By: Robert Zeglinski
It is said the best thing an offensive lineman can do is to be unnoticeable. A good offensive lineman is not a star football fans gravitate to; this is a hallowed, if flawed honor reserved for positions that almost exclusively have the ball in their possession on a regular basis. A cornerstone offensive lineman is only the center of attention when they fail because that’s the only occasion where their work, for better or worse (mostly worse) is under a microscope. If football is a game of violence, glamor, and flash, a beefy hog upfront is more a quiet orchestrator of such controlled chaos. They have no hand in the glamor and flash. The violence they create is a concept to be ignored and glossed over entirely. A consummate franchise player in the trenches is the one who does his best work when the television cameras pan downfield. A blue collar mentality defining him to the core, he does not seek amplified recognition for his efforts. All he does is continue to bully the opposition into a slow, dull submission as his more recognizable teammates get every ribbon, award, honor, and recognition.
It’s fitting that none of these one muted disambiguations ever described Kyle Long. An embodiment of flavor and selflessness, Long was of a different breed.
Even in the 31-year-old’s sudden retirement announcement on Monday, there was a palpable energy surrounding his exit. While Long’s athletic endeavors at this level have screeched to a depressing halt, his presence endures in a manner unlike many of his contemporary peers in the same vane. He’s a lightning rod of adulation and vulnerability. The rare man absorbing bullets on the front lines that also took the opportunity to craft a patient narrative. However anyone wants to judge the peaks, valleys, and merits of his football-playing career, the past decade saw him become an uncommon star in his own right.
And yes, he was an offensive lineman.
When Long was selected by the Bears in the 2013 NFL Draft, his investment was met with confusion. A man whose first self-professed passion and love was baseball, was considered a reach. He was too risky of an endeavor. He was too green. He was too immature. Others did belong, but he didn’t. Others had the polish and acumen, but he didn’t. Little did this sort of commentary denote how Long’s place in Bears history would quickly evolve past the initial doubt and skepticism. Past a point in the horizon where even Bears brass at the time, such as general manager Phil Emery, could have ever envisioned.
The 2010s were not kind to the Bears. On the field, off the field, and in the court of general public opinion, the past decade solidified a depressing cloud of doubt for many as to whether the Bears would ever become a reputable, acclaim-worthy franchise again. The Bears had a mere two postseason appearances from 2010 to 2019 – the least since the 1970s and the halcyon days of Bob Avellini masquerading as more rugby player than quarterback. This was the decade the legend of the 1985 Bears morphed into a nagging, unattainable fairy tale. Where only a select generation of fans still view them with wistful reverence. The Bears became the ugly man-child of a step brother everyone wished would get their life together already. Dire urgency in this mission, in a city that could be accurately denoted as “football-crazed,” was lost.
Long’s stay with the Bears corresponded with the worst and least exciting iterations of this era. After his rookie campaign in 2013, Chicago finished in last place in the NFC North for four consecutive seasons, seldom threatening to win more than six games. They were the epitome of an also-ran. A bottom feeder accustomed to discussing draft prospects in late November. An organization that made a habit of seeking bright spots in meaningless matchups against other listless opponents by the time Nissan’s late “December to Remember” advertisement spots began to show themselves on television airwaves.
These Bears weren’t merely incompetent. It’s easier to stomach a bad team because there’s some element of haphazardness and disorganization to their pitfalls that charms the beholder. A mess that is fascinating to watch under a specific mixed prism of sports sadism and buffoonery.
No, instead they committed the worst sin of all; they were boring.
As objectionable and devoid of joy as the Bears were, Long was their polar opposite. He was the ideal player to build around, and not because of any Pro Bowl or All-Pro accolades. Because he had the cliche of intangibles; he was a leader. His value to the Bears and Halas Hall at large was that of someone who knew how to engage. Someone who knew deep down he and teammates were destined for further mired irrelevance, but afforded everyone on the inside and outside looking in hope with his energy and strange honesty alone. Sometimes to get through extended turmoil in life, one person has to make the conscious decision to be the punching bad. They have to make a move toward acting as the unofficial spokesman, body guard, and soundboard in one.
Long never hesitated in taking on this immense responsibility. This tremendous burden that would have weighed down a lesser man of lesser fortitude was his cross to bear. Through every step of his football career, he took it upon himself to champion his teammates, his coaches, and his fans. Even in the midst of rampant injuries robbing him of his natural gifts and vocation, Long never wavered. The Bears had a gap of leadership, character, and personality. It was on him to fill it with aplomb and a smile on his face at every turn.
The Bears were going nowhere. They had no future. But they had Long, an offensive lineman, no less.
And that was enough.
Football’s cruel and vindictive nature means the storybook ending for even the greatest player becomes a fantasy. Most never get to hang up the shoulder pads and cleats on their terms. Most leave a stone unturned, a box unchecked. For Long especially, he never truly had the experience of reaping tremendous benefits from the positivity he sowed. Chicago wouldn’t qualify for the postseason until Year 6 of his career. By then, he was a hollow shell of himself. A robot pieced together by rubber bands and paper clips following several invasive surgeries and ailments. A player already beginning to contemplate retirement and life after football.
But defining Long by the overall success the Bears didn’t enjoy over the course of his tenure would be doing a disservice to his memory. Anyone who had the pleasure of watching him don a navy blue and orange No. 75 jersey understands he redefined what it meant to play in the City of Broad Shoulders. Long brought color to a grey palate of nothingness. He took the weight of failure upon himself, and never surrendered to those who might snatch such necessary influence away. He was too unflappable, too endearing, and too strong to allow someone else to fight the Bears’ demons. Battles with his personal demons on the side always played second fiddle, because they had to.
The best sentiment anyone could express about Long was that he was noticeable. He was an offensive lineman who always had his voice heard. In this sense, perhaps he did leave on his terms after all.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.