A gladiator in the arena: How Matt Nagy’s experience will translate to Bears

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Bears coach Matt Nagy is 3-3. Brian O’Mahoney/Chicago Sun-Times

On the second day of training camp, the Bears’ video staff showed the team footage of a feisty Arena Football League quarterback miked up for an ESPN broadcast. He encouraged his teammates, barked at his opponents and debated his coaches when there were miscommunications.

His name was Matt Nagy.

“You could see how intelligent he was as a player, how fierce a competitor he was,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “He was the alpha.”

Before Nagy was named the Bears’ 16th head coach — before he even knew he wanted to coach — he was an AFL star. He finished his six-year career with 374 touchdowns, 55 interceptions and more than 10 miles of passing.

The TV introduction for the 2007 Arena Bowl showed Nagy, helmet off, screaming to the heavens, like the wrestler Goldberg.

“He talks about ‘swag’ and being you — that was him out there,” inside linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “Just to see that, it kind of made me believe he knows what he’s talking about.”

On the tape, Nagy offers encouragement: “Right trips, Zoom 34 — ‘Get ‘em down!’ — Double Post, X Slant on one.” He tells his lineman not to flinch on a hard count — “Get ’em to jump!” — and draws an offside call.

He takes blame for a mistake — “Good conversion! My fault” — and rallies his teammates. He laughs when a defensive lineman hits him.

On fourth-and-goal in the first half, he has a hunch. Nagy tells his coach, “I’ve got the play,” and runs one he calls “T-sneaky” — a fake handoff left, bootleg right and a touchdown pass to a 320-pound offensive lineman.

“I was waiting for that,” he says to the sideline.

With 22 seconds left in the first half, he and his coach debate a play. Their receivers haven’t gotten off a jam all game, but they decide to go deep anyway. His pass falls incomplete. Nagy curses at a defensive lineman who knocks him down.

Mike Greenberg, who is calling the game with Mike Golic, says on the broadcast that Nagy “seems to be just losing a tiny grip on his emotion.”

When a coach tells Nagy toward the end of the first half that he needs to keep his zcomposure, the quarterback bristles.

“My composure’s fine,” Nagy said. “I need some help. . . . We gotta do it together. Goll-ly.”

Later, Greenberg asks his partner about the emotion.

“Is that a common way,” he asks, “for a quarterback to be talking to his coaching staff?”

• • •

Is that the real Nagy?

“That’s me as a player,” he told the Sun-Times. “That never leaves you. Now as a coach you have to manage it, you have to control it. You flip switches a little bit. As a player you have the ability to create your own identity, and you just play ball and you expect the coaches to contain you and corral you.

“Plus, it’s youth. Then you mature a little bit. You understand. You have more experiences to pull from. Now as a coach, you can’t show that. But it never leaves you. Trust me, I’m as competitive as anybody.”

In college, it was video games and putt-putt. As a pro, it was basketball, golf, convenience-store scratch-off tickets and Tonk, a card game. And, of course, the playing field.

He sees some of that in his own quarterback.

“I get to use those experiences,” Nagy said. “I told Mitch, I said, ‘Hey, trust me, if you go back and look at when I played, I was a very emotional quarterback.’ And that’s OK. Everyone’s different. But you have to learn how to control it.

“You learn. As a coach, I see different personalities and different emotions from different players. I’m trying to help guide him through the process from those different types of experiences.”

Nagy’s playing days mean he can relate to his second-year quarterback.

“He knows everything that’s going on in my head,” Trubisky said. “He knows how to talk to me and settle me down. . . . When you need to get guys going, he knows exactly what to say.”

And not say. Nagy hopes the Bears are so organized that Trubisky doesn’t have to insist as he walks to the sideline.

“I did,” Nagy said. “But it was a different scenario.”

• • •

The AFL sprung from the mind of marketing agent Jim Foster while watching an indoor soccer game. Five years later, in 1986, his manila envelope sketch turned to life when he held a test match in Rockford. The next year, more than 8,200 fans flocked to the Rosemont Horizon for a showcase game, spawning, four months later, a four-team league that included the Chicago Bruisers.

An AFL field is the same size as a hockey rink, and allows for a 50-yard field plus two eight-yard end zones. Eight players line up on each side of the ball; unlike the NFL and college football, one offensive player can sprint toward the line of scrimmage before the snap.

By the time Nagy made his AFL debut in 2002, the league had agreed to a television contract with NBC. Playing quarterback was lucrative. Nagy started off making $35,000 for six months of work. The final contract he signed, six years later, paid $145,000.

When Nagy left the University of Delaware, he promised himself that he wasn’t going to be one of those players who irresponsibly hung onto his dream at all costs. The AFL, though, sucked him in with blue-collar teammates — and a chance to play at a high level.

Only when the 16-team league voted to suspend play in 2009 because of financial distress did Nagy’s football career die with it.

“I told myself when I was playing — ‘I’m going to play until I’m 38, and then when I’m done at 38 I’m going to be a coach,’ ” he said. “I would have been playing until two years ago.”

• • •

When Nagy tried out for the New York Dragons as a rookie, coach John Gregory compared him to Kurt Warner, the patron saint of AFL quarterbacks whom he’d coached with the Iowa Barnstormers.

That was enough to give Nagy hope. As a rookie, he threw for 1,242 yards, 27 touchdowns and five interceptions.

