Akiem Hicks was leaving the Chicago Bears locker room at Halas Hall on Thursday afternoon when the lone Canadian reporter thanked him for an earlier 1-on-1 interview.
Such an opportunity is rare, given that the coverage, in the estimation of head coach Matt Nagy, has doubled in size since the end of the regular season.
The scrum around players this week has been about 20 media-types strong, as it was for Hicks a few moments after we chatted. I appreciated him inviting me to sit down for a quick visit before the crush.
“Any time, man,” said Hicks. “Any time at all.”
Just before disappearing, the 6-foot-5, 332-pound defensive tackle suddenly stopped and turned.
“Hey,” he said. “You got the exclusive of the day.”
Indeed. And included was a fun little yarn the gregarious seven-year vet from Elk Grove, Calif., has likely never before shared, for public consumption, regarding his two years at the University of Regina.
The hard-hitting question which delivered the big scoop: When you weren’t playing football, what did you do for fun in Saskatchewan?
“Fifty cent wing night,” Hicks answered with a hearty laugh. “Fifty cent wing night with the boys. We had an all day Owl. The Owl was the campus bar. We would go there at noon. And we would drink until there was one guy left. The guy who lasted the longest won.
“One day I drank 40 beers.”
What? Forty? Come on.
“I’ve never drank that many beers in my life,” said Hicks. “But those Canadians got me going, man. The drinking age was 19, so we had guys … oh, maybe this shouldn’t be in the article (more laughter). We had a good time, man. We had a really good time.”
But eight beers shy of two, two-fours? I know a lot of football fans back home reading this and saying “right on, mann, Hicks can hold his suds!”
“I was one of the last ones standing,” he said. “Let’s just say … oh, I’m going to put his name out there, let’s just say Stefan Charles wasn’t so lucky.”
Charles, an Oshawa native, was on the same Regina Rams D-Line as Hicks. He went on play three years with the Buffalo Bills and one with the Detroit Lions.
What happened to Charles that night?
“Oh man, he dropped off about 11, 11:30 p.m.,” Hicks said, with more laughter. “Just before The Owl started to get going.
“I’ll never forget those days, man. It was cool. I really enjoyed my time in Canada.”
For those who didn’t know, Hicks didn’t qualify academically to get a big-school NCAA scholarship when he came out of high school, so he played at Sacramento City Community College. As one of the top junior college players in U.S., he signed to play at LSU, which turned out to be guilty of recruiting violations that made him ineligible for the 2009 season.
He moved to Colorado to live with his sister and took a part-time job while figuring out his next move. The Toronto Argos offered him a contract, but Hicks wanted to continue his education.
Enter Regina head coach Frank McCrystal.
“Frank came down to Colorado and found me, and said ‘hey, I want you to play for my team,’ said Hicks. “First two times he came, I was like, ohh, I don’t know if I’m going to do it. The third time he came I said this man is serious, he wants me to be a part of his team, this is an opportunity for me, I’m going to take advantage of it.”
Opponents “game planned” for Hicks, but he was still selected by the New Orleans Saints in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft. And now, at the age of 29, he is a pillar on a Bears ‘D’ he says is “approaching greatness.”
Hicks remembers the “poutines and pierogies” he devoured during his time north of the border. And the “mushroom stuffs” he had at the Regina steakhouse near Albert St. mostly hanging out with teammates (“I’m the same way here,” he says), including the two who showed up for the Bears game in New York this season.
“I was out there warming up, and they were just going crazy in the stands,” said Hicks. “It was pretty cool.
“The thing about my situation during that time was, everybody knew I wasn’t from there, and I stood out like a sore thumb. The guys on the team did a good job of making me feel included, and just being extra friendly, like Canadians are. That made me feel comfortable and made me feel accepted.”
The cold weather notwithstanding, Hicks will always have a warm spot in his heart for Canada.
“I absolutely loved it, man,” he said. “Is Saskatchewan flat? Are there no mountain ranges? Are there things that other provinces have that Saskatchewan doesn’t have? Yes. But what Saskatchewan has is a football culture. They love football just as much as they love hockey.
“And when the University of Regina Rams step on the field, it’s going to be a show.”
(Don Brennan/Ottawa Sun)