Before the Bears spend Christmas Eve on the field or Christmas Day with their families, they’ll spend Friday night with each other.
Inside a nondescript ballroom at their downtown team hotel, about 50 players, coaches and staffers will gather at 7:30 p.m. for their weekly chapel service.
Even in Week 16, those that attend are still learning about themselves — and their teammates. The service lasts only 30 minutes — the special teams meeting starts at 8 — but has an impact on them all week long.
“Even though these are your brothers and you experience life with them nine, 10 hours a day, expressing your faith and really giving your inner self, there’s a difference in that,” defensive end Akiem Hicks said. “It’s really revealing, and it makes you really vulnerable.”
In that sense, the Friday service will feel like a holiday service the players would otherwise attend with their loved ones this weekend.
“This is our family right here,” outside linebacker Sam Acho said. “The guys in the locker room.”
Team chaplain Jonathan Wilkins will get to the point quickly. He’ll say a prayer, ask a discussion question and preach a lesson that correlates to it.
The group — which has included captains Jay Cutler and Pernell McPhee, as well as outside linebacker Willie Young, cornerback Tracy Porter and others — will discuss the sermon, like a good college class.
“It uplifts my spirit,” McPhee said. “It’s a way of getting your mind off football, and it just becomes positive thinking.”
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The 3-11 Bears could use positivity.
The old joke, of course, is that chapel attendance goes up as a team’s record plummets. Wilkins thinks of himself as a spiritual coach, though, and tries to keep football separate.
“They have enough scrutiny to last all of us a lifetime,” he said. “Everybody has something to say about the season.”
Instead, he’ll focus on topics — overcoming adversity, being true to yourself, resisting temptation — that can be applied to both football and life. He tells players to make sure that, by feeding the football part of their lives, they’re not starving other areas.
That’s increasingly critical in a season where developing young players has become the focal point.
“Having so many young guys, you gotta find a way to not let them beat themselves into the ground,” McPhee said. “And I think (Wilkins) does a good job of being a mentor to that, when he’s talking about God.”
In a sport that dictates that you are what your record says you are, the chaplain says otherwise.
“The question isn’t always, ‘What’s happened to us?’ but how we’ve chosen to respond,” Wilkins said. “It gets difficult when you have a record like we do to impress upon their hearts that the outcome doesn’t always reflect the input.”
Wilkins preaches the night before games, at home and, usually, on the road. He’ll pray with players on Sunday, though coach John Fox leads the team in The Lord’s Prayer before the game.
“Most people know that one,” Fox said.
Fox doesn’t mandate attendance — players can go to chapel, a Catholic mass next door or do nothing. But the chapel service is “always packed,” said Acho, who teams with cornerback Sherrick McManis to lead bible study every Thursday at Halas Hall.
“I think everybody has a tendency to not be as a thankful, or notice why, when you’re in a good position,” Hicks said. “I want to stay the same. I want to make sure that when I’m having a two-sack game, that I’m going in there next week and making sure I’m thankful for what He’s given me.”
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Wilkins had lifted all weights all summer before his sophomore year of high school in Fort Worth, Texas. At a two-a-day practice in 100-degree weather, he asked the coach to play tailback. The coach smirked, as did the biggest, baddest defender on the field.
“Somewhere between getting ball and waking up,” he said, “I realized, ‘This is for not for me.’”
He attended Morehouse College and got two Master’s degrees at Harvard — in business administration and divinity — but three years ago wound up unemployed. He sold his car and moved in with a roommate, and looked for work for six months. He started doing 20-minute segments for a call-in prayer service — the same length, it turns out, as the chapel talks he started giving the Bears last year.
“What you find out, is, nothing just happens,” Wilkins said. “If you land on your back, you can still get up.”
Wilkins, who works in property management downtown and is an associate minster at New Life Covenant Church, was hired by Jerry Butler in spring 2015 after the player engagement director moved with Fox from Denver.
Fox has had a chaplain everywhere he’s coached, and considers Wilkins one of the best.
“I think there’s mental, physical and spiritual development in all young men,” Fox said. “And that’s what we’re in the business of.”
The 37-year-old has been through divorce and joblessness and deaths in his family, like the players have. The discussions Wilkins leads during chapel reflect that.
“His ability to convey a message is unbelievable,” Acho said.
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Porter swears he senses something different during Wilkins’ chapel.
“I feel like he’s talking directly to me,” the cornerback said. “We’re not in there to buy time or get a break. We’re actually engaging. We’re asking him questions; he’s asking us questions.”
The theme Friday night will be the season of advent: waiting for light to come in a dark season.
There’s a football comparison to be made, sure, but it’s about more than that.
“It’s only 30 minutes,” Acho said, “but we know it’s time well-spent.”