MIAMI — As Kyle Long sat across from Bears head coach Matt Nagy on the team’s flight home from London in October, he had a feeling he might be in trouble.
“I just remember, I played the game, did not play well, we did not win, it was a long flight home, and I sat right across from Nagy,” Long told WGN Radio in Miami Wednesday. “And it was clear to me that there were going to be changes made.”
After the ensuing bye week, the Bears officially placed Kyle Long on injured reserve, citing a hip injury, and as it turned out, Long’s NFL career was over. He stayed away from Halas Hall the rest of the season and announced his retirement earlier this month.
The circumstances of Long’s injury and absence from the team were perplexing, especially for a seventh-year veteran that battled through an abnormal slew of injuries and took a pay cut to stay with the only team he ever wanted to play for. Long missed the Bears’ Week 4 game against the Vikings with the hip injury, but then played every snap against the Raiders the following week in London. And then, after the bye week, he was just… gone.
“It was as weird for me as it was for you,” Long said.
What the public didn’t know is that Long had actually torn his groin against the Broncos in Week 2, which was impacting his hip flexor. Entering the 2019 season as healthy as he had been in years, Long couldn’t stomach the idea of going on injured reserve for the fourth season in a row, so he tried as hard as he could to play through it. Until he just couldn’t.
“It came to a head in the Raiders game. I couldn’t do much, I wasn’t powerful,” Long said. “Like, you can turn on the film from any year and be like, ‘Even if he’s not healthy, he’s powerful.’ I lost all my power.”
The tape didn’t lie. I have weekly Bears player grades going back to 2013 — Long’s rookie season — and in seven years, his two lowest grades were the last two games he played in the NFL: Week 3 in Washington and Week 5 in London. I don’t claim to be an offensive line expert, but it was obvious something wasn’t right.
“At a certain point you just say, do I like the guy that I’m showing on film? Do I like the teammate that I am to my teammates? And does Mitch (Trubisky) trust me? That doesn’t make me a bad guy, that just means I can’t do my job,” Long said. “And it takes a wherewithal to say, OK, the writing is on the wall, I get it.”
Howie Long knew his son was immensely gifted, but Bill Belichick still caught him off guard.
It was 2016 and the Bears had just finished a week of practice in New England leading up to their preseason game against the Patriots. The practices were hot and intense. Multiple skirmishes between the teams broke out with Belichick even kicking Malcolm Butler out of practice on the first day for fighting. But remaining (mostly) peaceful through it all were two brothers: Chris and Kyle Long. With Chris on the Patriots’ defensive line and Kyle on the Bears’ offensive line, it was a fun a battle to follow all week long. And when it was all over, Howie, the Hall-of-Fame father, received a surprising scouting report.
“(Belichick) said, ‘Your other boy, Kyle, boy, he’s good. He’s special,” Howie Long recalled. “And I said, ‘Well he doesn’t really know what he’s doing yet.’ And (Belichick) said, ‘He might be the best guard in football.’”
At that point, Long was coming off his third Pro Bowl in just three NFL seasons. And he admirably earned the last one at right tackle after an unorthodox position switch the week before the 2015 season opener. Long was back at right guard in 2016 and Belichick’s comments weren’t off base. Even after three Pro Bowls, Long was still raw and had tremendous room for growth.
“In that three year period, he was a unique person physically,” Howie Long said. “I’ve always said this: God puts his hands on some people’s shoulders and (says), you’re special physically, now what are you going to do with it?”
Bears general manager Ryan Pace, who didn’t draft Long, clearly agreed with Belichick that the right guard was going to do a lot with his physical gifts. A few weeks later, Long signed a four-year. $40 million contract extension. At that point, it didn’t look like anything was going to stop Kyle Long from becoming one of the Bears’ all-time great offensive linemen.
But that all changed on Nov. 13, 2016 in Tampa.
Usually players that suffer a catastrophic injury are nowhere to be found after games. But in the vistors’ locker room at Raymond James Stadium, Kyle Long was sitting on a stool with his right foot pointed outward as if to show off his proud war wound.
Frankly, it was gross. Long’s ankle was many different colors and none of them were normal. Earlier in the game, Long had been carted off the field with what surely looked like a season-ending injury. But as the cart rolled off, Long raised his arms in excitement and started yelling to pump up his teammates. Later, he managed to return to the sideline with his ankle heavily wrapped. And even after the Bears got pummeled 36-10 by the Buccaneers, Long managed to smile and even laugh about his ankle in the locker room.
