Chicago Bears defensive tackles Zach Minter and Brent Russell stayed on the field long after OTAs ended yesterday, just enjoying their surroundings and having a little fun. In fact, the two rookies were the last two players left on the field following the end practice.
"We were moving the tackling dummies around some, doing wind sprints, and hanging out, getting to know each other better," Russell said as he finally headed to the locker room. "This is like the first week of school. We're both so excited about being here and we're going to do as much as we can to take in all the experiences."
Russell and Minter were two of 10 players the Bears signed into their 2013 class of undrafted free agents. The opportunity to put on a Chicago uniform was the culmination of a dream for Minter.
"I went to Montana State and we dream big out there," Minter said. "I've been active in sports since I was a little kid but I didn't get serious about football until junior year in high school. It was always in the back of my mind that I could and would get to this level. But hoping things would happen and having them actually happen are two very different things. I stood out there today on the practice field looking around, hardly able to believe I was here. This is such an opportunity. You can believe I'll give this 110 percent."
Minter spent most of draft weekend near his phone, hoping for a call from any NFL team.
"Once the Bears got that seventh-round pick, I thought maybe my time had come. But that didn't happen. I was incredibly discouraged. But thankfully it wasn't long after the draft that I did get the call to come and show them what I could do. I signed with the team the day after the draft process was over. I think that was the first time I had relaxed in months."
Currently, there is little depth behind starting defensive tackles Henry Melton and Stephen Paea, Veterans Nate Collins, Aston Whiteside and Andre Fluellen are in the mix but none are accomplished players. The Bears also signed a pair of tryout players, Corvey Irvin and Christian Tupou, which will create a wide-open competition amongst seven players for two positions.
This is the opportunity both Russell and Minter have been looking for, a chance to grasp an open position and earn a spot on an NFL roster.
"I was aware that the Bears are currently a little thin at the DT position," Russell said. "That's why I had my hopes up during draft weekend. But just like Zach, my phone never rang until I heard from the Bears the day after the process was over. I went from incredibly discouraged about my prospects to elated in a matter of seconds."
Russell was extremely productive in 52 career starts at Georgia Southern. He recorded 231 tackles, 54.5 for loss, 25 sacks, one interception and five blocked kicks from the nose tackle position. He earned first-team All-Southern Conference honors, numerous All-American awards and was named a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in FCS.
Minter had a solid junior year for Montana State in 2011, racking up 10 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, yet injuries led to struggles his senior season, with his sack number falling to just 3.0. He still managed 8.5 tackles for loss, despite missing four games, and was named All-Big Sky first-team.
But both admit they need to put their college success behind them and focus on their future in Chicago.
"It's a little easier said than done," Russell said. "I'm still in some sort of a daze, not realizing that I am actually here in the NFL. It's difficult not to look down the field and notice guys you've only seen before on TV. I know I have to get past that and concentrate on my technique and generate my own success at this level."
For Minter, lining up with the Bears is a homecoming of sorts.
"My mother is from Arlington Heights," Minter said. "I feel comfortable here. I still have family around so I'm not expecting the adjustment to be huge. Plus, I think my signing added a lot of Bears fans, and that's just counting the relatives."
What do the two rookies see as their biggest challenge?
"The speed, the intensity, the competition, and the learning curve are so much more difficult" said Minter. "We know we'll have to work really hard to do well at this level but that comes with the territory."
And if that means they're the last players off the practice field every day, both are fine with that.
"We'll listen to our coaches and learn all we can," Russell said. "We'll stay until midnight if necessary to get things right. Whatever it takes to be productive works well for us."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.