ORLANDO, Fla. — When the Bears are on the road, the football fan inside defensive lineman Akiem Hicks — the one who will watch NFL Films until 3 a.m. — comes out.
“I do that in every stadium I go to since my rookie year,” Hicks said. “I take a moment and I look around the entire stadium, and I say, ‘Man, this is what I dreamed about.’ ”
The same surely will happen Sunday at Camping World Stadium for the Pro Bowl. Reaching this point, where he’s recognized as one of the best players in the NFL, always was a dream for Hicks, who achieved it in his seventh season.
“It’s just a bunch of fun,” he said. “We’re coming together and all these guys they have to have a genuine love for the game of football because they’re playing it at the highest level.”
Hicks had a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2017 for the Bears’ 10th-ranked defense, but he was snubbed.
The NFL wasn’t ready for the Bears. As a team, they still weren’t good enough to command positive attention. They were a franchise on the verge of another coaching change.
This season was vastly different. Hicks was one of several stars on the league’s best defense — one that undoubtedly captured the NFL’s attention. Hicks, outside linebacker Khalil Mack, safety Eddie Jackson and cornerback Kyle Fuller were original Pro Bowl selections.
After winning only eight games in his first two years with the Bears, Hicks celebrated 12 this season under new coach Matt Nagy. Hicks also scored a touchdown on “Freezer Left.”
“I don’t want to say the cliché thing: ‘Keep grinding. Keep pushing. You’ll get there one day,’ ” Hicks said. “I would say this, man: ‘Keep your eye on your dream. Never let it go. Even it veers, make sure that you’re following that path.’ ”
Making his first Pro Bowl is only part of Hicks’ dream. Signing a four-year, $48 million extension in September 2017 didn’t change it, either.
“I think [general manager] Ryan Pace has a good idea of the type of person that I am, the type of work ethic I think I have,” said Hicks, who was drafted by the Saints and Pace in the third round in 2012.
“I think that’s why he brought me to Chicago. I think he entrusted me with that and understanding that I won’t give in or slack off because he’s paid me a lot of money.”
There is a more important game next Sunday that Hicks isn’t playing in, and new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano just challenged the Bears’ defense to become the best ever.
“We have a great thing built and started in Chicago,” Hicks said. “I look forward to seeing to how it grows under Chuck Pagano.”