By Debbie Emery
The history of the Chicago Bears defense is long and illustrious — from the unstoppable force of the 1985 Super Bowl XX champions under defensive lineman, William “Refrigerator” Perry, who only allowed 198 total points all season, to eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher, who was voted into the 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Going into his third year with the Bears, defensive end Akiem Hicks is gearing up for potentially his best season ever after recording a career-high of seven sacks in 2017 — and he is determined to bring Chicago’s Defense back to its
“It’s been exciting knowing where we were last year as a Top 10 defense, and knowing that if we keep everything together and just chip away at some of the things we didn’t make plays on, how much better we’re going to be this year,”
Hicks told Air Chicago.
“The history with the Bears having a tenacious, nasty, aggressive defense is something that the city will never let us forget. We’ve got to remember that we’re not only building our legacy, but we’re continuing the legacy that the Bears have established over the years.”
Along with the return of dominating starters such as cornerback Kyle Fuller, the Bears defensive corps was strengthened in the offseason with the addition of first-round draft pick Roquan Smith, and Hicks likes what he sees from the rookie linebacker so far.
“He is such a fast learner and he’s so willing to pick up things and be in the right place — that only propels his talent because he’s already such a talented athlete,” he said of Smith.
As for 28-year-old Hicks, his career path has been rich with rewards but not without its challenges. His unlikely road to the NFL began at University Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, when recruiting violations by the LSU coaching staff prevented him from playing college football for the Tigers. Instead, he got a job at a DirecTV call center to make ends meet before going north of the border to earn a college degree and join the Regina Rams, where he became the Canada West Universities Athletic Association’s top lineman.
After being picked by the New Orleans Saints in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, Hicks went to play for the New England Patriots. Their 2015 team came within a game of going to the Super Bowl when they fell to Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game with a final score of 20-18.
Despite the Patriots’ history-making comeback to win Super Bowl LI the following year after he’d left the team, Hicks has never regretted leaving New England and signing with the Bears in March 2016.
“Chicago was the right fit because I felt... whereas the Patriots already established where they were and what they were going to be, this was an opportunity for me to go to a team that was building — and wanted to build — the type of franchise that the city could be proud of,” he said. “So knowing that we have such a good base here, I was excited to come in and build this defense and bring us to a point where we can win playoff games and Super Bowls.”
Bears General Manager and former Saints director of personnel, Ryan Pace, “is one of the people who originally drafted me to New Orleans, so that was a great reconnection. I was just honored that he looked back and said ‘this is a guy that I brought into the league’ and wanted me to come here to help build his defense once again.”
Having grown up in San Jose, California, and having played in Canada, New Orleans, and New England during his career, Hicks is now happy to call the Windy City his home for the long haul.
“I love this city. The thing about Chicago is there’s always something going on, even when it’s freezing out here, there [are] people out having good dinners and just enjoying it. Everybody’s going somewhere and there’s always something to do,” said Hicks, who lives in Lake Forest but spends a lot of his spare time downtown. “I want to retire a Chicago Bear. One day I would love to get a condo in the heart of the city and just be able to take it in every day.”
At 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds, Hicks isn’t embarrassed to admit that he loves to eat. “One of my favorite restaurants in the city is Maple & Ash because of the environment, the ambiance — it’s just such a great place. And then the food on top of that is spectacular,” he gushed. “The steak is always cooked to perfection. RPM Steak is another great steakhouse — as you can see I like red meat! Tavern on Rush is phenomenal too.”
Aside from taking out-of-town guests for a filet at Maple & Ash, Hicks likes to give them the full downtown tour. “You’ve got to take them to see the sights. We usually go up to the top of the John Hancock building for brunch at the Signature Room on the 95th floor,” he said.
“I like to go out to the pier every once in a while, too, or just walk along the lake in the summer,” he continued. “There’s great boating. I went out on a boat for Memorial Day weekend this year and the environment was amazing, everybody’s out there enjoying [the lake]. When people first come here and if they’re not too sound on their geography, then they think we have an ocean!”
Dating back to 1924, Soldier Field is part of Chicago’s history in its own right and a tourist destination for thousands of visitors each year either for games or behind-the-scenes tours. It may be Hicks’ workplace during the regular NFL season (the Bears preseason training camp is in Bourbonnais, Illinois), but that doesn’t mean he takes it for granted, telling first-time visitors “just take in the atmosphere and history because it’s such a beautiful structure from the moment you pull up. Then, as soon as you leave the stadium you’re right in the heart of the city.
“I had my dad here recently and it was his first time in Chicago. We were driving by the stadium and I said, ‘Dad, that’s where I work,’ and he’s like ‘WOW.’ Just looking at the architecture and how it’s built, he was impressed,” Hicks recalled.
