Harvard-educated with dreams of being an infectious diseases researcher, Ben Braunecker might be the most qualified football player on earth to answer the eternal question: are injuries contagious?
Instead, though, he’ll benefit from an opportunity created by yet another blow for the Bears’ injury list — tight end Zach Miller’s broken foot, suffered Sunday against the Giants.
Amazingly, the rookie might now be the Bears’ top pass-catching option at tight end — despite owning one career catch for eight yards. At 6-4, 255 pounds, Braunecker has foot speed and suddenness to dream on, even if Sunday against the Titans isn’t the ideal time to unveil it.
“He needs reps,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “It’s a great opportunity for him, because he’s getting thrown into the fire that, obviously, he wouldn’t get thrown into if this didn’t happen the way it did.”
He joins a growing list of young Bears players — linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, receiver Cam Meredith, defensive end Jonathan Bullard and others — who can say the same.
But Braunecker is the most unlikely of the bunch.
After going undrafted, he left the Bears’ third padded training camp practice with a high ankle sprain — and was so limited he didn’t appear in a single preseason game. The Bears cut him after the fourth exhibition but added him back to the practice squad, where he stayed they promoted for Week 4.
Before playing 29 snaps Sunday, he had never logged more than eight, totaling only 23 in his first six games.
“I’m definitely thankful for the position I’m in, just to be still employed,” Braunecker said. “But at the end of the day you can’t just keep counting your stars. You can always be thankful, but I do have a job to do, so you have to focus on that.”
Complicating matters is the fact he must develop chemistry with quarterback Matt Barkley, Sunday’s likely starter. Loggains said both were asked to do more in practice this week than ever before.
“When you have a team that has this many injuries, everything’s difficult,” Braunecker said. “But we’re all NFL players. We have three capable guys in the tight end room right now, so we’re all really looking forward to getting a little bit more work and showing what we can do.”
They’ve all borrowed from Miller, who Braunecker said was “paramount” to the Bears’ success.
“He’s been in the league for a while, so he has a lot of craftiness to him, both in the blocking game and the receiving game,” Braunecker said. “Anyone can learn a lot just by watching him live life.”
Braunecker knows his own life could have taken a different turn. He’s actually found similarities between the sport and the study of infectious diseases.
“Both are fun,” he said. “I wouldn’t do them if they weren’t fun.”
They’re fun for the same reason, he said — “difficulty.”
If that’s his standard, then, Sunday should be a blast.