Reggie White joined the Green Bay Packers as a free agent in 1993, signing a much-ballyhooed 5-year, $17 million contract. (These days that might buy you a blocking tight end. Might.) Prior to his signing, the franchise to the north had only been to the playoffs twice since 1967 and recorded only two winning seasons out of their previous ten. After he signed, the Pack went to the postseason six consecutive years. They won a Super Bowl in 1996. Their next losing season wouldn’t be until 2005. They’ve only had three sub-8 win campaigns since he put his name on that paper.
White did even more than that for the Packers. From a Robert Klemko piece for Sports Illustrated:
“Among players, Green Bay was depicted as some Russian place where you go and no one ever hears from you,” says former NFL tight end Keith Jackson, a first-round draft pick of the Eagles in 1988 who would go on to play for the Dolphins and the Packers.
Then something unprecedented happened. Upon becoming an unrestricted free agent in 1993, a player who had been named to six consecutive All-Pro teams in Philadelphia made a shock decision that would change the course of a franchise and the tenor of a town.
“Before that decision guys would say, ‘If Green Bay drafts me, I don’t want to go.’ It was Siberia,” says Jackson. “But Reggie White saw something different about it.”
Reggie White put Green Bay back on the NFL map.
Drew Brees joined the New Orleans Saints as a free agent in 2006. Over the previous thirteen seasons, the franchise had two winning ones, winning one playoff game in that period. Since Brees signed that contract, the Saints have never won less than seven games in a season. They’ve been to the postseason in six of twelve attempts. They won the Super Bowl in 2009.
And no NFL player is more emblematic of the city he plays for than Brees, who became a civic hero by leading NOLA’s emotional revival in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Here’s a wonderful passage from Jillian Eugenios at CNN:
He moved to the city a decade ago, when it was still reeling from Hurricane Katrina. It was six months after the storm, and he describes it as a ghost town. There were boats in the middle of the road, and cars upside down in people’s living rooms.
It wasn’t just the city that had to make a comeback.
“A lot of guys came here in 2006, including myself, as somewhat of castaways,” he said. “Many of us did not have many other options.”
Brees had been let go by the San Diego Chargers due to a shoulder injury. The Miami Dolphins had been interested in bringing him on, but were counseled against it because of his shoulder.
The New Orleans Saints was the team to put an offer on the table.
“We chose New Orleans because we felt like we could do something special down here,” he said. He moved to New Orleans with his wife Brittany, and he soon developed a close tie to the city.
“We leaned on each other in so many cases,” he said of his fellow New Orleanians. “As people are trying to rebuild their homes, rebuild their lives, they’re still coming to games to cheer on the Saints because it just gives them so much energy and enthusiasm … just this feeling that we’re all in this together.”
Brees is more than the Saints. He is every bit as New Orleans as the fried shrimp po’ boy from Verti Marte on Royal, washed down with an ice cold bottle of Abita Amber.
The Bears don’t need to sell the City of Chicago to free agents or 21 year-old Auburn cornerbacks. Ten minutes of the late night set at The Green Mill or a few pops with an aging scribe at the Old Town Alehouse will get that accomplished. The greatest cities on earth don’t need a tagline.
And hopefully the town won’t have to recover from any natural disasters in the near future. The city has plenty of unnatural disasters – the Tribune is no longer in Tribune Tower for Christ sake – but it seems to be surviving just fine.
What the Bears have needed more than anything is a franchise-altering presence on the field and it seems, through just two games of this season, he hath been delivered. Khalil Mack was traded to the Chicago Bears by Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders on Saturday, September 1st 2018 and it’s starting to feel like a move that has commenced a new era of Chicago Bears football.
Mack, like White and Brees above, is a potentially transcendent player. And while I don’t want this column to sound like an 8th grader’s address to his or her classmates, the actual definitions of that word in the Oxford English Dictionary are too good not to share.
“Beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience.
Surpassing the ordinary; exceptional.”
You see, the transcendent player doesn’t just make impact ON the field. These players imbue a sense of confidence in the entire organization and Mack has already done that in Chicago. From the social media director at Halas Hall to the last row of Soldier Field, Section 313, Mack’s arrival has energized a flailing franchise in desperate need of something, anything, to provide hope. Hope that greatness awaits. Hope that all this losing will somehow be worth it.
Mack has changed how fans and media and even the players themselves think about this team. They all expect to win. And it’s been a long time…
Because that’s the other requirement here. The franchise has to have the need. A great player can join a successful organization but not have the impact of a White or Brees. If the Raiders had traded Mack to Green Bay, he would have made them the favorite to win the Super Bowl. But they were picked by a million prognosticators to do that anyway because of the presence of their quarterback.
Mack to Chicago, a team with one playoff appearance in the last decade, has raised their profile and their expectations. He has, by merely signing his name and putting on the laundry, legitimized them. That is what makes him transcendent.
How do I know Mack is different? Anecdotally. In the first two weeks of the NFL season I’ve received texts from three people – two working in the professional theatre – who pay little attention to sports. (They’re paying attention to Mack and the Bears because they know it’ll affect my Monday mood.)
Very few transcendent players in NFL history have changed teams in their prime. And there’s not a single example of one doing so without severe injury or major character concerns.
On the defensive side of the ball there are few positions that even allow for transcendence. Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis were recently inducted into the Hall of Fame but neither changed the fate of their franchise upon arrival. Urlacher’s Bears had one winning season in his first four years. Lewis’ Ravens had zero. (Drafting an unknown is far different than bringing in the sure thing. Mack is the surest of sure things.)
And Mack’s a pass rusher. A great one. Pass rushers are the only position on defense with the ability to control a game by eliminating the opponent’s ability to execute a passing attack. In this pass-heavy league, it elevates them above mere greatness.
Watch out… #DaBears defense always has their eyes on you. 😈
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) September 19, 2018
With a nod to the legendary Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (“with a dash”) , there are Three Stages of Transcendence in the NFL. The acquisitions of White and Brees achieved all three for the Packers and Saints, respectively.
Stage One: Excitement.
Stage Two: Legitimacy.
Stage Three: Celebration.
The Bears and their fans are excited. And through two games it is obvious they are closing in on being a legitimate force in the league.