W hen I got drafted by the Chicago Bears, it was kind of crazy.
I was a small-town kid going to the big city. I’m from St. Matthews, South Carolina — a town with two stoplights, a Hardee’s, a Dollar General, a Chinese food place and a couple of gas stations. And that’s about it. There were something like 2,000 people in the whole town. That’s how I grew up, and I loved it.
Then I went off to college at South Carolina — which is a big place, yes … but it still felt like a small town. Lots of Southern folks. It felt like home.
But when I first talked with people from the Bears organization at the NFL combine in 2012, I thought it was crazy for two reasons:
First, the Bears told me straight up that they were gonna draft me.
Now, throughout the draft process, you’d probably hear that from a few teams. I don’t know if they say that just because they’re trying to feel you out, or if they’re testing you, or if they’re really legit. It’s pretty cool at first, but once you hear it from a couple of different teams — like I had — your reaction sort of becomes, Yeah, right. O.K.
So when the Bears actually followed through and drafted me in the second round, I was like, Wow. They were for real.
The other thing that was crazy about it was that I had a few random childhood ties to the city of Chicago.
Growing up, my dad used to always tell me about Walter Payton.
“I wish you could have seen Sweetness play,” he’d say. “He was the best ever.”
But as a kid, I wasn’t trying to hear about Walter Payton. I wanted to be Michael Jordan. I was born in 1990, so the Bulls’ first three-peat didn’t really register with me. But by the time Jordan came back in ’96, I had already started falling in love with the game of basketball. And when Jordan hit the step-back in the ’98 finals against Bryon Russell, I was hooked.
I think any kid who even knew what basketballwas back then wanted to be Michael Jordan after that. I was definitely one of them. I dreamed of taking the floor someday at the United Center in a Bulls jersey and hitting a game winner, like Mike.
But even though basketball was my first love, I had to make a decision when I was in high school about whether I was going to pursue that or football at the next level. I figured that at six-foot-three, I could be a good NBA point guard. But that wasn’t my position. To be a shooting guard … well, at that size, I would be a long shot at best.
But I was big enough — and I had the speed and leaping ability from all my years of playing basketball — to be ideal prospect at wide receiver. So I thought I had a better chance at making my money in football than in basketball.
Jim Prisching/AP Images
When I was in college at South Carolina, I discovered YouTube. I remembered how my dad had always talked about Walter Payton, so one day I pulled up some old highlights. I wanted to see for myself what Sweetness had been all about on the field. I wanted to see what my dad had been so hyped about.
And he was right.
Sweetness was the best I had ever seen.
I learned something unexpected about Walter Payton after the Bears drafted me. My goal was to go down as the greatest receiver in franchise history, so I looked into the Bears’ record books. I learned that Harlon Hill, who played back in the ’50s and ’60s, had the most receiving touchdowns (40). Johnny Morris, who played around the same time, the most receiving yards (5,059). And the guy with the most receptions (492) was….
I think that’s one of the reasons my dad loved Sweetness so much. He was ahead of his time — a dual-threat player who could do anything on the football field. He also had incredible work ethic, and that’s the kind of player that my dad wanted me to be.
I wanted to be the best receiver in Bears history, but even more than that, I wanted to bring a Super Bowl to the city of Chicago.
I didn’t accomplish either of those goals. But despite that, I can honestly say that I loved every minute of my time there.
But now I’m moving on to the next stage of my career. That’s why — as you might have heard — I’m signing with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Writing this is kind of a difficult thing to do. I mean, how do I tell the city of Chicago and the Bears organization how much I love and appreciate them? It’s hard to put into words. So I guess the only way I can really say it is….
Thank you for welcoming me with open arms.
Thank you to Lovie Smith and Phil Emery, who believed in my talents enough to draft me. It’s funny … thinking back to the 2012 combine, I should have believed the Bears when they told me that they were going to draft me. They just seemed so excited about it. When you get drafted, you can only hope to go to a team that is really excited to have you. I definitely found that.
Thank you to the guys in the Bears locker room for being the best teammates a player could ask for. From the guys like Peanut Tillman, Julius Peppers, Matt Forte and Devin Hester — who were already there when I was a rookie — to the guys I played with more recently, like Tracy Porter, Pernell McPhee, Marquess Wilson and Eddie Royal. I can’t name everybody here because there are just too many. But I have to thank you all, because without you guys, I wouldn’t be the player and the man I am today.
Thank you to B. Marshall. You were always hyping me up, letting people know that I had game, and praising me for my work on the field and my maturity off it. You had a big hand in both of those. I can honestly say that I learned from the best. I’ll see you again in the NFC East, big dawg.
Thank you to all my coaches and everybody else who came and went during my five years in Chicago. You all helped shape me in your own little ways, and I hope I was able to do the same for some of you.
But my biggest thank you has to go to the Bears’ fans.
I’ll never forget the first home game of my rookie season, running out of the tunnel at Soldier Field and a sold-out stadium going absolutely crazy. It was intense. There were times playing in that stadium when I felt like I was back in college because the atmosphere was so electric — and that’s saying a lot because I played in the SEC, and nobody in college football turns up like the SEC. But Bears fans could turn up right there with them.
Honestly, thank you for welcoming me, and for making me feel at home. Because of you, Chicago will always hold a special place in my heart.
David Banks/Getty Images
With all that said, as sad as it makes me to be leaving my Bears family, I’m excited for my new opportunity. I’m going to bring the same mindset to Philly that I brought to Chicago when I got drafted in 2012. I’m going to work hard and I’m going to do whatever I can to help bring a championship to the city of Philadelphia.
I’m excited to play with Carson Wentz, too. I thought Carson was legit the first time I saw him play, when the Eagles came to Soldier Field in Week 2 last season. I remember being on the sideline waiting to get back onto the field, and watching him make plays. I didn’t really think much of it at the time because it was only his second game, and I was thinking about what we needed to do as an offense to get into the end zone.
But I remember thinking for a quick second, Man, this kid can do some things.
As the season went on and he kept playing better, I thought that someday he was gonna be a legit MVP contender. I think he has that kind of talent.
I actually told him that the other day. He and I were texting back and forth after the news broke that I was coming to Philly. I told him that I felt like he was good enough to win an MVP someday, and that it was going to be my job to help him win it.
He straight up said he didn’t care about being MVP.
He wanted to win a championship.
I actually just watched the movie Invincible a couple of months ago. You remember that scene where Mark Wahlberg scores a touchdown at the old Veterans Stadium, and he holds his arms out to celebrate, and all you can see in front of him are the fans going nuts and wearing that old-school Eagles green and white.
That’s what I imagine it’s going to feel like playing at the Linc.
I know. Real life rarely lives up to what you see in the movies.
But I have a feeling Philly fans can do it.
I’m going to miss Chicago. I’m going to miss all my teammates and I’m going to miss the fans. But I believe it’s time for me to move on, and I couldn’t be more blessed and grateful for this new opportunity.
When news broke that I was signing with the Eagles, a good friend of mine who lives in Philly texted me to say that his social media was blowing up with Eagles fans saying how hyped they were and how they couldn’t wait for me to get there. He said it was all anybody was talking about.
Well I can’t wait either, Philly.