Ten days before the 2006 season began, Jason McKie was still “anonymous.”
The Chicago Tribune used that adjective in a headline on Aug. 31, 2006, discussing McKie’s battle with rookie J.D. Runnels for the team’s starting fullback position. While “anonymous” might be hyperbole — he’d started the playoff game against Carolina the season before and scored a late touchdown — McKie was certainly little seen; heading into 2006, he’d started only five of 30 games he’d played as a Bear since joining the team in 2003, held back by injuries.
In other words, his future as a beloved Bear who would start 45 games over the next four seasons including Super Bowl XLI was in no way assured.
Today among Bears fans, McKie is indeed beloved. He earned fan favorite status with his tough, effective play and positive team spirit, and now co-owns and operates a gym in Gurnee, Ill. with former Bears teammates Alex Brown and Adrian Peterson.
“It’s like being in the locker room again,” McKie says about the gym, and with good reason — along with his co-owners, former teammates like Peanut Tillman and Anthony Adams are regulars, leading to the kind of jokes and laughs that were a trademark of the Lovie Smith Bears.
In this edited interview with Windy City Gridiron, McKie describes the locker room games he and his Bears teammates played (including something called “Pick Your Shit Up”), how those games helped the team remain both relaxed and focused, where he thinks things went wrong offensively in Super Bowl XLI, and how the team’s dynamics changed when Jay Cutler arrived.
When you came into camp in 2006, you were in a competition for the starting fullback position with Bryan Johnson and J.D. Runnels. Those are two names that Bears fans have not heard in probably a decade, but you’re obviously someone everyone knows now.
For people who are seeking inspiration and motivation, what did you do during that training camp and preseason that helped you secure the starting job?
In 2005, I missed the first eight games of the season. I was on the PUP list because I had torn a pectoral tendon in my chest. They had brought in Bryan Johnson (in 2004) and we were going to compete for the starting fullback job. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to because I tore my pec, and then he actually got hurt too, so they brought in another guy, Marc Edwards, to fill in while we were both hurt.
Toward the end of that season I came back and got the opportunity to start some games. I finished that year starting at fullback and played really well, so I got a taste of starting then. Going into the 2006 season, I was motivated to build upon how I finished 2005 after having half of that season taken away from me due to injury. My biggest focus going into that season was would my pec hold up? Was it a successful surgery? Because obviously my position, I have to use a lot of strength. It’s a physical position. So having a pectoral tendon tear could have been detrimental to my career and my performance at my position.
My thing in my offseason was working on my strength. I was a real strong player before then. My senior year in high school, I won a state weightlifting championship in the state of Florida. In college I had the highest bench max. I benched 575. So I had always been a strong kid, and I grew up military style so I had to do pushups. I built up my strength and was blessed to be that type of powerful player. Having that pectoral tendon tear and not being able to live how I used to do in the past, it was something different.
So I came into the 2006 season just wanting to continue to get bigger and faster, and I’m not going to say “stronger” — I wanted to regain the strength that I had. I wanted to prove that I was able to battle back from injury. And that’s how I approached it. J.D. was a good friend of mine, and Bryan Johnson was one of my best friends on the team at that time. We pushed each other.
But in all honesty I wasn’t looking at competition. My biggest competition was myself. I knew what I could do. I felt like the Bears knew what I was capable of doing, but they wanted to see if I was fully recovered, and if I would be able to maintain that throughout the entire season.
At what point did you know for sure that you were the starter?
Pretty much going into training camp. I think I had a great minicamp, and solidified my position pretty much in preseason. I started in minicamp and went on to start throughout preseason, and that led to the regular season. Like I said, I wasn’t worried about competition. I was worried about making the team better, first and foremost, and making myself better.
So with Mike Glennon and Mitch Trubisky, we’ve got the potential for a quarterback controversy. And obviously though Jordan Howard had a great year, it’s just one year, and it’s always possible some sort of running back competition will develop. And in ’06 you had both of those. You had Rex, Griese, and Orton at quarterback, and Jones and Benson at running back. Running backs first — did you have a preference between Jones and Benson?
