He visited lepers and widows and orphans, but Danny Trevathan’s photographic memory still, to this day, flashes to the scene inside a Ethiopian hut: a middle-aged woman laying down, sweating through a towel on her forehead, with a daughter at the foot of her bed rubbing her feet.
She was dying.
The 21-year-old Trevathan — a soon-to-be college senior in May 2011 — carried them a heavy bag of rice. As Trevathan placed it down, the woman grabbed his arm and seemed to look right through him. He grabbed her hand back, making a connection, before walking back into the hot sun.
She started shaking as he left, and died within seconds. Trevathan held the young girl when she walked out and told him.
Joker Phillips planned the University of Kentucky’s goodwill trip for a small group that included only two players. The coach had to travel around the world just to see his quiet linebacker talk. Trevathan played soccer with kids and hugged the poor and sick in the three cities they visited.
“You saw a lot of things come forth,” Phillips said.
Trevathan’s future came into focus.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to do something in life,” Trevathan said. “Ethiopia helped me. …
“Once I came back from overseas, I’m like, ‘Man, ‘I’m not holding my tongue for nobody else.’
“It was always in me, but it took that to bring it out of me.”
Sadness from that trip haunts him, but is a motivator for his most recent successes: a Super Bowl title in February and a four-year, $22.5 million deal with the Bears.
Whether or not he becomes the franchise’s next star linebacker, he’s the center of their defense and, the Bears hope, a symbol of their return to defensive greatness.
He’s still furious, five years later, at how unfair life could be.
“It made me mad,” said Trevathan, who still sends money back to build $300 houses. “I use that anger on that field.
“I’ve got a good memory.”
• • •
Trevathan rattles off a scout team play as if he’s reading the slide from eight years ago: “Unbalanced left, hop light, left rain.” He smiles.
Phillips is still amazed by Trevathan’s memory.
“I never remember him taking notes in meetings,” Phillips said, “and I never remember him making a mistake, either.”
Trevathan led the SEC in tackles in 2010 and 2011 as an undersized linebacker. Even today, he’s only 6-1, 240 pounds.
“There was always a chip on Danny’s shoulder,” said Phillips, now the Browns’ receivers coach.
All he needed was a team to bet on him. The Broncos were perfect.
If you believe in fate, Phillips and Trevathan ate together at a restaurant in Ethiopia that used the Broncos’ logo. If you believe in familiarity, Broncos assistant pro personnel director “Champ” Kelly is a Kentucky alum.
Kelly now runs the Bears’ pro personnel department.
“I’m sure he’s the guy that went to bat for him,” Phillips said.
Trevathan rewarded the Broncos, leading them in tackles in 2013 and 2015. In between, he played only three games due to two left knee fractures and one dislocated kneecap, leading to reconstructive surgery in January 2015.
“I knew I had to get that thing right if I was able to, not just play football, but walk,” he said.
Days after the surgery, the Broncos let Fox go. Trevathan wanted to rejoin him.
“Always respected him,” he said. “And he was always in my ear telling me ‘Danny, no matter where you come from, you can go places, man. Sixth-round draft pick, people overlook you all this and that.
“‘But you’re here now — make a name for yourself.”
• • •
Trevathan’s mouthpiece wasn’t in when, in December, he made a hit in San Diego. Two teeth were dislodged from the upper right of his mouth — and down his throat.
Gruesome? Yes. But to a franchise that prides itself on a history of hard-charging linebackers, it’s oddly comforting.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that’s played linebacker that hasn’t heard about them,” Trevathan said. “Just the great tradition of linebackers to come through here, and to be in the presence of where they were and to have my name right there, it’s an opportunity for me to make the most of it. …
“Linebackers coming down hitting … that is my style”
Otis Wilson was thrilled to see the Bears add their first impact linebacker since Brian Urlacher retired three years ago. An injured Lance Briggs played only 17 games after that.
“It had just been plain Jane,” the Bears’ former outside linebacker said. “It’s like watching a fight — and both fighters are mediocre.”
Trevathan quickly apologized for calling the Super Bowl-winning Broncos’ defense better than the 1985 Bears.
“I was in the moment then,” he demurred. “It’s not my place to speak on that, I wasn’t there back in the ’85 Bears, but it’s just an honor to be mentioned among names like that, a great defense like that.”
Wilson likes the confidence, even if he considered the original statement flat wrong.
“He won a Super Bowl,” Smith said. “Run your mouth. I like that.”
• • •
Trevathan had reason to be chesty after leading the Broncos in tackles in a 24-10 Super Bowl victory, holding Cam Newton to 18-of-41 passsing.
“They ain’t played nobody like us, with the attitude and fury,” he said.
The Bears can only hope that translates to Halas Hall. With the draft short on inside linebackers, Trevathan was the Bears’ best chance to get a good one.
“John knows him, he knows John,” said former Bears college scouting director Greg Gabriel. “He’s a fit for what they do schematically. And on top of that, they got him for a very fair price. … It’s a helluva deal.”
Once Trevathan takes his daughter to Disney World —Peyton Manning advised him to take time for himself and his family — he’ll try to build the Bears back up into a title contender.
For an undersized linebacker from an SEC doormat — who was drafted in the sixth round and later had knee reconstruction — it’s just one more hurdle.
“I’m a guy who loves to take on stuff,” he said, “that people say I can’t do.”
Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley