The Chicago Bears are starting to resemble a Vanderbilt University class reunion of sorts. The franchise now has five Vandy football alums on its roster.
Of the current squad, linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer was the first former Commodore to join the Bears, signing in 2003. Offensive tackle Chris Williams and wide receiver Earl Bennett were drafted by Chicago in 2008. This offseason has marked the arrival of quarterback Jay Cutler from Denver and rookie cornerback D.J. Moore.
There are less than a dozen former Vanderbilt players in the NFL in all.
The Vanderbilt Windy City “takeover” is not lost on coaches back at the university. Offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Ted Cain says the school’s fondness for the Bears began when Hillenmeyer joined and has grown steadily since.
“We’re all excited about our guys being in Chicago, and it’s not that far away from here,” says Cain. “All the teams look at our guys, but it just so happens that the Bears have ended up with a lot of them.”
OT Chris Williams
According to Vanderbilt offensive line and assistant head coach Robbie Caldwell, “We have more guys going through the NFL than most people realize. They may not be the most highly recruited across the country, but they are people we are proud of. We’re excited about those that have come together in Chicago.”
As far as why or if the Bears are deliberately adding multiple Vandy alums to their roster, the jury is still out. Don Yates, founder and publisher of the fan site VandyMania.com, says, “It could be a little bit of a coincidence,” while Cain speculates, “Maybe they just see a good product to work with – their work habits and their character. And they’re good football players, too.” Adds Caldwell, “We’re good about letting pro scouts in and out of our organization here. We’re not one of those closed-doors types.”
Especially significant for the Bears’ upcoming season is the reuniting of Cutler, Williams and Bennett on offense. All three played together for Vanderbilt in 2005, when that football team went 5-6 – its best record in six seasons – and beat in-state and Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee for the first time since 1982, and the first time in Knoxville in 30 years. During that season, Vanderbilt also ranked first or second in eight different SEC offensive categories.
“That 2005 year for us was a very special year,” says Cain. “We had some good talent obviously with those three, and we had some good other talent, too,” says Cain.
Cutler served as a three-year captain and was a four-year starter during his college days. He also set school career records for touchdown passes, passing yards, pass completions, pass attempts, total offense and combined touchdowns – even though Vanderbilt mostly ran the ball during his first two seasons.
|“We’re all excited about our guys being in Chicago, and it’s not that far away from here. All the teams look at our guys, but it just so happens that the Bears have ended up with a lot of them.”|
– Ted Cain
“Jay was a playmaker with his feet and with his arm,” says Cain. “He was such a good leader on the field and off the field. His knowledge of football was outstanding. And he has the tools to get it done. He’s the total package – a coach’s dream.”
In 2005, Cutler’s senior year, Bennett came to town and, as a true freshman, had 79 receptions – a team and SEC freshman record.
“Bennett is probably what helped push Cutler into being a first-round draft choice,” says Yates.
Bennett left Nashville after three seasons as the all-time receptions leader in SEC history with 236, while Williams finished his college career with 33 consecutive starts, first team all-SEC honors as a senior and just two sacks surrendered during his final two years at Vanderbilt.
Caldwell says Cutler, Williams and Bennett’s success individually and as teammates can be credited in part to their close relationship during school. “These guys trained all summer together and were good friends on and off the field. That helped with team camaraderie.” According to Yates, that bond has remained between the players, even as they have moved on to the NFL. “They’re all really tight and close. I’m almost certain they all have each other’s phone numbers and they all talk often.” Adds Cain, “They know each other already. They already have friendships. They already know they can count on each other and trust each other. Hopefully that will bleed over to the Bears.”
WR Earl Bennett
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
What Chicago fans – as well as the Commodore triumvirate – are likely hoping for is that the success they enjoyed together at Vanderbilt will make a resurgence now that they are reunited in the pros.
“Cutler is probably thinking he wants to get Bennett on the field because he knows he can connect with that guy,” says Yates. “I think they’ll be very successful for Chicago. Plus, Bennett’s had more time to get used to the offense.”
Yates says that when Cutler joined the Bears, he made a call to Bennett telling him to “be ready.”
Caldwell is quick to point out there will be much more to the Bears racking up wins than simply the Vanderbilt alums. “Everybody has a hand in that. I’m sure, knowing [Lovie] Smith, the other players are quality, too. There is a whole locker room full of players. They all have to be on the same page.” Cain thinks that Cutler, Williams, and Bennett’s accomplishments in Chicago will “exceed” what they did down south. “Going up and competing at that level and the great coaching they have with Chicago, hopefully they can continue to advance that program and get to the Super Bowl.”
The Bears’ faithful can at least expect to have a whole new group of supporters joining their ranks.
“They’re going to be a second team for Vanderbilt fans now,” says Yates. “And in turn, there could be more and more Chicagoland natives playing on Saturdays in Nashville in the years to come.”
“We’re really starting to recruit the Chicago area as far as it comes to high school players,” says Cain.
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Laura Downhour is a New York-based contributor for ESPN the Magazine and has worked as a television sports reporter. She also previously served as a pre-game show reporter for the Detroit Lions, but try not to hold that against her.