And you didn’t mention Adrian Peterson. We had three really great running backs that year. I know Cedric takes a lot of criticism here in Chicago just for the way things ended, but he was a tremendous running back. He really was. He may not have reached his full potential here but you saw what he did when he left and went to Cincinnati. He was one of the best backs in the league.
Add him to Thomas Jones, who was a tremendous back, who was a big brother to us in our meeting room, a tremendous teammate and tremendous leader. And then you bring in a guy like Adrian Peterson who was a complete workhorse, not only at the running back position but on special teams. He was a special teams beast. I think the Bears were lucky to have those three guys. And I think anybody on our team, not only players and coaching staff but front office included, would say that it was a luxury to have those guys.
Did I have a preference? To answer your question, no I didn’t. For me, it was just an honor to be on the same field as those guys. I sacrificed my body time and time again to make sure those guys had success, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Those guys really appreciated what I was doing, but I really appreciated them being in the backfield. It was an honor for me to block for those guys.
We’ve obviously heard stories that came out of preseason and camp that year of defensive players maybe giving Cedric a hard time. Maybe giving him an extra shot or two. Were you ever concerned that there was going to be a situation on that team that revolved around that running back debate that was going to potentially threaten the team’s good will?
No. The thing about our locker room — and I think it’s unique from any other locker room I’ve been in at any level — even when I left Chicago I’ve never seen a locker room as close knit as we had. We were brothers. We were really family. Not only did we go to work and go to battle with each other, we hung out off the field with each other. We knew each other’s families. Our kids call us “uncle” and stuff like that. We were a close knit group, and I think that led to us having tremendous success on the football field.
Despite having so many great players and Pro Bowl players on our team, there was not one player who put himself above the team. And if we did have a player who all of a sudden started to get big headed and over confident, we had the type of leaders who were not afraid to speak out and would bring that guy back down to reality. Not only were we a great team on the field, we had a great locker room and great team chemistry. That helped us produce a lot of wins.
We wanted to play well for the organization, but more importantly, we wanted to play well for each other, even moreso than just playing well for ourselves. I cared about playing well so that our running backs had 100 yards or 150 yards rushing. Same with the offensive line. I think when you have that type of chemistry and selfless sacrifice, you see the results we were able to have.
What about the quarterback position? Did you get a sense that the players had a preference between the three QBs?
Not at all. Those guys you mentioned — Rex, Brian, and Kyle Orton — the one thing they had in common was that they were great cerebral quarterbacks. They knew the game. They knew the offense. They knew where everybody was supposed to be. They knew the right checks — all the calls they were supposed to make. They were really intelligent quarterbacks. Personally, I never had a preference of who was in there. I had a great relationship with all three of those guys. I was happy that those three guys, who had different skill sets but the same mental capacity to go out there and dissect defenses and execute the game plan. I think it was a luxury of having those three guys.
Any favorite stories about Rex that fans would be interested in?
(Laughs.) Rex! Rex was one of my favorite teammates. Me and Rex had a good rapport. I would go over to Rex’s house after games and we would hang out and have our own Victory Monday. Rex was a great teammate. He was another guy who was real humble and would do anything for his teammates. He’s a guy who really cared about his success, and if he didn’t play well he was honest. You heard him in meetings. He would say, “I didn’t play well.” He put it on his shoulders. Even if it was something where it was somebody else’s fault, he would take the blame for it. So I think Rex was a great leader in that right but also a fantastic teammate.
Let’s talk vibes. You’re talking about how great everybody got along. You guys started 7-0 and 9-1. I know this particular Bears team had a lot of games that you played in the locker room and even away from practice. What were the best games that were going on with that team?
I don’t want to disclose all of our games and all of our secrets because I don’t want other teams trying to pick up on it. That’s kind of like our unspoken truce — we don’t want to give away what we did. But you’re right: we did play a lot of games, and I think that helped us relax. When we were 7-0 there was a lot of pressure, you know, being compared to the ’85 Bears. Obviously that’s one of the greatest teams in NFL history. But we didn’t care what they did. We wanted to make our own identity.
So for stress relief, we had a lot of games. But the games that we played, we played them as a team, so that brought about more chemistry. We did a lot of silly things. A lot of kid games. I think that helped us focus on Sunday because we were so relaxed. The games helped us stay level-headed and continue to build upon the great chemistry that we had.
Sure. In 2012 I wrote about the Box Game.
(Laughs.) Yeah, that’s one of them.
So here’s what I know about. I know about the Box Game. Paintball. Ping pong. Four square. Softball/baseball in the locker room. And I remember Nate Vash told me about something that sounded real goofy called “Pick Your Shit Up.”
(Big laugh) Nate Vash spilled everything man! Since he put it out there, yes, those are some of the games. He left out some. But “Pick Your Shit Up” was basically when you had your playbook in your hand, and if you were walking and holding it loosely we’d knock it out of your hand and your plays were scattered all over the floor. And then, “Hey, pick your shit up.” That’s what it was.
But it was fun. We had that type of locker room to where if you did that, the guy wouldn’t turn around and try to fight you. It was funny. He made you be more aware and be more cognizant of your surroundings and made you more alert. I think that helped us on the field.
Yeah. Now to be clear, Nate only told me about “Pick Your Shit Up.” The Box Game I saw in the locker room, and then Urlacher told me about the linebackers against the d-line. And then I heard from other guys about guys hog-tying Mark Bradley and submerging him in the cold tub, plus some stuff that Peanut did.
So I don’t want you to think it was just Nate.
No, I was kidding. We look at it like this: we were a bunch of big kids playing the game that we grew up wanting to play. We were living a dream, and we are always going to be kids. We work extremely hard to be successful, so we play hard. And our playground was the locker room.
We didn’t have the team lounge that they have now. That didn’t come about until after the Super Bowl. So our locker room was our safe haven where we could be ourselves. We didn’t have to put on that straight face when you’re taking questions from the media. And when we were not on the practice field or the game field, when we were in the locker room, we let it out. We had fun.
Before we get to the Super Bowl, what were your favorite memories from the playoffs?
Oh that’s easy — winning the NFC championship game. We were in Chicago. The setting was perfect. All week we kept hearing about the New Orleans Saints and the hurricane they went through and how they were America’s team because they had to go through so much adversity. And we were like, “We understand that and respect that,” but everybody’s talking about them and we’re like, “We’re the best team in the NFC. They have to come here to Soldier Field. It’s going to be cold.”
We were kind of pissed off. I was pissed off. I know Olin was pissed off. The offensive line was pissed off. Thomas was pissed off. And the defense was really pissed off because all they kept talking about was Drew Brees and Reggie Bush and all the weapons they had and we’ve got the #1 defense in the league.
Going into that game we had a chip on our shoulder. We had just come off a close game with Seattle which we had barely won, so we wanted to make a statement to show them that we are the best team and we are going to the Super Bowl and we are going to win the Super Bowl. We came out and wanted to establish our physical presence. Our physical dominance. We wanted to come out there and hit them in the mouth and that’s what we did — we knocked them out. And there was no question about who the best team in the NFC was after that game.
Alright — Super Bowl. What was the offensive game plan?
The offensive game plan was pretty much what it had been all season. Run the ball. Run the ball. Play action pass. Stay out of 3rd and long. Get it to 3rd and short. Manageable situations. And be us. Don’t turn the ball over.
We came out strong. We went down and scored. Thomas was having a phenomenal game. We knew that the Colts linebackers were small. The defense wasn’t real physical. So we wanted to go out there and establish a physical presence, which we did in the first half. And then the second half we had some things that didn’t go our way, some turnovers that they took advantage of. We got away from us. We got away from who we were. We changed the game plan, and obviously that didn’t work. The weather played a factor in it. And it obviously didn’t work out.
Do you feel like we stopped running?
Yeah I do. I feel like we stopped running the ball because we were down in the game. We had to pass to get back into the game. For whatever reason, we didn’t run the ball as much in the second half even though we had huge success in the first half. I don’t know if the coaching staff changed it. I’m not sure. I think they had a great game plan going in. And for whatever reason we had some turnovers and as players, we didn’t execute the game plan as good as we should. And like I said, in the second half we got away from running the ball because we were down. That pretty much changed our complete game plan.
Was there any conversation on the sideline about it? Anything like you guys telling the coaches “We’re getting away from our running” or Rex saying “Let’s run more” or anything like that you remember?
