The Bears started the grunt work of this season on a quiet afternoon in Bourbonnais with hardly anyone watching. It was a peaceful, closed practice, and Khalil Mack wouldn’t mind if it stayed that way.
When they opened training camp to the public the next morning, navy, orange and white flooded the bleachers. Among the waves of Bears jerseys, the most prevalent is No. 52 — the NFL’s second-highest seller last year. These fans have endured an agonizing wait for a great football team and a statuesque star, and now they have both.
They scream about everything Mack does, reaching a crescendo as he heads toward them on his way to the locker room. They want anything he’ll give them: a towel, gloves, an autograph, a prized selfie.
He’ll say the right thing about this scene later — that it’s an honor the way kids look up to him and he wants to set a good example for them. He means it, but he never has been comfortable as the center of attention.
“Hell, no,” Mack said. “Nah.”
The frenzy is far greater here than when he played with the Raiders. It can be overwhelming for someone who’d rather keep to himself — the superstar life is not natural “at all” for him.
“I still don’t know how to handle it,” he said. “It’s different for me. Ultimately, I’m trying to be professional about it.”
All the noise will fade to a faint buzz that he’ll barely notice when the Bears open against the Packers at Soldier Field. Mack will be in the middle of the storm, but he’ll feel like he’s in his own world. The only thing on his mind will be torpedoing Green Bay’s offense.
And he probably will. The one thing everyone knows about Mack, whether they’re sitting in the stands, watching on TV or playing quarterback for the Packers, is that he’s the most destructive defensive force in the NFL. He has been displaying that for the world on a weekly basis for five years.
Beyond his exceptional performances on the field, though, Mack remains mysterious. He’s uneasy with celebrity and highly guarded with the media. He won’t do one-on-one interviews and is reluctant to talk about himself. He has been the biggest name in Chicago sports for a year, but the city barely knows him.
Evading the limelight
With the Bears surging to the status of prime-time draw again, NBC asked Mack and quarterback Mitch Trubisky to appear in Carrie Underwood’s intro for “Sunday Night Football” broadcasts this season.
Mack refused. NBC persisted.
Mack agreed to do it only if they included All-Pro cornerback and longtime friend Kyle Fuller as well. The network was fixated on Mack but eventually relented, and Fuller got the call to join Mack and Trubisky for filming at Soldier Field this summer.
“Khalil’s always looking out for his guys,” Fuller said.
Fuller is even more tight-lipped than Mack but admitted it’ll be special when the video makes its debut this weekend for the Patriots-Steelers game.
“Over the years, I’ve seen it on TV, so it’s a cool opportunity,” he said. “I think my mother is the most excited.”
Mack’s maneuver with NBC fits a broader narrative of him as a teammate. Several coaches and players from his time at the University at Buffalo and with the Bears mentioned that he tends to celebrate others’ accomplishments more than his own. He always has been hesitant about having the spotlight shine on him.
Fox hit a similar snag with Mack last fall when it wanted to tape a sit-down with him at Halas Hall. He was a no-go unless he could bring Fuller, Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan — all four dressed in matching orange Bears shirts — to the interview with Charissa Thompson.
The segment brought to mind something former UB teammate Jake Stockman said of Mack: “He doesn’t take too many compliments.”
The final cut Fox aired had little from Mack and relied mostly on Hicks’ sound bites. Mack spent most of the time looking down and grinning as his teammates raved about him.
Mack does fine talking to reporters when he must but prefers to do as little of it as possible. It’s partly because he doesn’t see what that has to do with being great at football and partly because he’s an introvert. Publicity matters so little to him that he doesn’t correct the common mispronunciation of his first name, which he said — only when asked — is actually “KAH-leel,” not “KUH-leel.”
He’s also facing the largest media swarm he ever has seen on a daily basis. He was a relatively unheralded recruit from a small town in South Florida, went to a MAC school and played in Oakland, California, which gets overshadowed in the Bay Area by the 49ers. Now he’s in one of the largest, most football-crazed cities in the country.
Perhaps he retreated a bit as he became more famous, and the coverage grew more intense. Former Buffalo News reporter Bob DiCesare covered Mack’s college career and remembered him as affable and accessible until the draft hype mushroomed late in his senior season.
“The closer it got to the end, the more isolated he became,” DiCesare said. “But he never blew me off, ever. He wasn’t the most forthcoming guy, but if he knew you and trusted you, he was good. Maybe as the stage got bigger, he didn’t know who he could trust.”
That feeling likely has grown over his career, and at this point he has little reason to search out which reporters he trusts.
There’s a recurring pattern in Mack’s success: Set a stratospheric goal, methodically map out the steps to get there, follow them fastidiously. His current targets are winning a Super Bowl and being the best player in the NFL. Baring his soul in interviews and seeing his face on TV don’t contribute anything to that endgame, so they serve no purpose.
The reluctant celebrity
All sports fans dream of the far-fetched scenario in which they run into one of their heroes in ordinary life. Maybe Jonathan Toews will be in line ahead of them at Starbucks or they’ll pull up next to Scottie Pippen at a red light.
