Danny Trevathan can’t say exactly how many tattoos he has across his body, from his neck to his feet. He lost count, he says, somewhere around 55.
But the Bears inside linebacker will profess that his most meaningful ink — and also his most recent tattoo — was drawn onto his right calf this spring, a sketch of Samson alongside a Bible.
“That’s for strength,” the former University of Kentucky star said. “It’s a reminder to keep my mindset and not let things in the world get me out of line. You can’t become too complacent with where you’re at in life.
“What stuck out to me is that Samson had so much temptation. There’s always temptation in this world wanting you to mess up, wanting you to go the opposite way. But as long as you keep your eyes forward and keep your faith, you’ll be all right.”
This much is obvious about Trevathan, one of the new faces and emotional catalysts of a renovated Bears defense: focus and perspective are rarely a problem. So when Trevathan looks back on an eventful 2016 that already includes a Super Bowl victory and the subsequent four-year, $24.5 million payday he landed during free agency, he instinctively looks forward.
“I want more paydays,” he says. “I want more rings. I want it all. I don’t want to settle.”
Plus Trevathan feels an extra adrenaline spike these days realizing the inside linebacker operating next to him each day is another newcomer with a driven edge. Jerrell Freeman, the other half of the new attack at the position, is himself ready to roll, fully confident in his skills and his commanding voice.
Throughout the first two weeks of training camp, Trevathan and Freeman have been lumped together as a packaged pair of playmakers, the recipients of an ongoing love-fest from coaches and teammates who are certain their union has added swagger to the defense.
Coordinator Vic Fangio may be the greatest authority on the topic, sincere in his eagerness to turn loose a pair of pit bulls who not only embody the prototypical instincts he wants but who also bring an advanced understanding of the game that wasn’t present a year ago.
That’s not a shot at last year’s starters, including Shea McClellin, Christian Jones, Jonathan Anderson and John Timu. It just is what it is.
“We have accomplished inside linebackers who have played in the NFL,” Fangio said, “whereas last year we were playing with guys who really never had played that position in the NFL before.”
Lights, camera, action
Make no mistake, as much as Trevathan and Freeman continue to be coupled, they’re not twins. Trevathan has the stylish dreads, Freeman the bald pate.
Trevathan offers more speed and versatility in pass coverage while Freeman can be the more forceful in-the-box run stopper.
Trevathan raves about Freeman’s vision, the way he sees plays unfolding and attacks accordingly. Freeman reciprocates with heartfelt praise for Trevathan’s athleticism and IQ.
So yes, with a little more than a month until the season opener in Houston, the Bears are excited to raise the curtain on this new-look defense.
Yet while August hype remains ubiquitous around the NFL, it must be properly contextualized. So it’s worth noting that in eight combined NFL seasons neither Trevathan nor Freeman ever has been invited to a Pro Bowl. Neither was the show-stopping star in their previous defense.
Still, as Coach John Fox would say, the duo has “skins on the wall,” proven success as productive NFL starters. And their collective savvy has been evident.
Akiem Hicks, the defensive end asked to be the inside linebackers’ bodyguard up front, finds himself constantly entertained during film review. In live action, Hicks can’t see the relentless activity of the two linebackers behind him. Then the video rolls and Hicks marvels at their speed, athleticism and willingness to take on offensive linemen.
“Sometimes you feel it,” Hicks said. “When you feel a guy come off a double team early and you’re just fighting one guy and you get to make a tackle, you’re like, ‘(One blocker) must’ve come off me because Danny came off the corner really fast.’ You appreciate it.”
Smell of success
For an insider’s scouting report on Trevathan’s impact, the most colorful assessment comes from right guard Kyle Long, already enamored with the tone-setting presence the inside linebacker brings.
Says Long: “Danny’s kind of a quiet guy, but he’s one of those guys who has an aura about him. … He looks sharp every day, like he just left a video shoot or something. Then, you see him on the field and you block him and he smells good. He wears cologne. You get caught up in the aroma and you get hit under the chin.”
