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Local Story: Cameron Meredith wins over hometown Bears

Everybody asks rookie receiver Cameron Meredith about Jay Cutler. When you’re a hometown kid playing for the Bears, the love’em-or-hate’em quarterback always will be part of the conversation.

“Oh, yeah,” Meredith said. “I do get that a lot.”

What does he tell those asking?

“Jay is great,” Meredith said. “A lot of people might say some things about him outside, but that’s because they don’t get to be around him in the building.

“From what I know, he’s a good guy to talk to you. He’s about his business. He wants to be good — he wants to be great. That’s his personality.”

Meredith would know, having learned plenty about Cutler since being signed as an undrafted rookie out of Illinois State.

And he’s quite the story himself — an overlooked quarterback at St. Joseph who didn’t play receiver until he was a redshirt junior at Illinois State. And now he’s one of Cutler’s top five receivers, having made two key receptions in their rally against Kansas City Chiefs two weeks ago.

“So far, it’s been a great ride,” Meredith said.

Six games into his pro career, Meredith only is starting to flourish. Bears coaches rave about him. Cutler does, too. They only see him getting better.

“He’s doing a good job,” Cutler said. “I really enjoy him in the huddle and on the field. It seems like on game day there is a little bit something more about him. It’s not too big for him.”

* * *

Don’t call St. Joseph a basketball school. They may have state’s all-time winningest coach in Gene Pingatore and an alumni list that includes Isiah Thomas, but the school has produced football players, too, Meredith said.

“I’m trying to get people to stop saying that,” he said.

Playing for his hometown Bears doesn’t hurt.

“When you walk through the hallways of St. Joseph, it’s kind of a basketball dynasty,” former St. Joseph football coach Mark Zavagnin said. “[Football players] would take ridicule from other students.”

That changed when Meredith was there. He was part of two strong classes – talented groups that Zavagnin said were determined to change perception of the woebegone program.

In 2008, Meredith was the Chargers’ starting quarterback as a junior when they ended a 45-game losing with a 42-13 victory at Ridgewood in Week 1.

Meredith’s stats?

“I was like 18 for 20-something, 220 [yards], a couple [touchdowns], a rushing touchdown,” he said, smiling. “It was a good game for me. But my team played a huge role in that game.”

St. Joseph won the next week against Argo. The following season Meredith was an all-East Suburban Catholic selection.

“At times, I thought about leaving the school,” Meredith said. “In the end, it was about the guys I was in there with and what we trying to accomplish.

“During that time, we built a relationship among those guys who did break that streak. We all stuck to it. We dedicated ourselves.”

All of it speaks to Meredith’s character and upbringing, Zavagnin said. Meredith isn’t just extremely talented, but a resilient player who took a weekly pounding in the powerful ESCC.

“At first, I was taken aback [when he made the Bears],” Zavagnin said. “But to be honest with you, when I look back at it, this was a kid’s goal. Nothing was going to get in his way.”

Not even a late position change.

* * *

Offensive coordinator Adam Gase liked what he saw at the Bears’ local pro day in April. Meredith was tall and long and had great ball skills. But there were concerns.

“It was one of those deals of how hot he was going to get,” Gase said. “It was whether he was going to be a late-round draft pick or a college free agent.”

When he was available in free agency, Gase and receivers coach Mike Groh made their pitch, as did other teams, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans. The Bears sold Meredith on his chances of making the roster. “Actually make it,” Gase stressed.

Meredith accomplished it by doing more than taking advantage of the extra time he got because of injuries to Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White.

“He made this team because he has the physical tools that we’re looking for,” Groh said. “To his credit, he was prepared mentally. He’s made some tough catches in these games. … That would be the expectation of him going forward that he will continue to be able to do that.”

Meredith was inactive in Week 1 against the Packers, but has played every week since. In Seattle, he was the only receiver in heavy-set packages. In Kansas City, he made catches of 20 and 10 yards during the Bears’ late game-winning drive.

“He wants the ball to go his way,” Cutler said. “He’s not afraid of it.”

Meredith’s coaches at Illinois State say it’s just the beginning. He didn’t become a full-time receiver until the 2013 season. He switched positions at the suggestion of coach Brock Spack, who thought he was just too athletic to remain the backup quarterback. A trial-by-fire scrimmage during the 2012 playoffs spurred the change.

“Obviously, he had the ball skills to do it,” Spack said.

In 2014, Meredith was the Redbirds’ leading receiver and starred during their FCS championship run. He made a one-handed touchdown catch against Eastern Washington that was featured on ESPN.

“There’s such a high ceiling for Cam right now,” Redbirds receivers coach Billy Dicken said. “He’s not even close to what he will be in the future.”

* * *

In a way, Zavagnin knows what Meredith is experiencing. He was a linebacker at St. Rita and later Notre Dame before being drafted by the Bears in the ninth round of the 1983 draft. A back injury would end his career before it really began.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for a local kid,” said Zavagnin, who coached Meredith for three years at St. Joseph. “This is a good story. Something good has happened to a really good kid.”

It’s been a unique experience, Meredith said. He has had to manage overwhelming attention, from ticket requests to hearing from old classmates and friends for the first time in years. He’s learned how to handle random interactions with fans, including ones who may have seen him in high school or even played against him.

“I appreciate everything that people say,” Meredith said

The attention can be distracting. But the rookie who used to have posters of cornerback Charles Tillman on his wall hasn’t lost his focus.

“Don’t get me wrong I like it, but I was questioning, ‘Is it just because I’m from here?’ ” Meredith said. “I was questioning my skills for a little bit. But I’m just grateful for the opportunity.

“The Chicago Bears are a great organization, and yeah I’m from here, but I can play, and that’s what I want to prove.”

Cameron Meredith in high school. (File Photo)
Cameron Meredith in high school. (File Photo)

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