A 2nd round pick? On a return man?
When the Bears drafted Devin Hester in 2006, Jason McKie knew he could run back kicks. He’d done it all day at Miami. But man, at that spot in the draft, here in the NFL, when you’re competing for a Super Bowl, what else was Hester going to do?
McKie laughs retelling the story.
“You know the rest,” he says.
We sure do.
In honor of this weekend’s NFL Draft, which starts today, we spoke with J-Mack for the next episode in our ongoing series, “The J-Mack Top 5.” This time around, Jason gave us his top five rookies of the Lovie Smith years who got him hyped.
1. Tommie Harris, 2004, 1st round, University of Oklahoma
McKie: We were excited about Tommie because when he came out he was arguably a top 5 player in college football, if not top 3. The guy was that big, that strong, that fast. I’ll say to this day, and you can ask a lot of these guys, a lot of my teammates: if Tommie would not have gotten hurt, this is a guy who would have gone to numerous Pro Bowls. I think he could still be playing to this day.
When Tommie first came to our team, he was unblockable. We couldn’t block him. I remember us getting frustrated in running back meetings. I remember our coach Tim Spencer getting upset because in 9-on-7s, we couldn’t block the guy. He was always in the backfield. He would get off the ball, and he was so much faster than anybody else.
But he was a guy who was also good in the locker room. He was one of my good friends — still is one of my good friends to this day. He had a real good personality. He was real giving. He had a real good heart. He would do anything for you, not just on the field but off the field. He would do anything for his team. If you were his friend he would do anything for you, and that stays true to this day.
Silverstein: What did Olin and Ruben Brown say about Tommie’s unblockability?
McKie: Olin always talks about it with me, even now. He’s like, “Man, Tommie was a beast. You couldn’t block him. He was that good.” (Laughs.) It was a mutual respect between Tommie and Olin and those guys on the offensive line. I think they wanted to dominate Tommie because he was younger and he was up and coming, but at the same time they wanted him to be good because they knew he was good for our team. And they knew that in practice, he was going to continue to make those guys better. He was going to continue to push those guys.
And Tommie had a respect for those guys because he knew, “I get the chance to go up against the best center in the league each and every day in practice.” Or one of the best guards in NFL history, in my opinion, in Ruben Brown. “I get to go up against those guys.” Roberto Garza — all these guys. Guys who are veterans and played the game at the highest level for a long time. It was a mutual respect between the offensive line and Tommie.
2. Devin Hester, 2006, 2nd round, University of Miami
McKie: Everybody knew from college that he was good in the return game. We were just like, “Wow, we spent a 2nd round pick on just a returner?” That’s kind of where we were at. We knew he had athleticism. We just didn’t know where else he was going to contribute. We already had receivers, so it was like, “Is he only going to be used in the return game? Why did we spend a 2nd round pick just on a guy who is going to be strictly a returner?”
Silverstein: And he was going to be a corner!
McKie: That’s right — he sure was. Man, honestly, I forgot he was going to be one. He was known for his returns, regardless of if he was going to be a corner. We didn’t see him as a corner. We had good corners. Our defense was good, so he didn’t really get an opportunity to play corner. He was so athletic that it was finding a place for him. We were like, “How is this guy going to help us?” And you know the rest. The rest is history. (Laughs.)
Silverstein: What was the moment where you knew, “Even if we spent a 2nd round pick on this guy just to return kicks, that’s okay”?
McKie: The first game he started against Green Bay. We went up to Green Bay and beat them 26 to zero at Lambeau Field. He had a punt he took back that game. Effortlessly. It was ridiculous. He made everybody look slow. He went through the Packers’ punt team like they were in slow motion. After that it was like, “Man, what is this guy going to do next week?” In practice he would do crazy stuff, so it was like, “What is this guy going to do next?”
Silverstein: Do any specific moments in practice stand out?
