It has been a frustrating plunge for the Bears in the last three seasons, and few players have been hit harder by it than defensive lineman Akiem Hicks.
‘‘So sad, so sad . . . because I’d do anything for them,’’ he said as he considered how far the Bears have fallen. ‘‘But that’s the way it goes.’’
Think back to 2018, when Hicks was at the center of the Bears’ glorious run to the playoffs. He ran for a goal-line touchdown on the lone carry of his 10-year career and lined up in the backfield as a jolly decoy as part of ‘‘Santa’s Sleigh.’’
He rolled into Bourbonnais the next summer and wore a Shaquille O’Neal Lakers jersey as he took questions about whether he could help lead Bears to the Super Bowl. Two weeks into that season, before everything crashed, Hicks never broke character as he hammed it up in a cowboy hat for NBC 5’s Mike Berman and roared, ‘‘Woooooo. Hot darn it, we got it done,’’ after a late escape against the Broncos.
So much fun. So long ago.
Hicks has endured various injuries, a mountain of losses and fruitless discussions with the Bears about a contract extension since then. He’s probably in his final weeks with the Bears, and that was in his mind during the 17-9 loss Monday to the Vikings.
‘‘I don’t know what’s gonna happen,’’ he said. ‘‘I just know . . . if I do end up leaving, I’ll miss it here. I truly love my time [here].’’
Hicks and the Bears were a perfect match when he signed with them in 2016. He relaunched his career and grew into a star, which gave general manager Ryan Pace a pillar for one of the best defenses in recent NFL history.
Along the way, Hicks became one of the most beloved Chicago athletes. His dominance and exuberance on the field, along with his vibrant personality, endeared him to Bears fans.
And Monday, after the first of his two sacks of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, he pointed all around Soldier Field to make sure they knew the feeling was mutual.
‘‘I was pointing to the people that cheer for me, the people that love me, the people that love how I play the game . . . letting them know I appreciate them,’’ Hicks said. ‘‘They’re always yelling my name. I wanted to show some love back.’’
Hicks thought it might be his farewell, even though the Bears still have a home game Jan. 2 against the Giants. While he’s expected to play it out, Hicks knows as well as anyone that nothing is guaranteed.
At 32, he still has been excellent when fully healthy and pretty good even when he’s not. But he missed 11 games (mostly with a dislocated elbow) in 2019 and was out another six this season.
But when he’s out there, he’s as feared as any defensive lineman in the NFL. He showed that Monday.
‘‘He’s done that his entire time here in Chicago,’’ Bears coach Matt Nagy said.
That’s exactly the kind of compliment that matters to Hicks, who thinks a lot about his legacy with the Bears.
There came a point in his postgame news conference when he was asked about it and wondered whether he had earned a spot among the greats.
‘‘Whenever I talk to the guys that came before me, just for them to say that they appreciate my game is enough for me,’’ Hicks said. ‘‘That’s who you’re looking to impress. They played it; they lived it. Talking to those guys — Tommie Harris, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent — it’s exciting [that they] even watch me play.
‘‘So I’m happy.’’