The offseason, though, tested him. Nagy was playing flag football with friends in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when he ran toward the sideline and planted his left leg, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

“Didn’t play that year,” Nagy said. “Didn’t get paid that year.”

Nagy got his real-estate license and served as a substitute physical education teacher for elementary and high school classes. His wife Stacey, whom he married in 2002, supported the family as a high school health and physical education teacher. Later, she helped him study AFL film.

Gregory brought Nagy with him to the Carolina Cobras the next year. He then joined Georgia Force for two seasons. He’d emerged as a star, though it didn’t translate to NFL opportunities.

“When you’re playing that level and not continuing to get a chance at [the NFL] level . . . with the success he had,” said Bears receivers coach Mike Furrey, a former AFL teammate. “That’s just about his passion.”

In 2005, Nagy, who began the season as a backup, was named second-team All-Arena and lost to the Colorado Crush in the Arena Bowl. Steve Thonn, Georgia’s offensive coordinator, never dreamed of changing Nagy’s personality.

“You didn’t want to tone it down too much,” he said. “That’s what helped make him a good Arena League quarterback.”

The same emotion from the ESPN broadcast was what fueled Nagy, and also his teammates.

“He always wanted to compete,” said Thonn, who has visited Bears practices as a guest. “He brought a lot of energy on the field. He never gave up. That’s what you see as a coach.”

After the 2006 season, though, the Force traded him to the Columbus Destroyers. Fueled all season by the slight, Nagy met the 14-2 Force in the conference championship game. His 7-9 Destroyers had eked into the playoffs.

Nagy threw for five touchdowns and ran for two more, and his Destroyers advanced to the Arena Bowl in an upset. Nagy, who pointed out during his introductory Bears news conference that only two Div. I-AA schools offered him a scholarship, got his revenge. He considers it his favorite game.

“I remember how he did take it personal.” said Chris Jackson, a former Force receiver. “He was pumped up, he was amped up, and you could tell he wanted to stick it to the organization for making that decision.”

Nagy lost in the 2007 Arena Bowl to the Saber Cats — that’s where he was miked up —and spent another year with the Destroyers before the league suspended play.

Jackson first met Nagy when the two were forced to share a hotel room for the weekend during a Philadelphia Soul free-agent pitch. When he interned with the Bears during training camp, he was happy to see the same man he first befriended over hotel-room beers.

“His demeanor hadn’t changed,” Jackson said. “Fiery. Competitive. Free-spirited.”

• • •

Ask Nagy how his AFL career influenced his coaching career, and he rattles off three names. Gregory, his first head coach, taught Nagy how deep passes open up the field, even if they fall incomplete.

“That’s never going to stop,” Nagy said. “Not in this offense.”

From Eddie Khayat, a former Carolina Cobras coach, he learned how to interact with coaches and teammates. From Thonn, he learned the art — and stubbornness — required in play-calling.

“His theory was always, ‘Forget what the defense does,’ ” Nagy said. “ ‘Let’s do what we do great and react to the defense.’ ”

Some of the flexibility afforded players in Nagy’s West Coast-spread hybrid has its roots in the AFL. So do the hot reads and bubble screens he uses to keep the quarterback upright.

Stretching the field is hardwired into Nagy’s personality, too.

“I think you can tell that just by talking to him,” Thonn said. “He got a lot of that in Arena . . . We took shots probably a lot more than the NFL.”

Warner, the AFL star turned Pro Football Hall of Famer, sees some of his old game manifest in the NFL today, whether it’s quick drops or specific angles on routes.

The attitude has seeped in, too.

“Even though arena league was all about scoring points, it was all about efficiency, because you had to score every time you had the football,” said Warner, who works for the NFL Network. “Be efficient, be efficient, be efficient, put the ball in the end zone. You talk about how small the field is and how good you have to be in the end zone — it becomes vital.”

• • •

When Nagy took over passing duties one morning during camp — throwing in one-on-one drills — Bears players asked Brian Ginn, his college roommate, how long their head coach had played in the NFL.

“I think just the charisma about him, the leadership ability that he shows,” said Ginn, the Bears’ offensive quality control coach. “People kind of assume that he was in the NFL.”

He was an NFL quarterback — for about four hours.

After the 2008 AFL season, Nagy worked in real estate and was offered an Eagles’ training-camp internship by college buddy Brett Veach, who is now the Chiefs’ general manager. With a strong arm, Nagy was perfect for helping out in drills that needed an extra passer.

He returned the next year, convinced that the AFL wasn’t coming back.

“That’s when my mind started shifting,” he said.

When Kevin Kolb was hurt during camp in 2009, the Eagles signed Nagy to play quarterback. The NFL disallowed the move, however, afraid other teams would begin stashing players as interns. Tom Heckert, the Eagles’ general manager, had to pull him out of practice.

“He tapped me on my shoulder,” Nagy said, “and said, ‘You gotta go back in and put shorts on.’ ”

Nagy’s passing prowess, then, remained forever indoors. Only the occasional rocket-armed practice throw — or YouTube clip — brings it into the light of day.

“The passion that he has a player, that draws him closer to us,” running back Tarik Cohen said.

And the players to him.

“His competitive juices get everyone going,” Trubisky said. “As a player, it was awesome to see. It’s just carried over into coaching. It fires everyone up.”

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