Yeah, I remember saying “Let’s run the ball. Let’s run the ball.” There were some holes in the Colts defense that we thought we could take advantage of in the passing game and that’s what we tried to do. But to us as running backs — and the offensive line — obviously we want to run the ball every play. If it was 3rd and 30 we wanted to run the ball. We want to run the ball as much as we can. And it didn’t work out that way. We got down and had to alter the game plan into more of a passing attack.
So moving on from that, you I think are one of six Bears who caught passes from both Rex and Jay. Obviously the Cutler era is over but I think it’s something that Bears fans still think about. How do you compare those two quarterbacks? Because on the surface in a lot of ways they’re pretty similar.
I think they’re very different, actually. I’ll start with Rex. Everybody loved Rex in the locker room. Regardless of if he had a bad game or a great game, Rex was always the same person. The guys loved him. I know personally I wanted to go out there and do everything I could to make sure he was successful. Same thing with the offensive linemen — he and Olin had a great relationship. He had physical skills, he had a good arm, he had a good mental capacity that was necessary to be a successful quarterback in the league.
And you look at Jay, and Jay had everything you want in a franchise quarterback. He had the arm, he had athleticism. And I think Jay is a lot of times misunderstood, because Jay’s personality type is a little different from Rex. Jay is more of a reserved guy. Doesn’t want to be in the media. More quiet. But Jay was competitive in his own right just as much as Rex was.
They were the complete opposite personality types. Rex had no problem getting in front of the media and saying, “I sucked today.” Whereas Jay, if he had a bad game, he knows he messed up and he wants to get better but he’d rather not talk to the media. He’d rather go home and watch film and see where he can get better. That’s how they’re different.
Was he a popular teammate?
You know what? Sometimes I loved Jay and sometimes I hated him. And that’s with a lot of guys. Some guys loved Jay and the other guys didn’t like him. But at the end of the day, I think Jay was a good guy, a good teammate, but he was a different personality than what we were used to. Coming from a guy in Rex who was loved by everybody in the locker room to having a guy like Jay who some guys had mixed feelings about — sometimes I had mixed feelings about him — but at the end of the day I think he was a good teammate. I went out there and sacrificed myself for his success as well just like any of the other guys.
So it’s just keeping the personality type that we were used to having. We were used to having Rex’s personality type. We were used to having Brian Griese’s personality type. We were used to having Kyle Orton’s personality type. And then you get a guy like Jay coming in — we weren’t used to that. I think he caught a lot of guys off guard and so a lot of guys had mixed feelings about him.
Did he get along with the leadership structure? The players? Guys like Urlacher, Tillman, Alex Brown, Wale…?
The funny thing is, it was kind of weird. The Super Bowl year to me, it seemed like, yeah, we were two teams — it was offense and defense, and defensively those guys spent the majority of their time together because they’re always at meetings together, and same thing for us offensively. But in the locker room, we came together as one.
I felt like when Jay came there and a lot of these guys left — either being traded or going to different teams — I felt like a lot of that chemistry we had left with them, so it was moreso “The Bears offense” and “The Bears defense.” It felt like we were two different teams.
As far as the leadership structure, Urlacher’s feelings toward Jay, I’m not really sure. I know there are reports that Brian hated Jay, and I’d never personally seen them argue or go at it in the locker room, or any one of those guys. I recall those guys being on the sideline cheering for us to go make a play, just like we cheer for those guys to make a turnover. As far as seeing it out in the open, I didn’t see any animosity between Urlacher and Jay, or Alex Brown or any of those guys, openly toward Jay or Jay toward those guys.
[Jack note: After McKie and I did this interview, Brian Urlacher gave an interview in which he defended Cutler. Click here to read it.]
We mentioned Jordan Howard. Obviously he had arguably the greatest season for any Bears rookie running back. What do you see when you watch Jordan Howard?
I know Jordan personally. I love the guy. I love his personality. Jordan is a young running back who truly wants to be great. And he’s had so much adversity thrown his way. He’s always been told he wasn’t good enough, as have a lot of NFL players. You look at his story with his father. He really plays for his family. He really plays for his name. I think he’s an extremely hard worker. He’s humble. And hard work is the foundation for success. As long as he keeps working hard and keeps that chip on his shoulder, I think Jordan Howard’s going to be one of the great backs in Chicago history. I really do. He’s got that running style. He’s got that toughness and tenacity that is going to make him successful.
