Jordan Mills has come a long way.
From fifth-round draft pick to 16-game starter as a rookie. From the bayous of Southern Louisiana to the bright lights of Chicago. From small school to big city.
Mills made the journey with the courage, loyalty, teamwork, sportsmanship and sense of humor that led his teammates to vote him the rookie recipient of the Brian Piccolo Award. The award recognizes those qualities that the former Bears running back demonstrated before cancer took his life at the age of 26. Mills was honored Tuesday at Halas Hall, along with the veteran winner, quarterback Josh McCown, who signed with Tampa Bay in March.
Bears' offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, in his dual role last season as offensive line coach, had a unique view into Mills' development.
"What you see on TV is the football player," Kromer said. "You don't see where the guy comes from. You don't see the small town south of New Orleans. I've driven through there; there's one road in and one road out. He goes to high school (Assumption in Napoleonville, La., population: 660) with 12 other people his age."
Mills earned a scholarship to Louisiana Tech, following in the footsteps of his cousin, Tramon Williams, the Green Bay Packers' cornerback. After graduating, Mills was drafted by the Bears 163rd overall and went to his first training camp just hoping to make the team.
"(But) we need a right tackle," Kromer said. "Jordan Mills steps in at right tackle as a rookie, and plays every play until the Green Bay game."
In that game, Mills played the first series with a broken foot before informing coaches of the injury, which required surgery.
"That's the courage that he exemplifies," Kromer said. "That's why the team chose him. He's a great teammate. He plays next to another rookie, (right guard) Kyle Long, and those two rookies, working together with his calmness and Kyle's craziness, had a lot of success."
Mills has been lifting weights and doing light running since the Bears' off-season program began on April 22. He says he'll be full-go when organized team activities start May 26.
McCown isn't around Halas Hall anymore because he parlayed last season's spectacular relief work into a $10 million, two-year deal to become the Buccaneers' starter. He'll be greatly missed, according to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who accepted the award on behalf of his friend.
When Cutler suffered groin and ankle injuries last season McCown stepped in and finished with the third-highest passer rating (109.0) in the NFL, a testament to the long hours he put in, on and off the field. Cutler said that was only part of what made McCown a great teammate.
"He also helped anybody that crossed his path," Cutler said. "That's just the kind of guy he was. He truly wished the best for everybody in this organization … which is a rare quality."
McCown asked Cutler to pass along his apologies for not being present and his thanks to everyone in the organization but added, "It would be out of line with the spirit of the Brian Piccolo Award to leave my current teammates at what is such a crucial time in the building process this off-season."
That's McCown, the ultimate team-first guy.
"Josh helped the young offensive players from day one," Cutler said. "He was staying at the hotel with these kids (during last year's off-season program) because his family was back in North Carolina. It would have been very easy for him to close his room and call home and (just) talk to his family.
"But that was the opposite of Josh. He would have guys down there (in the hotel lobby), would order pizzas and just go through the offense, write it up on boards, just countless hours, until 9-10-11 o'clock at night working with these young players. (And) he was going to make sure he got his work done. He always did, and it showed on the field."
As much as the Bears will miss McCown, Cutler said no one is more deserving of the opportunity that he's earned.
"Josh didn't know how to say no when it came to helping people or extending himself," Cutler said. "That's a rare quality in people, especially in a world of selfies and hashtags.
"My only regret is I wish I would have met him earlier in life. It's very rare to find a teammate that not only makes you a better player, but a better person."
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