This is the age of social media. Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram give us unparalleled access to our modern day sporting heroes. The insight with which we, as followers, are provided has made us feel closer to these stars. We can engage with them directly. We are offered candid yet calculated glimpses into their personal lives. They express opinion. The social media platforms can serve to further differentiate, humanize and individualize those within our favorite sports teams.
When Mitch Unrein signed his two-year contract extension with the Chicago Bears he did what many sports people do : he tweeted about it. It was a fairly prosaic comment but not one completely devoid of genuine feeling. It shouldn’t be overlooked that his team-mates, perhaps most notably Kyle Long (Three time Pro Bowl Guard and prolific Twitterer) were quick to extend their well wishes.
Later that same day another Twitter account — run by a sports management company Unrein is associated with — posted a congratulatory message. The post contained a photograph of the player celebrating. Eating tacos. One doesn’t need familiarity with the individual restaurant to comprehend the type of dining establishment it is. The food is coming on a plastic tray. Extra large carbonated soft drink optional.
Its unclear, and frankly unimportant, if this was part of a scheduled promotional appearance that coincided with the contract extension. Unrein looks happy to be there. And he is going to eat that burrito.
Nothing about the photograph suggests ‘spoiled athlete’.
Mitch Unrein wasn’t drafted. After leaving the University of Wyoming in 2010 he was asked to join the practice squad of the Houston Texans. With no contract offered he was, later that same year, presented with a similar opportunity with the Denver Broncos. This practice squad assignment would eventually develop into a full professional contract. This, in turn became a four year stay in Colorado under the tutelage of John Fox.
Fox is often described as an ‘old-school’ NFL coach. His voice would suggest he gargles with thumbtacks on a daily basis. He is very direct. He is unflinchingly honest in his appraisals and seemingly unafraid of criticism.
Fox’s Denver Broncos reached the playoffs each year under his guidance. Yet his commendable 46-18 record didn’t translate to Super Bowl success. The Colts knocked them out of the playoffs in January 2015 and Fox was dismissed shortly after.
Within a week of his termination John Fox was announced as Head Coach of the Chicago Bears.
Upon accepting the role with the Bears, Fox inherited an aging roster in need of major overhaul. This would be a rebuilding project. Like most incoming coaches he would look to quickly and definitively imprint his beliefs and philosophies onto his roster. Player buy-in and the generation of team unity was of paramount importance.
The Chicago Bears are an organization known to value strong and uncompromising defense. Toughness is ingrained within the collective DNA of the historic and blue-collar franchise. John Fox typifies this and the appointment of Vic Fangio as his Defensive Co-ordinator was met with excitement.
Fangio is revered in NFL coaching circles and his schematic invention was expected to be an intriguing fit with the Bears defense. His base system is rooted in a 3-4 defensive package and initial evaluations of the roster had many questioning the suitability of the existing personnel. There was a sense that the arrival of Fox and Fangio was heralding a new era. It was a fresh start for the defense. The blank canvas would present a challenge, but it was more tantalizing than daunting.
Early in the new regime the Bears acquired Ray MacDonald. He had been a successful part of Fangio’s scheme while in San Francisco and the defensive end was projected to be a starter. Media concerns relating to his character were rebuffed by the organization but within months of his lucrative signing he was quickly released after being embroiled in a domestic violence dispute.
The Bears were wounded by association and now lacking an integral part of the defensive system that itself was yet to be fully installed.
Unrein had completed four full seasons at Denver and been a quietly reliable cog in a successful team. He featured within their defensive line but also lent his hand to the offensive side of the ball. He lined up as fullback, primarily to offer block support to the skill position players. It was his unselfish and understated approach that kept him relevant within their title contending team. Roster spots in the NFL are scarce but his willingness to work, aligned with his versatility served to make him a valued commodity.
After leaving Denver he found a new home in San Diego. He would only take the field once in a Charger uniform before being sacrificed in a necessary roster move during an injury crisis. Ultimately he was deemed surplus to requirements and was released.
He stayed on the free agent market for one day. John Fox was happy to welcome him to Chicago.
It is not particularly uncommon in professional sport that coaches actively pursue and reacquire those they have worked with before. There is a mutual familiarity that can be beneficial to both parties. In a multi-billion dollar industry the level of understanding ‘just-what-you-are-getting’ when signing an individual player must be a compelling and comforting factor. Nobody wants to be surprised under an intense media glare.
When an incoming coach or General Manager effectively inherits a great player from a previous regime it often makes sense that they retain that player. Their hope is that the individual is agreeable to their plans and wants to remain part of that franchise. Sometimes those responsible for roster construction will have to bring in new talent to supplement their plans. The Bears’ acquisition of Unrein saw a coach actively choose to work with the player again. This decision making process ultimately has to go beyond expected performance and schematic fit - Fox wanted Unrein on his team. He knew the player. He knew the man. He wanted him in his locker room.
Defensive schemes in the NFL can be as varied as the players employed within them. Players can differ in body shape, size and skill-set. In Vic Fangio’s fluid scheme Unrein lines up primarily as a defensive end where his individual responsibility or assignment can change from play to play. Often he is called upon to offer firm and stout defense against the run. On occasion he will be instructed to rush the quarterback or actively engage an opposing lineman to allow others easier passage.
Unrein doesn’t catch the eye at the line of scrimmage. He doesn’t emit a sense that something is about to happen. There is very little in his demeanor that suggests he is going to be a catalyst for what happens. Yet when the ball is snapped he gets to work. His hands are immediately active utilizing a strong repetitive chopping motion. His legs rhythmically march and drive forward. There is no over-reliance on trickery. This is not elusive speed. This is sustained and methodical brute force. And it's coming again — the very same way — on the next snap. This is work. This is grind.
August 2016 saw Mitch Unrein enjoy a rare moment in the media spotlight. His wife was competing in the Rio Olympics and would go on to win a bronze medal in the trap shooting event. In the weeks prior to the Games Unrein was repeatedly sought out for comment on his partner’s involvement with Team USA. Bears’ training camp commitments meant he was unable to accompany her in Brazil but his pride in her achievement was evident. At camp his team-mates and coaching staff wore t-shirts with “Team Unrein” emblazoned across their chest.
Once again, Mitch Unrein found himself part of a team. Not the celebrated. Not the decorated. But part of that team.
He looks happy to be there.