“Think about guys that clear rooms in the military and who are the best at it,” Long explained to WGN Radio this week. “They may clear 150 rooms clean, but the 151st one there was something maybe they didn’t see and something goes wrong. Luckily in the NFL, it’s not a life and death scenario. I think part of me laughing that day was understanding how lucky I was and how many rooms I cleared at a high level before I stepped on a landmine.”
That positive perspective was badly needed, because the prognosis was extremely negative.
“That ankle injury was worse than anybody knows,” Long said. “The guy who did my surgery told me I’d probably never play again. And I told him, ‘Watch me.’”
That guy wasn’t just anybody. It was Dr. Robert Anderson, one of the best foot and ankle surgeons in the country. The injury was very serious. And the surgery took a toll.
“Back in the hotel room, (he threw up) 35-40 times that night. Literally 35-40 times,” Howie Long said.
On top of all that, Kyle needed shoulder surgery that offseason too, as he had been playing with a torn labrum. But as Belichick had said three months earlier, Long was special. He was the type of rare athlete who could somehow bounce back. FOX Sports’ Jay Glazer, who has trained with Long for years, put it a different way: “He’s a mutant. He’s not from this planet. He’s different.”
In an odd and somewhat awkward twist, Dr. Anderson was hired by the Packers the following summer, which meant Long had to make trips to Green Bay and see the doctor in a “third-party office” as he recovered.
“He worked miracles on my ankle, to be honest, and I can do things now that I never thought I’d be able to do after that, but playing football was not the best thing for it,” Long admitted.
Perhaps pushing it, Long made it back onto the field by Week 3 of the 2017 season. He managed to play in 10 straight games before landing on injured reserve again. And in the following offseason, he essentially lived in the operating room.
This time it was the neck, shoulder and elbow. Three separate surgeries.
“The (neck) fusion was probably the one that gave him pause. And gave us pause too. When he came out of that post-op with the neck brace on… not great,” Howie Long said. “You start getting your neck fused and you’re playing offensive guard and defensive tackles are 330 pounds and it’s impact every play. And it didn’t just happen on a Monday and he had the surgery on Tuesday. He was playing with it for over a year.”
Knowing these details now, no one would have blamed Long if he had hung up his cleats before the 2018 season. But there he was, back on the field for Week 1, starting seven straight games before landing on injured reserve for the third straight season, this time with a foot injury. Fortunately, Long was able to return from IR by Week 17 and played in his one and only NFL playoff game — coincidentally, against his brother, who was then with the Eagles. While the Bears lost that game, Long was finally able to go into an offseason without needing surgery, and he was finally on a winning team — his first since getting drafted in 2013.
So when Long was approached last February about restructuring his contract to remain a Bear, he didn’t hesitate. On Twitter, Long simply wrote three words: “Bear for life.”
When the Bears boarded their chartered plane to London in early October, no one knew it would be Kyle Long’s last NFL game. But it was a much different feeling on the ride home, as he sat across from Matt Nagy.
Just before the team left the J.W. Marriott in London to head to the airport, Nagy delivered a strong message to reporters: “I believe wholeheartedly in our guys, but we need to — every coach, every player — it’s time to start looking at themselves in the mirror and figuring out why you’re out there.”
Those words seem even more significant when you understand that eventually Long did exactly that, coming to a very honest conclusion that perhaps he shouldn’t be out there. But by placing Long on IR, the team made the first move, very publicly acknowledging they felt the same way.
“He would have liked for his career to have been longer and played in Chicago his entire career and been thought of in the same breath as guys like Jimbo Covert and all those guys, but while he was there, he made some waves,” Howie Long said.
Still, it was surprising that the Bears apparently didn’t want Long around the building the rest of the season. Perhaps an ugly August training camp incident in which he swung a helmet at a teammate’s head played a role in that outcome. But Long fully accepted responsibility for his actions and to his credit, does not hold any grudges towards the Bears. In fact, he simply sounds thankful that the organization gave him one more shot in 2019:
“I’ve been on IR for the last four years. I played my balls off for them for as long as I could until I couldn’t anymore, but the Bears did right by me by not cutting me, by not trading me, because I’ve always said I’m a one-team player and being a Chicago Bear is what makes me… me.”
A Bear for life.