When asked to assess his play this season and how he feels about returning to form after missing most of last season with an elbow injury, Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks moved closer to the microphone.
‘‘Fantastic,’’ he said.
He was joking around, but not really. Hicks has a tremendous amount of pride in himself, in his ability and in his NFL journey as a third-round draft pick from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan to the Pro Bowl.
No matter how naturally some things come to him, he’s determined not to take anything for granted — neither his ability to move like a dancing bear at 6-4 and 352 pounds, nor his good fortune of being in the right place at the right time with coordinators Vic Fangio and Chuck Pagano running the Bears’ defense. Everybody says they play with a chip on their shoulder, with something to prove, but Hicks plays with a verve that is the epitome of that cliché. He lives it.
So it has to be gratifying for Hicks that, as he approaches his 31st birthday next month, he is playing as well as he ever has after missing 11 games last season. Hicks has 3 1/2 sacks, five tackles for loss, nine quarterback hits and a pass breakup in five games — good numbers that don’t illustrate his impact. He should feel fantastic.
‘‘I think it’s a tough thing to have a good part of your season the previous year taken away from you,’’ Hicks said, elaborating. ‘‘It was something that stuck with me throughout my offseason.
‘‘I wouldn’t say there’s a renewed feeling of appreciation for it and respect for the game. Once you lose respect for the game, you can pretty much hang up those cleats because there’s so many tough situations that you’re put in during a game.
‘‘Chuck has a saying — and a lot of defensive coordinators I’ve had have said this, as well: In every situation, every play, somebody’s going to have a tough down where there’s going to be a lot of responsibility put on you. And if you don’t have that respect for the game, that appreciation for the game, you’ll succumb to whatever adversity you’re experiencing.’’
In four-plus seasons with the Bears, Hicks has been a player who embraces the challenge. He’s the guy who turned down Bill Belichick’s offer to stay with the Patriots and instead joined the Bears, who were coming off a 6-10 season.
Four years and one playoff berth later, Hicks still is working for the ultimate payoff. But after a difficult season in 2019, the Bears again appear to be headed in the right direction. And Hicks’ return to form is one of the biggest reasons.
‘‘Playing these past few games . . . has been very enjoyable,’’ Hicks said. ‘‘It has been everything I missed last year, and I would love nothing more [than] to continue to play at the level I’ve been playing and step up even more.
‘‘So as far as the critique of my own play, I’m always going to think that I’m the best d-tackle in the game. If I don’t have that belief in myself, I don’t think I’ll succeed in a way that I plan to.’’
The Bears’ defense is playing well, ranked ninth in yards per game allowed (344) and fourth in points per game allowed (20). But it still is working toward regaining the bite it had in 2018.
‘‘We want more,’’ Hicks said. ‘‘We want to be a high-level, elite team [that] when teams come to our stadium or we go to theirs, there’s a feeling in the air, a sense that we are about to play at our highest level and they’re going to have to compete with us.
‘‘It’s a culture that has been growing and changing since I’ve been here in 2016 . . . into a team that should be respected and should be feared.’’