McKie: He would always make a cut or show off his speed or do something special in practice, all the time, even in training camp. Just messing around. We never covered kicks live in practice, but we had guys on the look team that would come down and try to tag him just for fun, and he would make a move to show that he was the best to ever do it. It was just two-hand touch — there was no tackling in practice — but for the most part no one could even touch him.
When he got on the field, we would sit back and say, “We know for sure he’s going to take one back today, but is he going to take back two or three?” How is he going to do it? How many guys is he going to make miss? Is he going to just out run everybody? Or is he going to break two or three tackles, make two or three people miss, and then showcase his speed? That’s the type of player he was. He had a unique ability to make plays.
3. Matt Forte, 2008, 2nd round, Tulane University
McKie: Forte was a guy who, when he came in, me and Adrian kind of had mixed feelings. Obviously we weren’t too happy about Thomas Jones leaving the team. Nobody was. He left the team and that year Cedric and Adrian were our two main backs. They shared time. And then they bring in Forte and we were like, “They’re trying to find a guy to come in and be another T-Jones.” You know? “What is this guy going to do? He’s from Tulane University, a 2nd round pick. Is he going to be good?”
I can remember him coming into our first meeting room, and we had a tough meeting room. Our running back meeting room was tough. We worked hard but if you made a mistake we had a good humor about it and would let you know about it, but we knew that if we held our meeting room that way and held each other accountable, it was going to make us better players.
So when Matt came in, he was a quiet guy, but he knew his stuff. That’s what really gained my respect for him. I can recall our running back coach Tim Spencer going over blitz pickups and assignments, and Matt knew every single assignment each and every day. When you’re a rookie and you come into the room, especially as a high pick, the running back coach is not going to pick on you, but he’s going to ask you the majority of the questions because it’s their job to get you ready to play right away.
So Matt got all of the hard questions. Everything. He got the majority of the reps. They would throw him in there, throw him in the fire. And he passed that test every single time. I really gained respect for him because he knew what he was supposed to do, he knew who he had. He was consistent. He was dependable.
And then when we got out there in preseason, he made plays, and we got out there in the games and he made plays. I think that’s how he earned his respect.
4. Nathan Vasher, 2004, 4th round, University of Texas
McKie: Vasher came from Texas, where he made a lot of plays, so we were excited to see him because he was a corner and an athletic guy who had success at a huge university. Vash could make plays in the punt return game. He was a great defensive back. He had a ton of interceptions at Texas.
The defense was excited because, “We got another playmaker.” And I know we were excited because you added a guy who we felt could come in and contribute.
5. Greg Olsen, 2007, 1st round, University of Miami
McKie: I remember watching Greg run his first route. He was a tall guy. He was a funny guy. He was kind of goofy to me. His accent was goofy, a New Jersey guy. I went to Temple, so I was like, “Who is this New Jersey guy who left New Jersey and went down to Miami?” (Laughs.) And I questioned, “Is he really that good or did they just draft him because he went to Miami and they supposedly have a good history of tight ends?” I didn’t really know who he was or if he was that good.
Man, when he came in, he ran his first route in that first day of 7-on-7s, and he’s going up against the defense and he’s catching every pass and running routes like a wide receiver. I was like, “Wow, this guy’s a beast. This guy can play!”
I was anxious to see what he could do in pads. We got to training camp and he was doing the same thing. We got to preseason, and he was doing the same thing: making plays all over the field. Got to the regular season and he was doing the same thing. I was like, “This dude can play.” And he’s still playing to this day.
Just like with the free agents, once we finished J’s top 5 rookies I wanted to throw more names at him.
Here are J-Mack’s thoughts on some more big-name rookies of the Lovie era, with a clear-eyed view on Cedric Benson and a breakdown of the fastest Bears teammates Mack had.
Cedric Benson, 2005, 1st round, University of Texas
Silverstein: What was your reaction when Cedric was drafted?
McKie: I was excited. I watched him in college. I always watch college football as well as the NFL, and I like to watch running backs. And he was a really great player in college. I liked his running style. So I was definitely a fan. I was excited for him joining our group. We already had a solid group with T-Jones and AP. And then to add Ced to the mix, I felt like we could be the best backs in the league.
