How the Bears are preparing Caleb Williams for NFL life

Rookie minicamp begins next week at Halas Hall

Chicago Bears No. 1 draft pick quarterback Caleb Williams smiles as he listens to reporters during an NFL football news conference in Lake Forest, Ill., Friday, April 26, 2024.

For 257 recently drafted football players, this is a hectic time.

All 257 draft picks, plus countless other undrafted rookies, are making plans to move their entire lives to new cities with new teams. From Bears No. 1 pick Caleb Williams down to “Mr. Irrelevant” – safety Jaylen Key, the 257th overall pick of the Jets – this will be a time of great transition.

Most of these athletes are in their early 20s. They usually aren’t too familiar with the city where their new team resides. There’s a lot to learn beyond just a new playbook.

That’s why teams across the league keep a director of player engagement to help players transition to their new homes.

“We all go through things in life,” Bears director of player engagement Erika Marmolejo told Shaw Local. “We all navigate life differently. Being able to help each other through that journey and guys come in very young – think back to when you were a 20-year-old, you know? We’re all just trying to evolve and grow together and allowing each other the safe space to do that.”

Teams provide all sorts of educational information for NFL rookies. The NFL lists four pillars of player engagement on its website: continuing education, financial literacy, professional development, and personal development. The goal is to give them as many tools to succeed off the field as they have to succeed on it.

Teams assist with just about anything players need, including help finding housing or support for members of their families. Teams often provide veteran mentors for rookies to work with.

“Here, I know we have a really strong support system from the executive staff with a holistic approach,” Marmolejo said of the Bears. “So we’re able to hone in on that and that basically talks about different resources we provide to the players. We have a resource guide we provide them. The city, how to navigate the city. The suburbs out here. Housing transition. We work with their families very closely to help acclimate them as well.”

Marmolejo works with all players, rookies and veterans. Free agent additions often need help in some of the same areas as rookies.

A former college softball player at Azusa Pacific University, Marmolejo began her NFL journey working for the Oakland Raiders in 2016. She joined the Bears during the pandemic season in 2020.

The rookie program is all about education. The Bears will host rookie minicamp next week. All five 2024 draft picks, plus several undrafted free agents and a whole host of rookie tryouts will converge at Halas Hall for rookie minicamp.

As part of minicamp, the Bears will usually take the rookies on a tour of Chicago, giving them a look at Soldier Field and downtown Chicago, and helping orient them in their new city.

No. 9 overall pick Rome Odunze is at least a little bit familiar with the city. Odunze used to visit his aunt in Chicago growing up. He idolized Hall of Fame return man Devin Hester and his first NFL jersey was Brian Urlacher’s No. 54. Odunze even once attended the Chicago Air and Water Show.

“It’s crazy, it really is,” Odunze said during his introductory news conference last week. “It’s kind of surreal just because all of those things are coincidences, right? But you start thinking about it and it’s like, man, is it really a coincidence? All of these different things, these coincidences happen and now I’m here. It just makes it that much more special and it kind of seems like it was meant to be.”

On top of moving their lives to a new city, the rookies will have much more attention on them. That’s especially the case for Williams, the No. 1 pick out of USC.

Williams might be the most pro-ready rookie quarterback of all time, in some ways. He made an estimated $10 million from NIL endorsements last season. He was practically a pro quarterback already in 2023.

The pressure is about to build on the 22-year-old rookie QB. Chicago has huge expectations on his shoulders. The Bears have built this team around him, adding offensive weapons like Odunze and veteran receiver Keenan Allen.

Marmolejo said that with any player, the goal is to normalize this process as much as possible. USC head coach Lincoln Riley coached Williams his entire college career, both at Oklahoma and USC. Riley said the media attention exploded when Williams transferred from Oklahoma to USC. The Trojans put a plan in place to help Williams navigate that pressure, even calling up former USC stars to be a sounding board for Williams.

“The hard thing with a guy like that is even if you compare it to a Matt Leinart or some of these other guys that have done phenomenal here, Carson Palmer and on down the line, the world has changed a lot since those guys played,” Riley said. “The amount of attention on these guys has changed a lot since those guys played, and doing what he did in this city, in this era, there’s still a little bit of an unprecedented feel to it.”

The spotlight is only going to be stronger in the NFL. Riley said Williams’ family does a great job of keeping him grounded. The Bears are hoping to provide every resource possible to Williams and all the rookie newcomers.

When you prepare mentally and physically, and spiritually for moments like this, when you actually are in the moment, you don’t feel fazed. You don’t feel nervous. You don’t feel the butterflies or anything like that. You’re ready for it.”

—  Caleb Williams, Bears quarterback

The Bears know there are going to be a ton of eyeballs on Williams. Once the games start, everybody will have an opinion on how he’s playing.

But that has always been the case with Williams, who was a prized recruit as a freshman in high school.

“When you prepare mentally and physically, and spiritually for moments like this, when you actually are in the moment, you don’t feel fazed,” Williams said. “You don’t feel nervous. You don’t feel the butterflies or anything like that. You’re ready for it.”

Sean Hammond

Sean Hammond

Sean is the Chicago Bears beat reporter for the Shaw Local News Network. He has covered the Bears since 2020. Prior to writing about the Bears, he covered high school sports for the Northwest Herald and contributed to Friday Night Drive. Sean joined Shaw Media in 2016.