Hicks had the opportunity to enjoy Soldier Field as a fan himself for Argentina’s Copa America victory over Panama in July 2016. “I got to see Lionel Messi play there. He didn’t come out until probably half way through the game [in the 63rd minute] and then scored three goals. It was so impressive,” he marveled. “The stadium was full of soccer fans, right? You would’ve thought a Bears game was going on! It was nice to be able to sit in the stands and see it how the fans see it versus being on the field.” Hicks said he was surprised by how close he was to the players, “because when you’re on the field, everything seems so far away. And when you sit in the stands, it feels like there’s not a bad seat in the house — like you’re right up on the game,” he explained. “That’s the beautiful thing about our stadium: it’s kind of old school in that regard compared to other stadiums where you seem further away from the ball and the action."
Along with enjoying the best that Chicago has to offer, from dining to sports, Hicks also works to make the city a better place for everyone through community development programs. “Every year, I do a back- to-school drive where we give out backpacks and school supplies,” he told Air Chicago. “That’s an area that I really enjoy — working with kids — and it’s something I’ve done since I’ve been in the NFL.”
Already a hero to countless kids, Hicks and his fellow Bears starters recently became comic book superheroes as part of the “Monsters of the Midway” campaign created by former player and ATHLiTACOMiCS founder Israel Idonije. Each “Monster” has his own unique powers playing o his natural skill set as a football player. The vision was to create an alternate world where the “Monsters of the Midway” defend the City of Chicago from a weekly nemesis on the Bears’ 2018 schedule, and the characters will transition from the comic world into reality as the outcome is played out on the eld each game day.
When he’s not playing football, or giving back to the community, Hicks likes to take advantage of the proximity of O’Hare International Airport and travel, himself. “One of my favorite spots that I...also live in is Miami so I go back there every year, and to California frequently, where I’m from,” he said. “I also love New Orleans because of the environment and the food (I’m a big eater!). There’s always something good to drink and great food on your plate — it’s an awesome city.”
When it comes to bucket list travel destinations, however, Hicks has his sights set much further a eld. “I really want to see Australia. I think I just fell in love with the accent. I want to see Sydney, but I would love to go to all of it especially the Outback. I want to do everything.” Well, not quite everything. “I don’t want to check out the crocodiles or anything,” he laughed. You can’t really avoid them ... “How about snakes?” Yep, those too. “I’m a big fan of that movie from back in the day, Crocodile Dundee.” While he may not be wrestling crocodiles or shark-diving anytime soon, Hicks is an “adventurous guy” when he travels. “Even when I’m relaxing, I nd a way to get outdoors and do something of interest, whether it be a hike or various other things.”
Any international vacation plans are going to have to wait until after the NFL season is over though, as Hicks and the rest of the Bears are solidly focused on the challenges closer to home (especially those at Lambeau Field against the Packers). “Green Bay is always the first game that you get excited for when you put it on your calendar, because if you’re going to beat anybody, you’ve got to beat them,” he said of their rivals 200 miles to the north led by six-time Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
To literally be able to tackle such strong opponents for years to come, at this stage in his career Hicks is focused on his training and recovery programs on the field, as well as his performance on it. “You want to make sure you’re capable and available to play all 16 regular season games and that your body is in the position to endure them all and be able to play out the whole season just as strong as you started it,” he explained. “For me, what really helps is yoga. I focus on stretching and making sure that everything is up to par. I’m a big guy, I can move people and be the strongest guy on the field, so I like to work on my weaknesses. Just making sure I’m flexible is a big key to my success. I always harp on younger guys because they don’t know the values of [flexibility].”
“It’s great to be able to lift in the gym and run a mile, but can you bend and get your body in the positions that you need to be effective? When I was younger, I just thought I could go out there and let it y. But Father Time always catches up with you,” he said.
Hicks is a regular at Forever Om studio in Lake Forest, “I do a lot of hot yoga. When you’re in the class and it’s starting to weigh on you and you feel like ‘man, I just want to go into child’s pose and have a seat,’ you’ve got people around to motivate you. The funniest part about my class is that I’m always the biggest guy in there, so you have these little old ladies and they’re watching to see if I can get into certain positions,” he laughed. “They’re really great at cheering you on when they see you’re struggling, they’re like ‘oh, come on Akiem, you can finish this out.’” While he can’t do all the handstands and backbends, “I know what I’m there for and I’m going to get the best I can out of it.”
“It definitely gets your mind right, because if you can make it through a class where it’s 102 degrees, you can definitely make it through a summer practice. And because of the temperature, your muscles start loosening up already, and you can find yourself getting into deeper poses. Then when I come out of the class and get on the field, I can feel myself go into that lower point — whether I’m doing a squat or trying to come o the ball — I can feel my knees and my hips are a little bit looser.”