BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (AP) – Tommie Harris sang in the huddle and made it clear he would like to be known as the “Real Deal.”
The Chicago Bears’ Pro Bowl defensive tackle was ready to perform when training camp opened and that’s because he showed up healthy.
“I’m basically full tilt, something they better be aware of,” he said. “They better watch out for, yes.”
Although the Bears got to the Super Bowl after Harris suffered a season-ending hamstring injury last season, they realize his health will go a long way toward determining whether they make another run.
Harris has made it clear he feels fine. There are no restrictions on what he can do, and he was ready to prove that when camp began.
After all, he hasn’t played since Dec. 3.
The Bears beat Minnesota 23-13 that day to clinch the NFC North, but Harris left in the third quarter with what the team initially said was a sprained left knee. It turned out he also suffered a torn hamstring and needed surgery.
Harris had a career-high five sacks and 48 tackles and would ultimately be named to his second straight Pro Bowl, but a defense that had already lost safety Mike Brown to a foot injury six games in was missing two of its key players. And more bad news was coming.
Cornerbacks Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman missed time over the final month due to injuries, and there was Tank Johnson’s trouble. The defensive tackle was arrested on misdemeanor gun charges following a raid on his home, and less than 48 hours later, he was at a nightclub with a friend who was shot to death.
With the injuries and turmoil, a defense that had dominated suddenly looked vulnerable. It allowed an average of 364.7 yards over the final six games after giving up just 251.8 yards through the first 10, and its ranking fell from No. 1 to No. 5.
The Bears never really regained their swagger. Even though Chicago made that run to its first Super Bowl in 21 years, the Indianapolis Colts gained 430 yards of offense on a rain-soaked field in Miami to win the championship 29-17.
Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye wonders what might have happened if Harris and Brown had stayed healthy.
“It’s amazing to lose two Pro Bowlers and we still make it to the big game,” he said. “We lost them with some serious time left in the season, and to make the big game, it was a big step for us. To get them back, I think we’ll be that much better.”
To Ogunleye, keeping Harris healthy is the Bears’ “primary goal.”
When he saw Harris lining up at camp, one thought crossed Ogunleye’s mind.
“Thank God for that,” Ogunleye said. “I understand his name is the Real Deal; I’m all for that.”
So is coach Lovie Smith: “He is the real deal. I’ll say that.”
Harris said that was his nickname in high school, and he would repeat it to himself after breaking the huddle during his first three years with the Bears. Now, he’s going public with it.
“I’ve always been called that,” Harris said. “In my mind I would say ‘Real Deal, Real Deal’ when I’m running out of the huddle, but now everybody’s starting to say that, so hopefully I can show that. I play better when I hear that.”
Although he participated in offseason workouts, Harris has some rust to scrape away. And the Bears aren’t as deep as they were last season at defensive tackle.
Backups Ian Scott and Alfonso Boone left as free agents, and Johnson is gone, too. The Bears finally decided they had seen enough when Arizona police pulled him over shortly after offseason workouts ended. It was another in a long list of run-ins with the law for Johnson, who had served two months in jail on the gun charges and was suspended the first eight games of the season by the NFL.
Antonio Garay, Dusty Dvoracek and Anthony Adams will get looks at defensive tackle.
“Now, it’s back to business, back to (where it) feels just like the first day of camp last year,” Harris said. “You’re getting out there, your stance isn’t quite right, everything’s not polished up yet. So I’m working it off right now. I’ve got the sandpaper and I’m filing everything down so pretty soon I’ll put on the finisher.”