Emotion still fuels Akiem Hicks vs. Saints

The Bears’ star defensive lineman appreciates the good times and cherished friendships from three-plus seasons in New Orleans, but the animosity from being discarded in 2015 still simmers. “You never forget.”

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Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks (96) has 3 1⁄2 sacks, seven tackles-for-loss and 11 quarterback pressures this season.

Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks (96) has 3 1⁄2 sacks, seven tackles-for-loss and 11 quarterback pressures this season.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

For a moment there, it looked like Akiem Hicks was going soft in his advanced NFL age, losing the deep-seated disdain for the Saints that provided the emotional fuel to become one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL.

“It’s always an emotional game,” the 30-year-old Hicks said of Sunday’s matchup against the team that drafted him in 2012 but discarded him in 2015 for marginal tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. “But there was an instance about six or seven weeks ago, I was on Instagram and I saw [the Saints feature] Marques Colston’s highlights — and it just brought back so many fond memories of my time spent there.

“And it pulled me away from my usual animosity of that jersey color. I started to remember just how much the game means to you, and the fellowship and the bond that you make with players over the years — one of those being a friend I have there in Cam Jordan. You know, you don’t lose those types of relationships . . . that make it a positive experience.”

But just as the soft music was about to play to accent that tender memory, the conscience on Hicks’ other shoulder whispered in his ear — “Sean Payton traded you for a marginal tight end.”

“Do I appreciate how I was cast aside?” Hicks said. “How I was told that I wasn’t good enough to play in this league or that I wasn’t good enough to play for the team? No, I don’t appreciate those things. You never forget.

“But you can’t carry hate in your heart. You appreciate those moments. I wouldn’t say [playing the Saints] loses its luster. You still want to be competitive, and you still want to play a great game.

“But you have to remember, the game isn’t just about me. This game is about my team, my season and what we’re planning to do for our future. So you’ve got to put some of those things to the side and remember the bigger picture.”

It’s unlikely Hicks will lose his edge against the Saints. He missed last year’s game at Soldier Field in Week 7 because of an elbow injury he suffered in the previous game against the Raiders in London. He still relishes every chance to remind Payton that he traded the wrong guy.

In fact, Hicks will have a kindred spirit on his side in tight end Jimmy Graham, who became a revelation as a pass-catching tight end in Payton’s offense with Drew Brees in 2010-14 but was traded to the -Seahawks after his phenomenal production dropped in 2014, despite making the Pro Bowl.

Graham owes much more to Payton than Hicks does but probably remembers that getting traded from an offense so well-suited for him sparked a downturn in his career. Graham declined interview requests this week, probably to avoid making more of the game against his old coach and his old quarterback than it needs to be.

Luckily, the effusive and accommodating Hicks speaks enough for two.

“We just want to play the game,” Hicks said. “We want to play the game of football and not make it about ourselves or about this feeling — animosity or hatred — towards a situation that we had to deal with, because that’s the business side of football, and there are going to be people in all walks of life that tell you you’re not good enough. You’re job is not to prove them wrong, but prove to yourself that you’re capable of doing the things that you want to do.

“So I would say this: Me and Jimmy, we’re ready to play football just like we always are. We’re both going to be passionate. We’re both going to be aggressive. That’s just our style of play.”

Hicks and Graham have played one game against the Saints. Graham, with the Seahawks in 2016, had three receptions for 34 yards in a 25-20 loss. Hicks had a third-down sack and two quarterback hits with the Bears in a 20-12 loss at the Superdome, theZach Miller game.

“They’re both emotional guys, which I love,” coach Matt Nagy said. “They’re very passionate. They care but they’re old enough and wise enough to know they can’t let that affect their play. I think they’ll use it as a good motivator. It’ll be positive. They’re great leaders and they’ll keep it within the game.”

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