Even just in my life, I’m 35, I’ve seen some dynamite rookie Bears running backs, but they haven’t all gone on to have stellar careers. Injuries aside, what are the signs that fans can look for watching Howard in year two that might give us a sense of whether or not he will be able to sustain success year after year?
First and foremost for a running back to have success, it’s health. If he can stay healthy and stay on the field and get the opportunities, I think he’ll be successful. Look at Jordan Howard’s first year — he didn’t have as many opportunities in the first half of the season as he did in the second half. If he would have been the starter in the first half of the season and have the same opportunities as he did in the second half, he may have arguably had more yards in the league than anyone else.
So I think looking at it, you have to look at, is he healthy? Is he still running with that same physicality? Or is he worried about getting injured? Is he going from a guy trying to establish himself to a guy trying to preserve himself? And I think Jordan, for him, like you said, he had one year of success, and now you have to go out there and prove it again and say, “This wasn’t a fluke. I am the back I was last year in the second half of the season, and I can truly be one of the best backs in the NFL.”
Going back to these quarterbacks, from your experience of having watched the four guys in 2004, and then Grossman and Orton in 2005, and then Grossman and Griese in 2006, and then Grossman, Griese, and Orton in 2007, what are your takeaways from watching the way that those guys interacted that might inform the way that Bears fans watch Glennon and Trubisky this year and how we can keep an eye out for that dynamic?
Like I said, those guys — Griese, Orton, and Rex — they interacted well. It wasn’t like Kyle was on the bench hoping that Rex threw an interception or that Brian Griese got hurt. Those guys wanted each other to do well because, like I said, most guys on our team that year cared about the team success more than the personal success. They wanted to see the other guy succeed. Our goal that year was to win the Super Bowl, from day one. That’s what we all really cared about. You could throw stats out the window. Urlacher and Briggs didn’t care who led the team in tackles. Thomas Jones didn’t really care about how many yards he ran for. All we cared about was that at the end of the day, did we get that W?
Those guys, they helped each other. If Griese saw something that Rex did, they’d be on the sideline dissecting the defense, going over things that one of them may have saw to make themselves more successful for the next drive and throughout the game.
I was at training camp on Tuesday, and I think that Glennon and Trubisky have different skillsets, but I think each one of those guys has the potential to be a great starting quarterback here in Chicago. Obviously Glennon’s been in the league longer and he’s had the opportunity to be in the league as a backup for a few years. And Trubisky is a high draft pick and already facing a lot of controversy and criticism. He was a one-year starter but has all the tools to be a great quarterback.
So when the Bears drafted him, was I upset? Yes. But after I sat back and really analyzed what they did, I give them credit for actually taking a shot at the quarterback position, a position that has needed to be fixed here in Chicago for a long time. Now you have two guys with the potential for being great as opposed to having none.
Why were you upset when they drafted Trubisky?
Honestly, because I wanted them to take a different player. I really liked Jamal Adams from LSU. I felt like he was a day one starter. I think he’s going to be a future perennial Pro Bowler. And he is the quarterback of the secondary. I felt like with Chicago, we haven’t had that type of player since Mike Brown and Chris Harris back there. Those guys are real cerebral, real smart guys who made great plays all over the field. We haven’t had that type of safety, or that type of consistency, and I felt like Jamal Adams could have brought that.
But at the end of the day, after analyzing what Pace did, am I upset? Not really. Maybe upset at how he went and traded all of his picks to do it, but he made up for it and got some of those picks back. He picked a quarterback who he felt could make a difference, so I give him credit for that.
Looking at it from the perspective of a veteran — yourself — who has been a veteran in the locker room, what does Trubisky have to do to fit in? Does he have to show a great deal of respect and bend over backwards to treat Glennon with respect? Not that he wouldn’t anyways, but is there some sort of extra expectation on Trubisky as this rookie quarterback — where he has to carry the bags metaphorically, or maybe actually?
