What's it like to start your first ever game as an offensive lineman in the NFL, and against a Cincinnati Bengals defensive line that was third in the league in sacks last year? Just ask rookie right guard Kyle Long.
"I'm so grateful for everything that is happening to me," Long said after today's game. "It's such a blessing. I think back to some bad choices I made, some things I did that I could have done better. That all changed when I went to junior college and began to turn things around. To be at this point today, however, is beyond anything I could have dreamed of at that time."
As a member of a nationally known football family, it isn't completely surprising Long has found success on the field. Yet he sees the opportunity to line up for the Bears as the result of hard work and good fortune, not because his dad is Hall of Famer Howie Long.
"When I was at Oregon, I played in 11 games, starting at left guard," said Long. "At Saddleback Junior College, I started as an offensive tackle and I was a reserve defensive end. It was a wonderful learning experience and an excellent foundation to build upon. I've had some experience at various positions on the football field, but the current job here with the Bears is by far the most demanding. I'd always hoped to make it to the NFL and to eventually be a starter there. To have this opportunity right now is a tremendous honor and a challenge. I know eyes are on me and I have to perform in a productive manner."
Against one of the best defensive fronts in the league, Long and the rest of Chicago's offensive line – which features four new starters – did not allow a single sack of Jay Cutler in the opener.
"I'd heard a lot about how powerful their defense is," Long said. "It was going to be a challenge but our job was to protect Jay at all times. The fact that we were successful in doing that today is tremendously gratifying.
"There were jitters initially but once you get to the job at hand there is no time to think about yourself or how you might be feeling. Pressure? Of course, but every professional player is under pressure to do well. I'm no different there."
The Bears not only picked up their first win of the season today but they also came away unscathed in the injury department. That in itself is another victory for the day.
"This early in the season, you never want to see anybody go down. It's a relief that we're all still here after such a hard-fought battle," said Long. "I credit our strength and conditioning program for that result. We do a lot of cardio reps in practice. I'm not sure people understand how much time and effort goes into helping us build our bodies and preserve our ability to play. It means we can play strong even in the last minutes of an important game. We also need to credit the leaders in the locker room for keeping us on track and keeping us focused."
Today's victory was the first step in a journey that will last the next four, and possibly five, months. So it's far too early to draw any conclusions. Yet it sure was a promising first step for the Bears' offensive line, an area of the team that has been porous for years.
"There are a lot of things I'd like to have back," said Long. "Just like during the preseason, I found myself trying to find that comfortable spot. But when I couldn't do that, I found that being uncomfortable isn't such a bad thing. It might even make me play harder. Looking across the line at such good players like Geno [Atkins] and Vontaze Burfict, it was intimidating. Then I realized they are the first of many others I'll be facing. What I hope to accomplish some day is be intimidating to new players who will be facing me."
Long's performance today surely built his confidence heading into his first ever NFC North matchup next Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. Yet he understands his learning process has barely begun.
"It's a transition for every rookie. I understand that," he said. "We all have to elevate our play and learn how get things done at this level. I'm fortunate to have a guy like Jordan Mills beside me. He's somebody who has the unique understanding of what we both are going through. We'll be watching film, working on improving our technique and studying the game plan. That's how we'll be ready to go out and do the same thing next Sunday. But hopefully we'll be better next time."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.