For the record, Trevathan notes, it’s usually a splash of Chanel Bleu. Or sometimes Dior. But that pop under the chin? Well, that’s a double-spritz of passion and hunger.
“He has this great energy to him,” General Manager Ryan Pace said. “You meet guys like that. He just lights up a room. The practices are energized because of him.”
Freeman, meanwhile, has his own tenacity. And as his game further meshes with Fangio’s system, he will earn greater opportunity to freelance, to use his instincts to attack.
“This can be a pretty linebacker-friendly defense,” Freeman said. “But you have to really know what’s going on out there and when to take your chances. You can’t go to the casino when the odds for you are 20 percent. You can’t take that chance.”
Trevathan and Freeman already satisfy Fox’s prerequisites as smart, tough players who love the game. But both are earning extra credit for their insatiable hunger to prove doubters wrong. That, Pace acknowledges, was part of the attraction in signing each this March.
Despite leading the Southeastern Conference in tackles during his final two seasons at Kentucky, Trevathan was knocked as undersized and waited for 187 other players to be drafted in 2012 before the Broncos selected him.
Bears cornerback Tracy Porter, in Denver when Trevathan arrived, was almost instantly mystified.
“Look, I’m not an NFL scout,” Porter said. “By no means. But even as a rookie, I watched the way he played and the way he caught on to the game as a young guy, I said to myself, ‘One day that guy is going to go somewhere and get paid.’ All the talent in the world. And he’s so eager to learn.”
Freeman took an even more circuitous path toward his NFL breakthrough, undrafted in 2008, then having the Titans cut him twice before he spent three seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL. He finally landed a starting job with the Colts in 2012.
Even now, more than eight years after his college career at Mary Hardin-Baylor ended, Freeman has asked members of the Bears scouting department where they had him graded coming out. Undrafted free agent, they have told him.
Freeman laughs, but only half-amused.
“It’s like, ‘All right, man.’ And that chip just stays right there.”
So yes, darn right that Fangio and Fox appreciate such a sharp long-term memory, understanding the motivational fuel it provides. Still.
“I’m not knocking Canadian Football,” Fox said, “but he lived in Saskatchewan.”
The next step
From Fangio’s perch, the synergy Trevathan and Freeman have achieved since the spring continues to strengthen.
“It’s thinking alike and understanding football,” Freeman said. “And if one of us gets out of position the other knows how to cover for it. … I see it on film, us seeing the same things. Just rocking back and forth, no false steps. You watch that on film and I’m like, ‘OK, I got my guy right here.’”
Trevathan also believes he knows both the blueprint and the sweat equity required to build a championship defense. He was, after all, the leading tackler on the league’s best defense last season. And on the first Sunday of February, he recorded eight tackles while recovering two fumbles in the Broncos’ 24-10 Super Bowl win over the Panthers.
In the glorious aftermath, Trevathan lost his cell phone inside Levi’s Stadium. So there’s no telling how many congratulatory texts and voice messages he never received. But amid all the confetti and euphoria, Trevathan celebrated with two of the most important ladies in his life.
The hug from his 2-year-old daughter Danoir melted him, as it so often does, a reminder that he’s always playing for a greater purpose.
An even more emotional embrace followed with his mom, Michelle Hicks, whose eyes welled as she processed all her son has accomplished.
“Just spectacular,” Trevathan said. “To share that moment with somebody who has given you birth, given you everything and sacrificed all throughout life for you, it was amazing, man.”
Michelle’s own mom, Trevathan’s grandmother, has been in a vicious fight with breast cancer. And the toll of that illness has hit Trevathan hard. He’s pushing to relocate his grandmother from Akron, Ohio, to his home outside of Chicago soon so he can keep her as comfortable as possible.
That tattoo on his right calf offers perspective, the cue for Trevathan to stay grounded, to utilize his strength. His purpose off the field remains a priority. On it, he’s itching to join Freeman in putting their fingerprints onto the Bears linebacker legacy.
“We’ll bring a hunger, man,” Trevathan promised. “Knowing where this defense has been the last couple of years, we know the expectations. And we’re ready to attack. Create havoc out there. And have fun.”