CHICAGO — For nearly 30 minutes Sunday, Bears rookie right guard Kyle Long sat in front of his locker at Soldier Field, in full uniform except for his cleats. Most of those minutes he spent staring straight ahead, thinking about what could have been in the Bears' 21-19 loss to the Lions.
During that time, every one of his Bears teammates showered. Many dressed and left the locker room, parading past him and out into the crisp autumn afternoon. While Long sat, equipment men threw dirty uniforms into bins and wheeled them away. Pads and helmets were packed in huge duffel bags and removed from sight. Almost every locker was left barren.
Long was lost in thought. Eventually, he cut off his tape, removed his jersey and shoulder pads, and showered. And after he left the locker room, in a stadium so empty you could hear an echo, he explained why he was the last to leave.
"Reflection," he said. "You go back and you think about the third downs. You think about the plays you wish you could have back. This game is unforgiving. Take one wrong step, somebody comes free and your running back gets hit for a loss, and your defense is asked to go back out there on the field and stop a tremendous offense. You know the block I didn't make is responsible for things. That's hard to swallow."
Long talked about a fourth-quarter running play in which he blew his assignment. On first down from the Bears' 36, with Detroit leading by one and 6:20 remaining, Long had stayed on a double team of Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh rather than releasing to block DeAndre Levy. The linebacker subsequently tackled Matt Forte for a loss of one.
That was one play out of the 78 that Long played. The story of his game is not that one play, though. It is many other plays, plays that showed how much he has grown in the six short weeks since the Bears' first loss to the Lions, a game Long says was his worst of the season.
Long allowed Bleacher Report exclusive access to chronicle his preparation for the rematch against Detroit, and Suh. This is how his week played out.
Long arrives back at his suburban Chicago home at 2 a.m. after a Monday night game in Green Bay, and he does not get to sleep for another couple of hours. But he is back at Halas Hall at 8:30 a.m., reviewing the tape of the victory over the Packers.
He focuses on recovery today. Cold tub, hot tub, steam room and massage are part of his normal routine. And sleep—at least eight hours a night.
Eight games into his initial NFL season (12 if you count preseason), Long already has played more snaps than in any previous season in his life. He played only one season of major college football—and started only five games at Oregon. But he says he feels fresh, and he is not sore.
"I'll run through that wall right now," he says, quite believably.
After fulfilling a couple of media obligations, Long heads home to watch the television broadcast of the game, as he does the day after every game. But by the third quarter, he is sound asleep. Three hours later at about 5 p.m., he wakes up thinking it's the middle of the night. Monday night games are hell on the body.
He grabs a bite to eat and spends a couple hours playing Call of Duty: Ghosts, the just-released video game.
Lined up for a practice play at Halas Hall, Long notices middle linebacker Jonathan Bostic aligned more to his left than the offense had been expecting. He turns to veteran center Roberto Garza and blurts out a line call, yelling for a change to a four-man slide. Garza gives him a double take. So Long makes the call again. It is the first time the rookie has been so bold, and so comfortable, as to make a call. It usually is Garza's job.
"I wasn't expecting that," Garza says. "But he's really stepped up. It's fun to see the growth."
Says Long, "I was so excited, I was like a little kid. I'm starting to see things and understand what defenses are doing and what we're doing schematically."
This offensive line business is all new to Long. The son of former Raiders defensive end Howie Long and brother of Rams defensive end Chris Long, Kyle Long was a defensive lineman until two years ago, when he switched sides at Saddleback Community College.
Long will need to continue to show improvement this week. The Bears' opponent is the Lions, and when they last met, Long did not have a good day. He says it was his worst game, by far.
Long's primary assignment that week and this week, is neutralizing Suh. In their first meeting, Suh had two sacks when Long was blocking him (one was on a loop-around), and Long was called for a costly illegal-use-of-hands penalty.
