled and he tried to throw the ball to me. Throws a pretty good pass, considering. It’s about on my left hip. And a guy from the swinging gate side came all the way across the field and knocked it out of my hand before I could catch it.
That would have been a nice little highlight for me to get a first down on a fake play, and I believe John Maddon was calling the game and he said, “Man, those special teams coaches sure do have a lot of time to call up these plays in the dirt. But that one wasn’t a real good one.” (Laughs.)
That’s funny. (Pause) Does Devin Hester belong in the Hall of Fame?
Give me the argument.
Lovie Smith said it and I like the way he put it. If you’re the greatest at what you do at a position in football and you’ve changed the game and you’ve changed the outcome of games, you deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Times change, and they should change. The game has changed. The returning position has changed. And he changed that. Devin Hester’s the greatest returner who has ever played the game. Nobody’s ever changed the game like he has.
Should long snappers go in the Hall of Fame?
I don’t think so. If you were going to go off positions, I would say yes, but to me, the long snapper didn’t become truly a football position until the year 2000. I wrote on my blog a thank you to all the guys who came before me, because they helped the long snapping position become what it is. All the guys before me, they played other positions. There are now 32 long snappers. There weren’t always 32 long snappers. It was Jay Leeuwenburg. It was Jay Hilgenberg. It was Trey Junkin, who played tight end.
I think Harper LeBel was a tight end.
He was a tight end as well. Ed Perry was a tight end. Randy Kirk was a linebacker. Steve DeOssie was a linebacker. Dale Hellastrae was an o-lineman. Adam Shreiber was an o-lineman. Dan Turk was an o-lineman. All these guys were backups at their positions. They weren’t truly just long snappers. The game has changed in that regard.
The one thing that does drive me nuts is that they don’t vote on the long snapper for the Pro Bowl. That just drives me nuts. They vote for a fullback. How many teams have a fullback? There are 32 long snappers now. There are not 32 fullbacks. So why not make it a voted-on position? People say, “Well, we don’t know how to vote for it.” Well do people really know how to vote for a guard? Does your average fan know what the best guard is? It’s from what they read in the media. And then players and coaches vote as well, so I don’t understand why they don’t have that.
How many Hall of Famers did you play with, in your estimation?
I think Devin Hester is a Hall of Famer. Julius Peppers is a Hall of Famer. Brian Urlacher’s a Hall of Famer. Lance Briggs in my mind is a Hall of Famer. Maybe I’m biased, but he’s one of those guys. Charles Tillman — if you look at his numbers and what he did, almost being in the 40-40 club. He changed the game as well. And the game is going to continue changing because of him. That’s five. Olin Kreutz is a Hall of Famer. Ruben Brown is a Hall of Famer. I played with Orlando Pace, who is a Hall of Famer. Eight. That’d be eight guys.
We had an interview in 2012 where I was noticing that a bunch of guys on the team were the best player of their positions that you’d played with, so I asked you for the second-best player at each position that you’d played with. You gave me a really interesting answer for one and I’m going to try it again. Was the best running back you played with Matt Forte?
Who was the second best running back you played with?
Wow! You did it again.
Yeah. He had the most ability that I saw. It was just unfortunate that he got hurt.
When you said that the first time, I thought you were joking.
Nope. You ask Olin Kreutz or the guys who were with us his first year and saw exactly who he was as a running back when he was healthy, and he was more talented than anybody else I’ve ever played with, besides Matt Forte.
So was it just injuries?
Yeah. It was his knee. Once his knee went down, he was done. It was too early in his career. He never got a chance to get his feet on the ground and prove who he was. It was unfortunate. This guy was unbelievable. Yes, Curtis Enis.
So final thing. This was the 10-year anniversary of the Super Bowl season. What is the final legacy for you for that season? What will you think of first? What will you tell your grandkids? What’s first?
Thursday night o-line dinners with that crew. That was the o-line crew. Ruben Brown, John Tait, Fred Miller, Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza. That will be the stories that I tell and will always tell. The great team that we were with those guys, and they were a major part of it. We had a great o-line. But those Thursday night dinners. It’s too bad we never recorded them. (Laughs.)
Putting down some steaks, I’d imagine.
Putting down some steaks and drinks, and thoughts. Ruben Brown started it: “Hey, we’re going to go to the Super Bowl. I’ve been around a lot of teams, and we’re pretty good. We’re going to go to the Super Bowl.” He was like Chinese water torture, just dripping it. Like, “We’re going to do it. We’re good. Just believe that we can do it.” And guys started to do it. We started 7-0 and then we lost to Miami. We had some close games, but guys kept believing that we were this good. We just had an unbelievable team that overcame a lot of stuff with Tank Johnson, and injuries to Mike Brown and Tommie Harris.
I’ll always think back to those o-line dinners, because we believed and we knew we were a good team. We were not just a good team as players. We were a great TEAM. That was the best team I’ve ever been on at any level.
Jack M Silverstein is the Windy City Gridiron historian. Say hey @readjack.
To read Jack M Silverstein’s series on the 2006 Chicago Bears, click here. Click on the below names to read the interviews: