There are few better ways to establish yourself as a tough guy in an NFL locker room than to play through a broken bone.
But it was never about that for Bears defensive tackle Bilal Nichols when he broke his right hand. He was secure in his grit without having to prove it to anyone. He just wanted to play.
‘‘I’m not doing it for respect,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m doing it to help my team. Missing those games hurt. I felt like I was leaving them out there by themselves to battle. So whenever I felt comfortable to go out there and the trainers felt comfortable with me going out there, I was ready to go.’’
It’s an outlook typically seen in players much older than 23.
Nichols suffered the injury in the Bears’ Week 2 victory against the Broncos and was out the next three games before returning two weeks ago against the Saints. He came back with a strong performance — four tackles and a quarterback hit — and is back to his normal level of play despite having his hand in a cast.
Nichols played 51 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps against the Chargers and had three quarterback pressures. He also helped the Bears hold the Chargers to 36 rushing yards, though it was ultimately an empty success in a 17-16 loss.
‘‘He did well during practice leading up to that first game back, [and] we haven’t seen any drop-off,’’ defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. ‘‘You’ve got a little bit of limitation there, but he’s got his phalanges sticking out, and you can grab and use your hands to tear off blocks.’’
Nichols was a good find by the Bears as a fifth-round draft pick out of Delaware — coach Matt Nagy’s alma mater — in 2018, and he has become even more valuable in the absence of Akiem Hicks. Hicks, a Pro Bowl defensive lineman, is on injured reserve and won’t return until Week 15 at the earliest.
There was some overlap between Nichols’ and Hicks’ injuries, leaving the Bears depleted at the heart of their run defense. With Nichols back, they have an opportunity to get that right.
That’s good timing for the Bears going into their game Sunday against the Eagles in Philadelphia. Led by ex-Bear Jordan Howard, the Eagles are 13th in the NFL at 125 rushing yards per game.
As losses accumulated for the Bears, Nichols grew increasingly impatient about returning. He initially argued to play immediately and not miss any games, but the medical staff insisted on a more cautious approach.
They put his hand in a cast to let him test it out in practice, and it was a trial-and-error process from there. Nichols would give the trainers feedback about how it limited or bothered him, and they would trim it within reason.
Still, there’s only so much they could do. And while Nichols hasn’t complained, there’s no question the cast is a hindrance. He said the hand is close to fully healed, which would allow him to ditch the cast.
‘‘As a D-lineman, you use your hands every single play,’’ Nichols said. ‘‘That’s what makes a D-lineman great.
‘‘It’s never gonna be comfortable; you’ve just gotta take it. I wanted to be out there, so I had to do what I had to do.’’