Any NFL player’s first interception should be a keepsake. But Nick Kwiatkoski almost didn’t get his.
“It got lost on the sideline,” Kwiatkoski said, “so I didn’t know that we kept it until [Tuesday]. T-Med [Director of Equipment Operations Tony Medlin] said something to me.”
Is it the real McCoy, or just some stray ball from the sideline? “They said it was [the actual ball],” Kwiatkoski said, “so I’m gonna take their word for it.”
Kwiatkoski earned the trophy. His third-quarter interception of a Jeff Driskel pass and four-yard return set up the offense at the Lions 25-yard-line Sunday at Soldier Field. Three plays later, Mitch Trubisky threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Taylor Gabriel for a 20-6 lead as the Bears ended a four-game losing streak with a 20-13 victory.
The interception was just the highlight of another excellent all-around performance in a pinch for Kwiatkoski. Replacing Danny Trevathan after Trevathan suffered a serious elbow injury in the first quarter, Kwiatkoski also had nine tackles and a sack.
It was his second time playing a starring role in relief this season. Starting for late-scratch Roquan Smith against the Vikings in Week 4, Kwiatkoski was not just a fill-in but an impact player. On back-to-back plays in the third quarter, he tackled Dalvin Cook for a one-yard loss on a pass reception, then sacked Kirk Cousins for an 11-yard loss and forced a fumble. He finished with a team-high nine tackles.
The 26-year-old Kwiatkoski, a fourth-round draft pick in 2016, returned to his special teams role after that game, but likely will be starting for a while with Trevathan out for an extended period if not put on injured reserve. That’s a huge loss for the Bears’ defense.
“We all know what a special guy Danny Trevathan is,” Bears inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said. “He’s special on the field the way he plays the game — the brand of football he plays, with his leadership and communication. And he’s special off the field with his leadership and communication, the way he comes to work every day. That’s gonna be missed if he’s out.”
But if Kwiatkoski, who started seven games as a rookie in 2016 and six in 2017, can sustain his relief-role impact as a full-time starter, the loss of Trevathan is one the Bears’ defense should be able to survive.
“He’s a heck of an insurance policy,” DeLeone said. “He’s done a great job, and he’s done it at two different positions in the games he’s come in. And Nick prepares as well as anybody I’ve ever seen. He knows how to play. He’s a good football player.”
Even-keeled and unassuming, the 6-2, 242-pound Kwitakoski has been the perfect supporting player on Matt Nagy’s teams. He wasn’t fazed when the Bears drafted Smith to start ahead of him. He’s a quality special teams player willing to wait for his opportunity and obviously capable when called upon.
“I’m the type of guy [who does] whatever the team needs,” Kwiatkoski said. “It’s definitely a good feeling to get in there and show what I can do.”
It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for Kwiatkoski, who is on the final year of his rookie contract and could be in line for an even bigger raise if he continues to produce as a starter. He knows that, but it’s just not in him to think about it.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things where you just have to focus on the task at hand,” he said. “Take it day-by-day and try to improve that day and each game and everything else will fall into place.”
It’s that kind of steady, level-headed approach that works best for Kwiatkoski.
“I’ve learned in this league you can’t really predict anything. So I don’t even worry about it,” he said. “There’s a lot of football left, almost half a season. So I’m not thinking about [the next contract] at all right now.”