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A heavy mantle: David Montgomery gets one chance to add to Bears running back history

By Robert Zeglinski

Read the writing on the wall and the Bears always wanted David Montgomery to be their next lead running back. There was no backup plan in the 2019 NFL Draft because Montgomery was Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. Post-draft, general manager Ryan Pace said Montgomery “is everything you look for in a running back.” Meanwhile, head coach Matt Nagy – never one to hide his energy – was smitten with Montgomery’s genuineness. “He’s about as real a person as there is,” said Nagy of Montgomery. “Very authentic, very passionate.”

Pay attention to way the Bears spoke of Montgomery – the manner in which he was anointed as the next Chosen One – and there’s no wonder why they elected to trade up to No. 73 overall to grab him. Pace and Nagy, and Halas Hall brass in general see Montgomery as the missing piece. They see him as someone that can help the Bears maintain high modern standards of all-around offense, and who won’t crumble under the inherent pressure of being a Bears running back. The latter of which is a thick book of history Montgomery gets the chance to add to as he sees fit. An encyclopedia where he, and largely he alone, can write his chapter as short or long as he wants.

It’s easy to forget in a hyper-reactive “take” culture where everything fresh must be characterized with endless clapping emojis on a life-or-death spectrum, but to follow a sport means to relish in its history. Where today one failure is a referendum on someone’s obsessive legacy, the weight behind history takes precedence. There are the active games and players to pay attention to, no doubt. But the decades of stories behind them are lurking in the background, waiting to be dusted off and to be taken as seriously as they should be. History sports is important because it represents the human touch. It’s the symbolism of those who laid the foundation for those who thrive today. It’s what lets us properly differentiate between the contrasting lives and experiences of which funnel in and out of these gladiatorial games.

What is one of the more unique parts about American sports is the focus on legacy positions with legacy franchises. When you’re a center in the NBA, it means more to be one for the Los Angeles Lakers. When you’re a shortstop in baseball, it means more to be one for the New York Yankees. When you’re a running back in the NFL, it means more to be one for the Bears. To take up the mantle in any of these roles is to be like the hero in any long-running popular video game series. The hub world is tailored for you and the path has been laid out on an obvious linear platter, pressure and all. The only difference is you don’t get multiple lives to succeed in your own goals like when you turn on your Playstation. You get one chance and you have to make the most of it.

For Montgomery, he’s soon going to learn all there is know about the weight, tradition, and historical perspective behind being a lead backfield man in Chicago. In due time, he might even prove to be a worthy addition to the franchise’s tailback annals. To Montgomery’s credit, he’s already conquered a mountain of doubt and uncertainty, and he accomplished it in a place with little to no expectations.

From 2017-2018, Montgomery slowly morphed into one of Iowa State’s best-ever players. Through a quite literal quiet sense of power, balance, and humility, he helped Iowa State to its first back-to-back 8-win seasons since the 1970s. He transformed the culture of a football program with no previously discernible culture and actually gave it a history to one day fondly look back upon. Most importantly, he gave people in Ames, Iowa someone they will forever compare the next iterations of the Cyclones football team to. As the first of his prolific running back kind, he gave them a standard.

In Chicago, Montgomery won’t be the first part of any standard. There’s already a baseline of success he has to live up to, and more likely, surpass. In Chicago, Montgomery will be expected to simultaneously help a Super Bowl contender climb a higher mountain, and live up to the history of Bears running backs. A successful career for him would to even be a mentioned footnote amongst the running backs of royalty and tremendous status that have walked through Halas Hall over the last century – let alone a contributor on a championship team.

There’s Harold “Red” Grange, one of the first most recognizable professional football players, and someone who helped give the Bears legitimacy when signing with them in 1925. There’s Bronco Nagurski, with his consummate Chicago Grabowski name, uncommonly punishing defenders for most of the 1930s at the height of the Bears’ initial NFL dominance. There’s Gale Sayers, blessed with perhaps the most natural gifts to play running back, but not the knees and legs to last. There’s Walter Payton, universally recognized as the best player to don a Bears jersey, and whose name still carries a certain chill-down-your-spine factor when uttered – even at a whisper. In the modern era, Thomas Jones and Matt Forte have taken the Bears’ running back sigil and embraced the power coming with great responsibility. It’s Montgomery’s turn to follow in these mens’ comically gigantic footsteps.

From Grange’s legitimacy and Nagurski’s power, to Payton’s all-time crown and Forte’s versatility, each of these men had a signature moment that will have them stand the test of time in Bears history books. Each of these men had an intricate puzzle piece to add to the mythos of Bears running backs. Where Montgomery differs from his predecessors, and where his own legacy will be shaped, is that he’s the first to enter a situation with stratospheric expectations.

For the first time since the halcyon days of Neal Anderson in the mid-1980s, Montgomery will be the first back to join a Bears team coming off a winning season. For the first time in over three decades, a young and promising Bears running back joins a team, that on paper, should be playing well into January and potentially February. Where Grange, Nagurski, Payton, and Forte preeminently stood out as the offensive focal points of mostly mediocre teams for most of their careers, Montgomery is but another sharp arrow in the intimidating quiver of the most recent iteration of the Bears.

Now, just because Montgomery is more of an ancillary option for Nagy and company to start his promising NFL career, doesn’t mean he won’t get the opportunity to shine like any of the previous legendary Bears backs. If anything, Montgomery is in as uncommonly advantageous a position as possible to succeed, painting the picture of his minimal floor of success being difficult to miss. He can be the next great Bears back because he has such an established support system in place. And it’s because Montgomery understands himself – he’s a running back with no afterburners but has endless determination and diligence to make up for it – that should make him a worthy addition to Bears running back lore.

There’s the old adage of forgetting your history making you doomed to repeat it. If forgetting history was an issue for Montgomery, he wouldn’t already be leaning on Bears veterans. He wouldn’t be having meals with a man he will draw endless comparisons to in Matt Forte. This is his time to learn and pen the next segment of special backfield history in Chicago. This is the only chance he’ll get to write it: A lesson he learned long ago.

“What I’ve learned is when your opportunity is gone, it’s gone,” Montgomery told the Iowa State Gazette in 2017. “So, I really try to make sure I enjoy the process.”

Robert is an editor and writer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. 

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