So me personally, I was excited. I can’t speak for everybody. I think some people were surprised that he got drafted, just because of the season T-Jones had. T-Jones was the #1, and we had AP who was a great back, so I was excited to add another good running back to the room. But I know some people were surprised that we drafted him due to the fact that we had Thomas and Adrian.
So there was no ill will — it wasn’t like, “Oh man, why did we draft this dude?” It was just, “Oh wow, we drafted a running back.” More of like a shock, because we had a couple of good running backs in the room.
Silverstein: Were you excited when you saw Cedric in practice?
McKie: Yeah. Cedric did a lot of good things. He ran real hard. He was physical. He was quick. He was big. You could see why he was a 1st round back. I just think it was a case where he was coming into a situation where the locker room had a huge admiration for Thomas Jones, so it was kind of hard for him to win over the locker room.
But regardless, we supported whoever was out there running the ball. People say, “Oh, those guys (Jones and Benson) hated each other.” And that wasn’t the case. I think those guys had a mutual respect for each other, and they made each other better. Those two guys helped us get to the Super Bowl. They were 1A and 1B. They both ran well. They both played significant roles in our run to the Super Bowl. They were both really, really good backs.
You throw in Adrian Peterson as well, and I’ll put our backs up against anybody. They really complimented each other, and Ced was a great player. You saw when he left and went to Cincinnati, he showed why he was so highly touted coming out of college.
I remember when we played them (in 2009), we played Cincinnati at Cincinnati, and I remember talking to Ced before that game. I was like, “Are you ready to face our defense tomorrow?” And he was like, “J-Mack, I’m trying to run for 200 on you guys.” That’s how confident he was. I know he didn’t like how things ended here in Chicago. I think that he felt that, not that he was a failure, but that he didn’t live up to the potential that he was billed to have when he first came here.
So I think when he got that fresh start, it rejuvenated him. It was a rebirth. And he went out there, and you know what he did to us that game. He ran for almost 200 yards. It was crazy. After the game he saw me and was like, “I told you! I told you!” (Laughs.) I was happy for him. I wasn’t happy that we lost but I was happy that his career played out the way it did.
Kyle Orton, 2005, 4th round, Purdue University
Silverstein: So, obviously we took Cedric in the 1st round in 2005, but the rookie who ended up playing the most was Kyle Orton.
McKie: Orton was one we were excited to see what he was going to do. It wasn’t like, “He’s going to come in and change the game.” It was, “This guy at Purdue broke a lot of records and followed Drew Brees. And we’ve seen what type of success Drew Brees had. What is this guy going to bring to the table?” He was a guy we wanted to see.
Bernard Berrian, 2004, 3rd round, Fresno State University
Silverstein: What about some other guys — Berrian, Danieal Manning, Garrett Wolfe, Chris Williams. I’m just spitballing.
McKie: All those guys brought a different element. Bernard was super fast. Our thing was, we knew he was fast, but we were wondering how he would hold up, because he was so skinny. (Laughs.) He was super skinny. We were like, “Man, who is this skinny guy?”
But man, he could go. I remember they put him in there and he could run like a deer, he could catch, and he was tough. He was just a guy who went about his business. He wasn’t always the loudest guy. He wasn’t a real vocal guy. But he was a guy who you knew would go out there and make a play. Every game he was going to go out there and make some kind of big play. That’s what he did.
Johnny Knox, 2009, 5th round, Abilene Christian University
Silverstein: You talk about super fast — what about Knox?
McKie: Yeah. He was crazy fast. I remember when he first came in, we would call him “Prince.” He looked like Prince to us. Nobody really paid attention to him. He was a guy who was a late round draft pick from Abilene Christian. We were like, “We don’t even know who this guy is.”
But he was a guy who just continued to make plays. He was quiet. Didn’t really say much. But he went out there and always made a big play in training camp where everyone would say, “Oooh, who was that? Who caught that deep ball?” Or, “Who is that running like that?”
