By Adam Hoge-
HALAS HALL (CBS) — Warming up before the biggest game of his young career, Jordan Mills felt a pop.
The Bears right tackle hadn’t even put his pads on. He was just doing some light work on the Soldier Field turf a couple hours before the Bears and Packers met to decide the NFC North in Week 17 last December.
“I didn’t pay any attention to it,” Mills said Tuesday at Halas Hall. “My adrenalin was pumping anyway — pivotal game for going to the playoffs, so I wasn’t really paying attention to it. But when I went on the field it became numb, and I couldn’t walk on it.”
He had a broken foot. To be more specific, the fifth metatarsal in his right foot was fractured and needed surgery.
But Mills tried to play anyway. He took the field and started the 16th and final game of his rookie year, just eight months after getting drafted in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
“The courage that this guy has,” Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “He breaks his foot in pregame. He shakes it off, he goes in, he tapes it, he comes back out and he plays. He comes off and he says, ‘My foot’s broken.’ I said, ‘When’d you break your foot?’ He says, ‘Pregame.’ I said, ‘How do you break your foot and play in the first series?’”
Mills couldn’t continue once the training staff confirmed the broken bone.
“I was in the locker room just losing my mind with the fact that I wasn’t out there with my brothers trying to get the win,” Mills said.
The revelation that the right tackle started the game with a broken foot didn’t come until Tuesday, when Kromer introduced Mills as the 2014 rookie winner of the of the team’s Brian Piccolo Award. Quarterback Josh McCown, now with the Buccaneers, was the veteran winner.
The Piccolo Award is voted on by teammates every year to honor a rookie and veteran who exemplify the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor of the late Brian Piccolo, who died in 1970 at the age of 26 from embryonic cell carcinoma.
Mills easily checks all those boxes.
“You don’t see where the guy comes from,” Kromer said. “You don’t see the small town south of New Orleans. I’ve driven through there one time. There’s one road in and one road out. He goes to high school with 12 other people his age. He makes it from there to Louisiana Tech, he goes there, he plays football, he graduates. He has the success and the work ethic. He had the dedication — the dedication to himself and to his family, the team. He has the courage to fight out of an area, a swamp that gets hurricanes, that has to fight through things that people in most of the world don’t deal with. And he takes that inner fortitude, becomes the fifth-round pick of the Chicago Bears. And we need a right tackle.”
Mills and fellow rookie Kyle Long came to training camp together and immediately formed a close bond. That bond was strengthened when they were thrown into the first preseason game against the Carolina Panthers together. A week later, the coaching staff put them with the ones in practice and started them together in the second preseason game against the Chargers.
Long at right guard. Mills at right tackle. They weren’t separated until Mills felt that fateful pop in Week 17.
Tuesday, Mills called Long his “best friend and brother,” adding, “I wouldn’t be here without him.”
That may be true, as their work together is a big reason why Mills succeeded as a fifth-round draft pick and Long made it to the Pro Bowl.
But it didn’t happen by accident. Mills is one of the hardest-working players on the team and his own harshest critic.
“The first guy to practice every day is Jordan Mills,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “He’s not just out there first, he’s out there by a long shot. He’s getting himself ready. I’ve asked him how he does it, and I know he gives credit to his family, the way he was raised and the environment he was raised under. He does everything as if he’s walking like a champion every day. He’s early to meetings, he’s well prepared, he’s humble, he listens. He does a lot of the things and never feels like he knows it all. He’s always willing to learn, so he’s a great example for all of us.”
These days, the Bears locker room is full of those types of guys. A lot of that has to do with Trestman and Phil Emery, who actively seek out high-character players who fit well inside the walls of Halas Hall.
“We’re trying to create an environment every day of — you know, Josh (McCown) said it — of brotherly love in our locker room where everybody can lead and everybody is welcome,” Trestman said.
Unfortunately, the Bears lost one of their two Piccolo Award winners when McCown was rewarded with a two-year, $10-million contract by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He wasn’t present at Tuesday’s award ceremony, and the reason why won’t surprise you.
“I thought it would be out of line with the spirit of the Brian Piccolo Award to leave my current teammates in what is a crucial time of the building process this offseason,” McCown said via an e-mail that was read out loud by Jay Cutler.
McCown may be gone now, but his impact on the Bears — and specifically Cutler — should still be felt going forward. Cutler hasn’t been shy in his appreciation for McCown, and that continued Tuesday as he accepted the award on behalf of his former teammate.
“My only regret is that I wish I would have met him earlier in life,” Cutler said. “It’s very rare to find a teammate that not only makes you a better player but also a better person.”
But as the Bears lose their veteran Piccolo Award winner, they gain another rookie recipient. Mills is nearly fully recovered from foot surgery and expects to be ready for OTAs.
In the meantime, you can find him at Halas Hall every day, working just as hard as he did last year.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.