Thanks to a strong and ever more fruitful relationship with the Chicago Bears, the Leo Lions got a sneak preview of the 2021 rookie class that will attempt to enhance the Bears’ status as a bona fide NFL playoff contender this season. 

On Friday, June 11, the Leo student body took part in a Zoom meet-and-greet with seven draft picks and 12 free agents who are vying for roster spots with the 2021 Bears. Leo Principal Shaka Rawls moderated the discussion. 

The players’ college experience covered a broad spectrum of the football universe: first-round pick Justin Fields, a quarterback, is from perennial powerhouse Ohio State, while free agent linebacker Caleb Johnson is from tiny Houston Baptist and running back C.J. Marable hails from Coastal Carolina.

What they had in common was a genuine desire to share with our young Leo Men the life experiences that have delivered them to the cusp of careers as professional athletes.

“Don’t be limited by being young Black men,” said Charles Snowden, a linebacker from the University of Virginia. “Always strive to be the best you can be. Find what you’re passionate about and pursue it. If you’re happy with where you are in life, if you’re comfortable in your own skin, then you’re successful.”

Fields sounded ready for the ups-and-downs that will be part of life for any rookie quarterback, particularly in Chicago, which does not exactly boast a glorious history at the position. 

“Nobody’s perfect, so you’re going to make mistakes,” the 22-year-old from Kennesaw, GA., said. “What’s important is to learn from them, use them to get better and don’t repeat them.”

Don’t follow the crowd was a recurring theme among the young Bears.

“Always know your company,” said cornerback Dionte Ruffin, a cornerback from Western Kentucky who grew up in a rough part of New Orleans. “Put yourself in good situations and avoid the situations that aren’t so good. A bullet doesn’t have anybody’s name on it.”

Echoed Marable, who grew up in Decatur, GA.,“Stay out of the way and don’t get involved if your boys are doing things that are not in your best interest. You’ve got goals, you know what you want to accomplish. It’s cool to be lame in that situation.”  

A question from Mr. Rawls about whom the young Bears looked up to as football players drew a wide range of replies. Retirees Ed Reed and LaDanian Tomlinson drew two votes apiece, as did quarterback Cam Newton. Old-timers such as Lawrence Taylor, Mean Joe Greene, Randall Cunnningham and Hines Ward were among the others receiving votes, along with usual suspects Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julio Jones and Tyrann Mathieu.

As the son of an educator, Daniel Archibong, a defensive lineman from Temple, expressed strong appreciation for the role of teachers in society. He also drew a favorable impression of Leo from the description of the school rising seniors James E’Akels and Jakolbi Wilson provided.

“It sounds like you’re in a school where you’re getting lots of opportunities, where you’re surrounded by people who really care about you and want what’s best for you,” he said. “Take advantage of that. Not everybody gets that opportunity.”

Another thought-provoking question: What would you be doing if you weren’t playing football?

“I’d be in social work,” said Teven Jenkins, a second-round pick from Oklahoma State who is likely to start at offensive tackle in place of recently released Charles Leno. “I’m not sure what field, but I’d be doing something to help people.” 

As would Snowden, a 23-year-old from Silver Springs, MD. “I’d be doing something related to social justice. Advocating for immigrants and marginalized communities.”

Wide receiver Khalil McClain gained experience as an entrepreneur while in college. “I used to cut my teammates’ hair at Troy (Ala.) State,” he said. “I was pretty good, and it put a little money in my pocket.”

Caleb Johnson would employ his creative gene. “I would be a writer,” he said. “I’ve always loved to read, and I love telling stories, gathering information and organizing it, trying to present it in a way that makes sense.

“I was a military kid,” Johnson added, “so we moved around a lot. I always had to adjust to new schools, new situations, new people, but I think those experiences made me a better person. You’re always more than a football player.” 

Ruffin shares that sentiment and passed it on to the Leo Men. “Football ends, no matter what level you reach,” he said. “What are you going to do then, after football? Have a plan and follow it. You still have to live your life and be productive.”