When Kyle Long posted a picture on social media of himself with a group of teammates and friends at offensive line coach Dave Magazu’s barbecue on Saturday, he received some grief for wearing a Cubs hat.
“I was drafted by the sox. I live in the north shore,” Long responded on Twitter. “I’m a Chicagoan.”
Indeed he is. In three seasons with the Bears, the 27-year-old Long has embraced Chicago like an athlete who not only enjoys people and understands sports fans, but is fully aware and appreciative of the opportunity in Chicago. He’ll never be the mayor of Rush Street — or even Route 60 for that matter —but as professional athletes go, he’s as fan-friendly as they come.
“[The night] I got drafted, the minute I hung up the phone with Marc Trestman in 2013, my brother and dad looked at me and they’re like, ‘You lucky dog. You have no idea how lucky you are that you get to play in Chicago,’ ” Long said, “It’s a crown jewel franchise.
“Chicago is such a great market for football and it provides so many other things in life. You look at these guys from the ’85 Bears, they’re all still in Chicago. If you win in Chicago, you can do anything in Chicago. And that’s what, as a Bears player, you’re looking to get accomplished.”
Through good times and bad — mostly not-so-good actually, for Long; the Bears have gone 8-8, 5-11 and 6-10 in his three seasons, with a major upheaval after the 2014 season —Long has developed a fine appreciation for the passion and quirkiness of Chicago sports fans. In 2014 he criticized fans for booing the team at Soldier Field during a particularly disheartening loss to the Dolphins, but quickly took it back, explaining that he was caught up in the emotion of the moment.
Long still stands up for himself and responds to fans who good-naturedly, irrationally or erroneously chirp at him, but he understands where they’re coming from.
“When I was drafted by the Bears it became very clear to me how important the Bears and sports were to this town,” said Long, who grew up near Charlottesville, Va. “Chicago takes it very seriously. They’ll love you through the hard times and they’ll let you know what you’re doing wrong. But in good times they’ll celebrate right there with you.”
Long arguably is “pound-for-pound” the best player on the Bears. He has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons — two at right guard and last season as a replacement pick at right tackle. He’s a former White Sox draft pick. He’s intelligent, articulate and engaging. He plays video games against real people. So it’s not a surprise that he’s as popular — and approachable —as any current Bears player. He’s like everybody’s best friend.
“You can’t go anywhere without people knowing exactly who you are,” Long said. “It’s not like being on a small-market team. When you walk the streets of Chicago —if I’m in the north suburbs at a diner, there’s going to be a dozen people who are going to walk up and say hello and wish me luck.
“That’s the thing that separates Chicago from a lot of these small-market teams. People recognize who you are. People want to know what’s going on with the team. I’ll be walking down the street and they’ll be like, ‘Hey, what’s up Kyle?’ It’s like I’ve been friends with the guy for 10 years.
“It took me a little bit of time to get used to that. If I’m with somebody from out of town, we’ll be walking down the street and they’ll be like, ‘You know that guy?’ And I’m like, ‘No. They’re just saying hello?’
Long still is growing into a leadership role with the Bears. With the departure of running back Matt Forte and guard Matt Slauson, he has a bigger opportunity than ever in his fourth NFL season to become both the face and the voice of the Bears. He figures to be here for awhile. In April, the Bears exercised a fifth-year option, keeping him under contract through the 2017 season. But a long-term extension seems like only a matter of time. The Bears, Long and Chicago are a well-established match. He has a healthy respect for Chicagoans — and their love of Chicago and the Bears.
“I’ve never been anywhere in Chicago where I haven’t heard great things from fans about the Bears — regardless of how we’re doing,” Long said. “But aside from the football side of things, I think Chicago’s a really great town. I’ve been a lot of places. I’ve lived in some big cities. Chicago is right there at the top.
“I love the melting pot culture of Chicago. You could be on a street and walk three blocks and it’s a completely different neighborhood; completely different people. Different languages, ethnicity. The food changes everywhere you go.
“The people are just hardy people, very prideful. They love their their town. And they take pride in supporting their teams and whatever goes on in Chicago. It it’s going on in Chicago, the people are going to be fired up about it.”
Long, who lives in Lake Forest, doesn’t get out much, preferring take-out to swanky restaurants. But when he does get out, he enjoys connecting with Bears fans and Chicagoans.
“You’ve got to watch what you do, because everybody’s got their snapchats out, everybody’s got their cell phone,” he said. “But it’s always great to have a beer with a Bears fan that wants to buy your table a round of beers. It’s always great to be able to mingle and show them that I’m a regular guy. I just play football. That’s my job, 9-5. But outside of that, we’re no different, you and I.”