He made play after play. And I think that’s when people started knowing who he was. I remember I didn’t even know his name for a while. “Who is that dude running out there?” He could run good routes. He was extremely fast. He was just quiet but his play did all the talking for him.
Berrian and Knox were similar players because of their speed. But they ran good routes. They weren’t receivers who were just fast. You have some receivers that are what you’d call a one-trick pony. They can only run a go-route. That’s all they can do. These guys could run the whole route tree. And they had that elite speed that you want in a wide receiver.
That’s what made Bernard and Johnny so unique. Anything you wanted them to run, they could do it and be effective at it. That’s what separated those two guys. Their speed, especially in camp, every other practice, they would catch a deep ball and show off their speed. That’s what made us hyped for those two guys when they came in.
They were also similar because of their size. They were both real skinny. At first we were like, “Man, are they gonna last a season? Those dudes are skinny!” (Laughs.) But they were tough as nails. That’s what made them such good football players. They played bigger than their size but they were just as advertised.
Silverstein: Alright, so the million dollar question: who is the fastest Bear you played with?
McKie: Everybody asks me that. Devin and Johnny are close. It’s funny because, at (Hester’s) press conference (Monday for his retirement ceremony with Forte), me, Johnny, Peanut and Zach Miller are sitting together. All the reporters are asking questions. I looked at Peanut and said, “I’m going to ask a question.” He was like, “You can’t ask a question.” I’m like, “I’m asking a question.” (Laughs.)
I was going to ask him, “Who is faster?” People always ask me that, so I was going to ask him that. When people ask me who is faster, him or Johnny Knox, I tell them, “I don’t know who’s faster but I’m stronger than both of them.” (Laughs.) That’s my claim to fame.
But they never raced each other, so I don’t know. I would say as far as pure speed, straight ahead speed, it’s close. It’s real close. I don’t know. That’s tough. But as far as being able to have speed and make moves and change direction while going full speed, Devin has Johnny by far in that category, and I think Johnny would admit that too.
As far as pure, straight line speed, just straight 40 speed, I really don’t know. They would argue that down to where they start fighting probably, and being close to both of those guys, I’m not going to answer that because I don’t want them knocking at my door and being mad at me.
Silverstein: Where does Bernard fit into that?
McKie: Bernard’s fast too, man. (Laughs.) Bernard’s fast too. That’s a close one. Obviously each one would say they are.
Silverstein: Of course.
McKie: I’m gonna go — in a straight line — (pause) — I don’t know. That’s close. But when you add in being able to stop and start and cut and plant on a dime, there is nobody close to Devin.
I remember talking to him one time. We always hung out with each other. We were always in each other’s rooms. Obviously he’s one of my best friends and a little brother to me. I asked him, when you return a kick, what are you looking for? And he said he can just visualize what he was going to do before he returned it. Depending on where the ball was kicked, he already knew how he wanted to set up the return based on how we were blocking it. He said he would just visualize it and then just go.
That’s something that is God-given right there, and then you have a supreme athlete, and so he made it look easy.
He also would always talk about the crowd. Even before each kick, we play music and get the crowd hyped, and that got him hyped. The way he described it, the kickoff team that was kicking to him, they weren’t his challenge. The challenge was himself. “Can I be better than I was last week? I took back one kick last week — can I take back two this week? Can I take a punt and a kick return this week?”
He was self-motivated. That’s what made him special in my eyes.
Jack M Silverstein is Windy City Gridiron’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” He is the proprietor of Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.
Jason McKie played nine years in the NFL, including seven with the Bears from 2003 to 2009. The son of a U.S. Air Force veteran, McKie runs the Jason McKie Foundation, which supports military families, including scholarships for the children of wounded soldiers. Along with former Bears teammates Alex Brown and Adrian Peterson, McKie owns and operates the All Pro Sports Performance Gym in Gurnee, Illinois.