Here’s one that actually happened.
Allie Silverman was going through her Monday routine with a trip to the gym and a grocery run at Whole Foods in Deerfield. She was at the meat counter ordering chicken when she noticed a massive man — 6-3, 252 pounds — out of the corner of her eye. Mack and then-girlfriend Angela Simmons were filling up a cart.
It was early in Mack Mania, a couple weeks after his arrival. Silverman, the wife of Waddle & Silvy’s Marc Silverman, heard about him nonstop from her husband and instantly recognized his face. She had to meet him.
It must be tiresome to have your life regularly interrupted by fans, but Mack was cool as could be. He thanked her and happily put his arm around her for a picture.
“I’m in my workout clothes and I smell and I’m disgusting — and they couldn’t have been nicer,” Silverman said, laughing. “He could be a total [jerk] and get away with it because he’s so good, but he’s not.
“He wasn’t overly talkative, but I was impressed by how friendly and kind he was. You can tell he’s not an egomaniac. You meet him and you can just tell right away he was raised right.”
She burned up her phone texting friends as she returned to shopping. Still star-struck, she was stunned anew when Mack came up to her in an aisle a few minutes later holding her sunglasses.
Silverman left them on a shelf in the thrill of the encounter. Not only did Mack notice, he was compelled to return them.
“He went around looking for me — isn’t that wild?” Silverman said. “Why would he give a flying rip about my sunglasses?”
They crossed paths again after checkout, and Mack waved and said it was nice to meet her. He seemed so normal.
People often find his politeness refreshing, especially for a celebrity. While he’s averse to fame and carries on quietly, he grasps what these interactions mean to the people on the other end.
When Mack was back in his hometown of Fort Pierce, Florida, in February, he caused a buzz at a local chicken spot by dropping in for lunch. He stopped his meal and took pictures with anybody who wanted one. A few police officers posted their photo with him on the department’s Facebook page.
By many accounts, Silverman had a good hunch on Mack’s upbringing. He grew up in a disciplined home in which his mother had a job in children’s services and his father worked in a gang-prevention program. They are dedicated Christians who raised their kids by a strict code, and their influence appears to have stuck with Mack at 28.
Robert Wimberly, the recruiter often credited with discovering Mack at Fort Pierce Westwood High School, was struck by it immediately during a home visit.
“When you’re in a recruit’s home, you see a lot of the family dynamics,” said Wimberly, who coached Mack at Buffalo and is now the co-defensive coordinator at NIU. “It was a joy to see how they spent time with their kids and wanted the best for them.
“For that family, it’s about making sure you love people, treat people right, do right and give your best . . . They refuse to allow money and fame to deter them from that.”
Behind closed doors
Mack has gone through a few twists in his football career, including a holdout last year when the Raiders refused to pay up, but the core of who he is hasn’t changed much since his days as a yes-sir, no-sir kid in Fort Pierce.
Interviews with about a dozen people who know him — some since his teenage years — paint a consistent picture of his character. They say he’s selfless, loyal and insanely hardworking.
They also say the media’s understanding of him as someone who doesn’t say much and keeps to himself is pretty close to what he’s like away from the cameras.
“He’s one of the most humble guys I’ve ever been around,” said Stockman, now a sales manager in the South Loop. “He was always deflecting recognition. He would always just say, ‘I appreciate it,’ and then make a joke.”
Wimberly keeps in touch with Mack, and their chats are no different than when he was a recruit.
“He’s never been a guy who carries on casual conversations,” Wimberly said. “Our phone calls were never long. He was right to the point. That’s just who he is. I never take it personal.”
Wimberly connects that aspect of Mack’s personality to how he approaches football. He recalled Mack stating flatly he wanted to be the best ever to play at Buffalo, then asking Wimberly how to do it. He made a mental list and got started. Simple and straightforward.
Few things seem to matter more to Mack than loyalty, whether it’s to his hometown, family, teammates or coaches. One of the most influential men in his career was Lou Tepper, who coached Illinois in the 1990s and was Mack’s position coach at Buffalo.
Tepper is 73, but nimble enough with an iPhone to text Mack encouragement when he thinks of him from his home in Georgia. One of his favorite things to send is Philippians 2:3, a Bible verse that exhorts the reader to “do nothing out of selfish ambition . . . rather, in humility value others above yourself.” To Tepper, that’s Mack.
During a recent offseason, Mack called to say he’d be in Atlanta and asked if he could come to Tepper’s house. Tepper cautioned that he and his wife, Karen, live well outside Atlanta, but Mack didn’t mind the three-hour round-trip drive.
“Sure enough, he drove over, and Karen and I took him to Zaxby’s for lunch,” Tepper said. “We were busting on each other and just having a great time.”
That’s the fun side of Mack. Not even he can be all business, all the time.
He gets little jabs in during practices and meetings. He’s got a goofy and self-deprecating sense of humor.
He has entertained teammates throughout the years with his musical ability and often sang and played acoustic guitar in Buffalo’s locker room. Stockman remembers it always being something old-school, like blues or R&B. Mack composes original works, too.
