Kevin Warren’s ‘new, fresh perspective’ rooted in childhood accident

“It was an awful experience, but it was the greatest experience of my life,” he said. “It gave me resolve.”

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New Bears president and CEO Kevin Warren holds up a team helmet during his introduction at Halas Hall.

New Bears president and CEO Kevin Warren holds up a team helmet during his introduction at Halas Hall.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Kevin Warren has refused to drink with a straw ever since the accident.

In the summer of 1974, when he was 10, he was riding his bicycle to meet friends to play pick-up basketball in Tempe, Arizona, when he was hit from behind by a woman driving a car. He flew 30 feet through the air and landed on a small patch of grass, which probably saved his life.

He was put in traction, then in a body cast up to his chest, as he waited for a compound fracture of his leg to heal. He lay flat on his back for almost a year — even as he grew too large for his cast — using a bedpan and taking his meals through a straw.

“It was an awful experience, but it was the greatest experience of my life,” he said. “It gave me resolve.”

When he got home after months in the hospital, Warren, the youngest of seven children, would occasionally be by himself, unable to move, wondering what would happen if a fire broke out or he choked.

“I think I had a mental breakdown,” he said. “I had to rewire myself.”

Doctors said swimming would help, so the family used part of a $30,000 settlement to build a pool in the backyard, and Warren learned how to walk again. The goal-setting helped him develop into a college basketball star — he’s in the Grand Canyon University Hall of Fame — and then into an agent, executive and Big Ten commissioner.

The Bears named Warren their president/CEO on Tuesday — what they hope will be progress at a pivotal time. They have a stadium to build in Arlington Heights, the No. 1 overall draft pick this spring and the most money to spend on free agents.

Warren, who was the first Black commissioner of a Power Five conference, is the second person not related to founder George Halas to hold his new position, and the first to get it without working inside Halas Hall first.

“The whole idea is to have fresh and new ideas,” said chairman George McCaskey, who interviewed more than 20 candidates. “But I don’t think he feels differently than the rest of the people in this building. We all want to win. We want championships.”

McCaskey said his mother, Virginia, who turned 100 earlier this month, congratulated him on hiring Warren, and that he reciprocated. Both McCaskeys were relieved to have chosen a replacement for Ted Phillips, who’s retiring after 24 years as president/CEO.

“Papa Bear is smiling today,” George McCaskey said.

Being new is both a benefit and a challenge, but Warren doesn’t distinguish between the two.

“It wasn’t a priority when we did the search, but the fact that he is from the outside definitely gives us the benefit of diversity of thought,” Phillips said. “It’s a new, fresh perspective.”

In December, Warren bought a ticket to the Bears-Eagles game and attended as a fan to scout the Soldier Field experience. In October, he watched the Bears play at U.S. Bank Stadium, the palace he helped build as the Vikings’ COO. Afterward, he went to the Bears’ locker room to greet quarterback Justin Fields, who just three years ago was a thorn in his side. While at Ohio State in 2020, Fields protested Warren’s short-lived idea to suspend all fall sports because of the coronavirus. The two have since developed a strong personal relationship, Warren said.

“I would’ve done the same thing,” he said. “What that told me about Justin is that he’s passionate. My whole goal was trying to keep players safe. I appreciated him being able to take that leadership role. I called him on draft day, and I was ecstatic that he got drafted by the Bears, because that’s what you need from a leadership standpoint.”

The Bears feel the same way about Warren, who has a lot of work to do.

“This is a special time in the NFL, but most of all, it’s a special time for the Chicago Bears,” he said. “Everything is ahead of us.”

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