First and foremost, he has to be himself. I don’t think he has to put on a mask or a facade and be somebody that he isn’t. He has to be himself, but he also has to be one of the guys. Regardless of if you get picked that high in the NFL draft, at the end of the day when you step into that locker room, you’re just a player like everyone else. You’re in the NFL just like the undrafted guy is. So is there a hierarchy there? Maybe. For the front office, because they’re paying you more money. But as far as guys in the locker room, you’re an NFL player just like the undrafted guy.
Two, he’s got to show guys that he is not a prima donna, he’s not putting himself on a pedestal, and that he is just one of the guys. And I think he’s already taken a great step to doing that by driving — I forget what type of car it was — but driving that car to rookie minicamp. Not showing up to rookie minicamp in some $200,000 car, but showing up in the car he’s had for years. Just showing that, “Hey, I’m just a normal guy. I’m a hard working guy just like everyone else.”
He definitely earned my respect when I saw that. I was like, “You know what? Maybe this guy does have something.” So I started looking at him in a different light, and I’m sure the other guys did too.
Okay. So what’s cracking now? You’ve got All Pro Sports Performance, and that’s you and Alex and AP, right?
Yeah, that’s all three of us. Owned and operated by us — three former Bears. It’s been great. We’ve been able to train, mentor, and motivate kids to achieve whatever they want to achieve. We’ve had a lot of different athletes come through there to train who have been successful. One of our guys is on the Bears roster right now — Joel Bouagnon. He’s the running back from Northern Illinois. He’s a free agent. He’s actually wearing #37. He’s on the roster, a guy who we trained.
We have a couple of basketball kids, one who plays at the University of Tennessee. We have some soccer kids. and we have a lot of young kids that are doing well in our program. It’s been great to see these kids come in day one and us being able to transform their body, but not only their body but their minds, and get them a whole new thinking process on how to be successful. These kids come in and they’re signed and not really that hard working. They’re unsure of themselves to be confident but humble but hard working and expecting success because they’re putting in the work, not only in our facility but we motivate them to put in work in the classroom. Seeing these kids achieve their dreams, it’s been us reliving our dreams through these kids all over again.
And it’s got to be fun to be in a business venture with your former teammates.
Yeah, it’s cool. It’s like being in the locker room again. A lot of guys show up. Charles Tillman is a frequent visitor. Anthony Adams — his son is in our program. Johnny Knox, he is one of our coaches for our 7-on-7 program. So it’s been pretty cool. We’ve had a lot of support from a lot of our former teammates. Olin Kreutz is a big supporter of our program as well. It’s like being in the locker room all over again, and seeing these kids being able to transform into not only better athletes but better students and better people. To see them succeed in whatever they’re trying to achieve has been awesome.
You’re training guys and you’re working out, but how are you doing? How’s your health?
I’m doing great. The kids keep me young. We have a summer camp going on right now from 8:30 to 4 o’clock all week. We have 22 kids signed up from age 6 to 13. So they keep us young. When we’re playing games with them, when we’re playing football in the gym, it’s pretty cool. We work out with the kids, we’ll challenge the kids, we jump in with them. The kids love that.
I think when they first come into the facility they say, “Oh, that’s Alex Brown,” or “That’s Adrian Peterson.” But after a while they just look at you as a coach or a mentor. Some of these kids — not all — but some of these kids come in and they don’t necessarily have a father figure there, so I think they look at us as father figures. They come to us for advice. It’s been pretty cool.
Alright, so if you had to do it over again, you would still play professional football?
Oh without a doubt. Professional football has given myself and my family so much. I’ve said it over and over again, you’ve seen me say it, and I’ve tweeted it and put it on social media over and over again — I’m just so thankful for the NFL and all the scouts who scouted me and gave me an opportunity, but I’m deeply, truly thankful for the Chicago Bears for giving me an opportunity to come here and play for a great franchise. There are so many great players. And obviously playing running back, Walter Payton was one of my favorite players growing up as well.
To wear that same helmet as him and play the same position as Matt Suhey, who has been tremendous for me throughout my entire time here in Chicago. He’s been a guy who I was able to go and have breakfast with — he’s been like a big brother to me. It’s just awesome man. It’s awesome being able to put on that helmet and go to Soldier Field and play in front of the greatest fans in the world. The fans still give us support even though we’re not playing. so for me, it was truly an honor to wear that Chicago Bears logo, to wear that helmet, and to play for the best organization in the National Football League.