Some NFL players seem like they were born to play for a specific team. That was stalwart veteran Akiem Hicks and the Chicago Bears over the last half-decade plus.
With Hicks and the Bears likely on a course toward a separation — after six years — during this coming off-season, the Windy City Gridiron staff felt it appropriate to wax poetic about one of the best and more underappreciated men ever to wear the GSH on the sleeves of his jersey. I already shared my thoughts on what this mammoth man meant to a franchise that couldn’t entirely return all he gave them. It’s only fair the rest of us chime in.
There’s one more ride with Hicks this Sunday in Minnesota. What a ride it’s been.
Au revoir, or rather: Goodbye until we meet again.
Sam Householder: Hicks is my favorite post-Trestman Bear. I didn’t think much of it when he initially signed in Chicago on a prove-it type deal, but his attitude, on and off the field, helped shape the Bears for the past six years. He plays with a fiery attitude and demeanor while never seeming like he isn’t having fun. I wish we could’ve seen him more healthy than not over the past three years because I think that’s the only reason he won’t be back. But he’s been fantastic and is worthy of the “Bear for Life” moniker that is probably only super important to meatheads like me.
Robert Schmitz: I have absolutely nothing but respect for Akiem Hicks. From the day he signed with the Bears in 2016, Hicks became a staple on the defenses of both excellent and bad Bears teams alike and led by example with phenomenal interior play. He was a space-eater against the run, a vicious pass-rusher, a Vikings killer, and the clear heart and soul of the defense from the day he first donned navy and orange. There’s a reason he was nicknamed a “literal bear” by fans almost immediately. In a sport where teams are built via draft choices (who don’t get a say in where they play) and money-guided signings (think of Robert Quinn’s infamous coin flip), his love for the city of Chicago and the fans at Soldier Field feels wonderfully sincere.
Not everyone that wears Chicago’s jersey has to embody Hicks’ spirit, but that he did so for so long has made him easy to love. His 2018 season, in my opinion, was on par with Aaron Donald’s recent efforts, and I’ll never forget watching him for as long as I’m a Bears fan. He made a profound impact over the last few years, and while the decision to let him walk is a sensible one I’ll never say I’m happy to see him go. He’ll be missed.
Josh Sunderbruch: I was never as enamored of Hicks as many of my fellow contributors, but that doesn’t mean I think he is anything other than a fantastic football player. He was one of the few guys who made a difference every time he was in the lineup, and even from the bench; he helped shape the defense. Any team in the league would have been made better by adding Hicks over the last six years, and that’s the most that can be asked of a player.
Jack Silverstein: Your all-time favorite athlete list is booked at a certain age.
New entrants are rare. I’m at that point. Akiem Hicks is one of the rare players to breakthrough. He immediately changed his Twitter cover photo to Dick Butkus when he came to Chicago. I know that’s corny, but I loved it. Obviously, you have to back it up, and Akiem did that. He was a star from day one. He played at an All-Pro level on the field and did so with heart and passion. On that famed and ferocious 2018 defense, Khalil Mack and Eddie Jackson were the stars, Kyle Fuller was a sensei, and Hicks was the engine. More than just the defense, he made that whole team go.
In the summer of 2019, when the Bears celebrated their 100th season, Hicks sat on a stage with Ed O’Bradovich, Dan Hampton, Chris Zorich, and Tommie Harris, listening to them all talk about why being a Bear matters and why that 2019 team was special and had a chance to be remembered. Hicks listened patiently. And then said this:
“It’s an honor to follow in your footsteps and to be able to put this Bears jersey on and represent us. And I also got to say; I accept all of your challenges.”
That last line got the crowd going to another level, but to know what it meant, watch the reaction of those other Bears greats. No, the Bears never reached a Super Bowl with Hicks. 2018 was the pinnacle, not the promise. But Hicks accepted the challenge, took it on, and did the absolute most he could do. He’ll be on that stage next time as a certified Bears legend.
Erik Duerrwaechter: Akiem Hicks’s story with the Chicago Bears transcends any free agency signings of recent years. He came to Chicago looking for an opportunity to become the player he knew he could become. He came to Chicago to prove many people wrong, including Sean Payton and Bill Belichick. Most importantly, he came to Chicago to find himself a place he could call home.
He did all of that, and then some. His play was elite in his best seasons. He did every single thing you could ever ask of a monster. He could play any position up front, from the seven-tech to the zero, as a proper nose. He stuffed the run with authority. He rushed the passer with a demonic streak. It mattered not if he was double or even triple-teamed. He would take the whole world on if he needed to.
The jersey number No. 96 is not worn lightly in Chicago. He wore it with pride. He honored Chicago’s storied traditions with his mindset and relentless pursuit of perfection. He never sought out attention. He just kicked ass and took names.
Akiem Hicks endeared himself with the Bears players. And he endeared himself with Bears fans. He never turned his nose up on casual conversations with fans on Twitter or other social media platforms. He didn’t always get the recognition he deserved. And he didn’t care.
I’ll hold out hope this is not the end. At least, not until the Bears finally win the Super Bowl and get Hicks the ring he deserves. But, alas, all great things in life find an ending. If it’s truly goodbye, he’ll always have my eternal thanks and respect. He’ll always be one of the greatest defensive linemen I’ve ever seen — this aspiring defensive-line coach has notes on what to look for in good technique.
I don’t know if Hicks will ever get to see this. If he does: Thank you, Akiem. For everything. Bear Down. Now, and forever.