“He’d really try to serenade us,” Stockman said. “He’d put on Aretha Franklin and just start singing. That’s not the music you’d normally be playing as a 20-year-old in college. He was really into it. It was funny.”
But also, not surprisingly, he showed potential.
“He’s actually a good singer,” Stockman acknowledged.
Fitting in with the Bears
If Mack ever writes the football version of How to Win Friends and Influence People, the first chapter will be titled, “Come in and Dominate.” Funny how being the best player on the team does wonders for one’s popularity.
He came to the Bears a week before the season started, missing all the supposed bonding time of training camp, and quickly made friends on the practice field.
“Ultimately, football players are all the same kind of guys,” Mack said. “They want to see somebody that can come in and dominate. Once you come in and dominate, you get the respect of everybody. It’s natural after that.”
That advice probably doesn’t quite fit for your third-grader starting a new school year, but it has some validity in Mack’s arena.
He endeared himself to his new teammates not only with his extraordinary skill, but also his relentlessness.
Everyone who makes it to the pros worked hard to get there, but Mack’s effort stands out even amid that culture. He’s talented enough to coast here or there, but co-worker after co-worker will attest that he doesn’t.
“He shows up every day and busts his ass,” Bears linebacker Roquan Smith said. “It’s pretty sweet seeing a guy like that, a premier player in this league, work the way he does. You look up to a guy like that.”
They see it constantly behind closed doors. The most talking Mack does is in the film room, where he nitpicks his performance. He’s doing that on videos of practice, by the way, not just games.
That makes the job easy for his immediate supervisor, Ted Monachino, the Bears’ new outside linebackers coach. He’s been in the NFL since 2006 and has seen few great players willing to be as self-critical as Mack. It reminds him of all-pros Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
“He’s the first one that will point it out on tape when he makes a mistake or when he lacks effort or any of those things,” Monachino said of Mack. “A lot of guys just hope I skim over their mistakes and don’t mention them.
“He’s the guy that will say, ‘Hey, that’s gotta be better,’ and point it out in front of the whole room, because he knows everybody’s watching his rep and he wants to make that point. It’s rare, but he’s a rare person.”
Mack’s drive transfers from practices to games — and it’s contagious. One of the lessons he learned from Tepper was to pursue the ball at maximum speed even if it looks like a lost cause.
Mack didn’t believe that was truly worthwhile — “Most kids don’t,” Tepper said — until he gave it a shot. Pitt ran a screen pass opposite Mack’s side of the field, but he sprinted 40-some yards to stop what seemed like a sure touchdown. Pitt ended up kicking a field goal, and Mack saw the light.
So it was no surprise to Tepper when he flipped on the Bears’ opener last year and saw Mack spending all the energy he had left trying to thwart Randall Cobb’s 75-yard touchdown to win it in the final minutes. Mack was about eight yards behind Cobb when he caught the ball, but gained enough ground to make a desperate, though unsuccessful, lunge at the goal line.
“I said to my wife, ‘The 10 other players on their defense are seeing something that is ingrained in this kid,’ ” Tepper said. “If this guy gives that type of effort, who am I not to?”
All-in for a Super Bowl
Something is bothering Mack. It has been nagging him during the long practices leading up to the season.
He’s made four consecutive Pro Bowls, won a Defensive Player of the Year award and earned a six-year, $141 million contract that’s the richest ever for a non-quarterback. He’s steamrolling toward the Hall of Fame, and his career has already surpassed what anyone predicted.
But it feels a little hollow without a championship. He was on two winning teams in his first five years and hasn’t won a playoff game. It gnaws at him.
Mack thinks back to when he overlapped with Charles Woodson and Justin Tuck in Oakland at the end of their careers and the onset of his. Both had won a Super Bowl, but craved one more shot at it. They told Mack his career would slip by quicker than he’d expect, and he senses that happening already.
“You’ve gotta win,” he said in training camp. “Gotta win now.”
Mack will probably never let Chicago get to know him the way it has grown familiar with so many of its heroes. But he might give the people something they want even more.
Imagine combining his talent and effort, then adding the urgency of him thinking this could be the best chance he’ll ever get at winning a Super Bowl. It’s believable that he might actually exceed what he did last season, when he had 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles.
If that leads to a championship, particularly coming off last season’s playoff heartbreak, he’ll be a Chicago legend. That trophy makes all the difference.
General manager Ryan Pace and the Bears believe Mack can get them there, and that justified going all-in to acquire him. In addition to the massive financial commitment, they gave up two first-round picks in the trade.
The return on that deal has been terrific. Mack jolted a fan base that drifted sleepily through four consecutive last-place seasons. He elevated a good Bears defense to arguably the best in the NFL last season. They made the playoffs for the first time in eight years, and now they’re poised to go deeper.
“I know what I want to do . . . and everybody else feels the same way, and that’s what it’s really all about,” Mack said. “We know our goals and we’re looking forward to it.”
When this guy sets a goal, watch out.