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Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski gives back to the community this holiday season

In an exclusive interview, Kwiatkoski talks to Windy City Gridiron about helping those less fortunate, the Bears’ mindset in the closing stretch of the season, and more.

Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski participated in the annual Care for Real Toy Drive in Chicago, Illinois on December 4, 2018.

The holidays are just around the corner, and millions around the nation are getting ready to celebrate with their families. Whether it be setting up a Christmas tree, decorating their house with extravagant lights or going out to partake in holiday festivities, everyone has their own way of preparing for the holiday season.

What falls under the rug is the hardship that many around the world face every year on Christmas. Some parents are not able to afford gifts for their children due to economic struggles, and it is often up to volunteers to ensure that those in need can enjoy the season.

Care for Real, a non-profit organization, runs an annual toy drive in Chicago to help out those who are unable to afford gifts. Chicago Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski participated in the drive this year, signing autographs and taking pictures with those who donated a new and unwrapped toy at Bloomingdale’s stores in Chicago. He realizes that, as a professional athlete, he is able to make an impact in his community that most are unable to.

“I think it’s very important for us [to help out],” Kwiatkoski told Windy City Gridiron on Tuesday. “Obviously, playing football gives us a platform, so if we have messages to send out or a view behind things, it’s just a huge help. Organizations in every city, they don’t always have the best [support] budget-wise, so being able to pair up with them and kind of putting a face to a cause really goes a long way.”

Nick Kwiatkoski signs a teddy bear for the Care for Real Toy Drive.

Kwiatkoski returned to the Care for Real Toy Drive after partaking in it last year. He is grateful for the chance that Care for Real has given him to help out those in need.

“It was actually a relationship we built last year around the holidays,” he said. “I was looking to do stuff in the community, they had a toy drive every year...we did it last year and it was a success, so it was definitely something I wanted to continue this year. It’s been a great outcome.”

The toy drive served as a way for many to get into the Christmas spirit as the month progresses. Kwiatkoski is excited for the season this year, and fondly remembers spending time with his family growing up.

“My favorite Christmas memory was probably just being around family around the holidays. Christmas Eve, we would go to my grandma’s house, and then Christmas we’d be at my aunt’s or uncle’s or other grandma’s [house]. Having those days with family - especially family you don’t get to see all the time - it was probably the best memories. Just having everyone together.”

The third-year linebacker doesn’t know what he will doing this year, but he has been able to spend time with friends and family on past holidays despite his busy schedule.

“It’s really just schedule depending,” he explained. “Last year, I had some friends come up here. My family, they stayed back in Pittsburgh, but we got to celebrate and they came up the week after we celebrated. Just different ways like that to keep the Christmas spirit. I’m not sure what I’m doing this year, but we’ll see.”

Amidst all of the festivities, Kwiatkoski and the Bears maintain focus on their chase to make the playoffs. They return home this week to take on the Los Angeles Rams, who at 11-1, are one of the best teams in the NFL. While the task may be daunting, Chicago is ready to take them on on Sunday night.

“They’re definitely one of the top offenses in the league,” Kwiatkoski said. “Earlier in the week, [we were] preparing, getting in the film room and seeing things before the game. It’s one of those’s a top offense. We know who they are.”

The Bears are no slouches themselves, as they sit atop the NFC North with an 8-4 record. Part of their success can be attributed to the addition of edge rusher Khalil Mack, who has nine sacks through 10 games this year. Having the chance to play alongside him on defense, Kwiatkoski knows firsthand just how important Mack is to Chicago’s defense.

“He’s a guy who’s obviously a great player,” Kwiatkoski said about his teammate. “He makes everyone around him great, as well. Just watching him on film, it’s amazing. Just to have a guy out there like that, he helps in tremendous ways, different ways. Whether it be double teaming him, it opens up something else for someone, or just having his presence, having that presence on the edge to get to the quarterback as quick as he can, it kind of speeds things up, makes people in the back end’s jobs easier. There are many ways that he helps out.”

Their newfound success is a turnaround from the Bears teams of recent years, as the franchise underwent five straight last-place finishes in the NFC North before this season. With new head coach Matt Nagy and an influx of new talent, Kwiatkoski says that the feeling in the locker room is unlike anything he has experienced on the team before.

“It’s definitely different,” he stated. “The energy’s high, the team itself, we’re a very close team, I would say. It’s just a different feel: there’s more energy, [and] a lot of things looking up. Coming in to work every day, it’s a good feeling. It’s a confidence feeling. Just the high energy around in every aspect, which is big for us this year.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

“As for the past two years, it was obviously not what we wanted. For us to go through that and coming out this year, knowing the work we put in and the things we did, it’s definitely a good feeling.”

The overhaul in the roster and coaching staff has resulted in an improvement in play and morale. Not only are fans more engaged in the team and attending more games, but the players are visibly excited to play with their teammates.

“I mean, winning’s fun,” Kwiatkoski noted. “It kind of goes back to the standards in the building. We feed off of each other and it carries over onto gameday. Like I said, winning’s fun, so that helps, but [there’s] just an overwhelming good feeling around the building. We like to have fun, and that’s pretty much it.”

Perhaps the most apparent example of the Bears’ strong sense of camaraderie came on Thanksgiving, when several players participated in a synchronized dance after Kyle Fuller secured an interception. Kwiatkoski was involved in the dance, but had no idea what was going on at the time.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

“Honestly, when I got out there, I didn’t know they were doing that,” Kwiatkoski said. “I was kind of in the mix and I didn’t know what was going on, so I don’t know. They talk about it; it’s mostly the DBs, so you’d have to talk to them.”

The Bears’ winning ways have reinvigorated their fanbase and has them comparing this year’s team to those of yesteryear. Many of the greatest teams in franchise history have had elite linebackers, with the likes of Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher, Bill George and Joe Fortunato all having made appearances in championship games. Throw in players like Dick Butkus and Doug Buffone, and it becomes even more evident that the Bears have high standards at the linebacker position. Kwiatkoski says that the expectations didn’t pressure him, but rather, give him a measuring stick to improve his own play.

“First of all, I was excited just to be drafted,” he explained. “[Getting drafted] to the Bears, like you said, the rich history, it was definitely excited. You can go name the great linebackers they’ve had. We played in the Hall of Fame game for [Brian] Urlacher this year. it’s hard to put pressure on that just because there were so many emotions running through my mind, especially me being a rookie and my first year in the NFL and playing, I think there’s already pressure on a rookie no matter what.”

“I wouldn’t say [Chicago’s linebacker history] added to it, but it is definitely when you’re there, you walk around the building and see pictures of these guys. It’s definitely in the back of your mind. This place has a rich history of linebackers, and it’s definitely in the back of your mind every Sunday, every gameday. It’s a defensive kind of feel, the linebackers have the rich history, so you always want to perform your best.”

With the Bears playing at a high level again, the playoffs seem to be a realistic possibility for them this year. Though they haven’t reached the postseason since 2010, Kwiatkoski says that the team is just taking things one game at a time.

“We’re taking everything week by week,” he said. At this point in the season, you really can’t look past it. In the NFL, anything can happen. Teams can win, teams can lose. To look past anything but this week, it’s hard. We have to take care of what we need to each week, so that’s all we’re focusing on right now: the next game. The most important game is the next one.”