Chicago Bears fans are used to seeing veteran linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer perform his duties on the field, racking up tackle after tackle in his seven full seasons in the NFL.
Less known is Hillenmeyer's work off the field, as a player representative for the league's labor union: the National Football League Players Association, or NFLPA.
The 29-year-old was elected to the post in 2006 through majority vote by his fellow Bears, succeeding former teammate and safety Mike Brown.
"People vote for union reps because they think they're the dorky, smart guy," jokes Hillenmeyer, which, in his case, appears to be a dead-on description.
He graduated from Vanderbilt University with a double major in economics and human and organizational development, and with a 3.8 GPA, and is just one class away from earning his MBA through the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University's part-time program.
Along with his apparent brains, Hillenmeyer's age and experience also make him an ideal candidate for the player-rep role.
"They usually tend to be older guys, because you kind of have enough to worry about as a rookie just trying to get to meetings," he says. "The older you get, you become aware of the business nature of the NFL, and there's a lot of things you can do to help your team out."
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, who stepped into that position last spring following the death of the legendary Gene Upshaw, says that while player reps "might not be the most flashy or rah-rah guys" in the league, they are "true team leaders." Smith adds that Hillenmeyer "fits that mold to a T. He's a tough competitor and is very smart and brilliant. He's been instrumental in informing his team on what's on the horizon. I can't say enough good about him."
Hillenmeyer's duties as a player representative include being the liaison between Smith and the NFLPA and the rest of the Bears roster.
"It's hard for DeMaurice to talk to the 1,700 players or so, but he can get messages to 32 reps and then we can get the word out," he says.
Smith also uses the player reps as a gauge of what sentiments across the league on various issues are.
"They're the people I seek advice from on what positions to take," he says.
For Hillenmeyer, his work as a rep mostly amounts to "a lot of little jobs" and not just "one huge job," such as when teammates get injured or need to file a grievance. Hillenmeyer says that some weeks he puts in 30 minutes towards his NFLPA duties, but some weeks none, such as during the season when he has very little free time. He typically attends the NFL Scouting Combine and various other events, including the annual labor union meeting in Hawaii, which Hillenmeyer says is much more fun for his wife than him since she actually gets to enjoy Maui when they are there, while he sits inside all day.
Serving as a player rep really is that: a service.
"You don't get paid for it," says Hillenmeyer. "Other than some experience that might help in a post-NFL business career, there are no perks."
He works hard to find balance between his team and union roles.
"You really have to compartmentalize your job as a football player and your job as a union guy," he says. "You still need to be focused for your job on the field, and then you have the separate role with trying to get labor peace."
Now that a new collective bargaining agreement needs to be worked out between the league and the union, Hillenmeyer's role as a player rep is likely to be thrust into the spotlight.
"There probably hasn't been another time in the history of the NFL that it is so critical and important to be a player rep," says Smith, adding that, especially with the possibility of a work stoppage in 2011, "the other players are putting their careers and livelihood in the hands of their player reps."
Hillenmeyer says that he took a class about negotiation in business school, and it has helped "a little bit with understanding the process."
Being involved in such negotiations could mean negative repercussions for Hillenmeyer, if history repeats itself.
"A player rep is someone who knows they are taking on a role of not only a tremendous amount of work and pressure, but also a tremendous amount of risk," says Smith. "The player reps, especially in times of risk, have found themselves at times being targeted by owners and fans. When you look at the past, a number of player reps were cut from their teams for taking pro-union stances."
Hillenmeyer says he will do his best to help negotiations go as peacefully as possible.
"That's been the case in the past," he says, "where players would kind of get blackballed by the league. I have good relationship with Bears ownership. They understand that I'm a guy who is most interested in win-win situations, rather than tugging at opposite ends of the rope. I think they know that I'm not going to use my role to try to manipulate the situation."
Helping Hillenmeyer with his player-rep duties when it comes to the Bears are two teammates, kicker Robbie Gould and wide receiver Rashied Davis, who serve as alternates.
"They've both been very enthusiastic and very helpful to me," says Hillenmeyer. "We decided to add an extra alternate because of the nature of things right now. If it comes to a lockout, you need those guys to help communicate to our other teammates."
While he is pleased to have enjoyed "relative good labor peace" through his first seven years in the NFL, Hillenmeyer says that his hope now "not just as a player, but as a fan of the game, is to find a resolution, because the worst thing we could do is to ruin a football season."
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Laura Downhour is a San Francisco-based contributor for ESPN the Magazine and has worked as a television sports reporter. She also previously served as a pre-game show reporter for the Detroit Lions, but try not to hold that against her.
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