Bears offensive line coach Aaron Kromer says Long's technique was sloppy in that game, and Suh is too talented for any opponent to get away with sloppy technique. "He's the most disruptive, active guy I've played against," Long says. "The thing he does is bring it all together. He's the total package. The thing that separates him is his attention to detail and his relentless effort. But he wakes up in the morning and pees like I do."
So Long watches that game, every play of it, every day this week. "It still gets my blood boiling," he says. "There are a lot of things I wish I did differently. I didn't play with the confidence I usually play with. I'm going to take all the steps I need to make sure I have my bases covered this week. It's a blessing we get to play them again."
To get his mind off the consuming challenge in front of him, Long takes on left tackle Jermon Bushrod at Halas Hall in the soccer video game FIFA 14. Bushrod beats him handily, so Long gets a rematch. Bushrod wins in a shootout. He takes satisfaction in the progress.
Once Long gets home, it's back to work, as he watches more tape and fills out his study guide.
Long has a healthy respect for the history of the game, which is fitting for the son of a Hall of Famer.
In between meetings at Halas Hall, Long takes note of a photograph of former Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus on the wall. He asks Kromer about him, and they talk a little about great linebackers in history.
After practice, Long heads to Soldier Field for an appearance to promote a book about the 1985 Super Bowl champion Bears. He signs a lot of autographs and talks with a number of Bears fans. And unlike many professional athletes, Long shows as much appreciation for them as they show for him.
One man in particular stands out. His name is Al, and he was a season-ticket holder long before Long was born. "Here he was, about 75 years old, all decked out in Bears stuff," Long says. "What a great guy. He was like a microcosm of the city. When I envision a lifelong Bears fan, that's the guy I'll see in my head from now on. It's kind of humbling to me. I'm just starting out in this thing, and there are so many people who have so much invested in the team."
Earlier this season, Long had a chance to meet former Bears center Olin Kreutz, though it didn't exactly go as Long had hoped. Kreutz is a legend in the offensive line room at Halas Hall, and Long holds him in high esteem.
Long parked his car at the restaurant for the weekly dinner among offensive linemen, and he saw a man he thought was teammate Matt Slauson in the distance. Long yelled across the parking lot, razzing him about his freshly shaved face. Except it wasn't Slauson. It was Kreutz.
"He didn't respond," Long says. "He walked up to me, and as he got closer, I realized, 'Oh my gosh, that's Olin Kreutz and I'm making fun of him.' Immediately, I said, 'I'm so sorry, sir. I had no idea it was you. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.'"
Garza didn't stop laughing about it the whole dinner. But Long still appreciated the night.
"Olin started a great tradition here of tough, blue-collar offensive linemen who have a passion and respect for the game," he says. "He passed the torch to Garza. Hopefully, in a few years, I'll be able to help keep the flame going with the other guys we have here."
Long named his beagle/bulldog mix puppy Walter, after Walter Payton. "He's getting out of the puppy stage where he's confused, and developing his own personality," Long says of the four-and-a-half month old. "He's jumping around from couch to couch, getting more adventurous as the days go by."
What is that they say about dogs taking after their owners?
Temperatures are in the low 40s, so Long sheepishly asks head coach Marc Trestman if it's OK to wear sweatpants. Why ask?
Long has not worn sweatpants since his first practice as a Bear, back at rookie camp in May. That day, Trestman told the rookies it was OK to warm up in sweats, but they had to change to shorts once live reps began. "I was so fired up for my first day, flying around, not listening to anything," Long said. "So I didn't take my sweats off."
As Long lined up for his first ever snap in a Bears uniform, Trestman starting yelling. "Hold on! Timeout! Get me a right guard!" Long was sent to the sidelines to remove his sweatpants.
Since that day, Long has become known for his highly enthusiastic approach that sometimes needs a little focus. The other players get a kick out of his frenetic nature. Quarterback Jay Cutler has been known to crack up in the huddle watching Long figure out what to do with himself.
"He has a ton of energy," Kromer says. "He's bouncing off the walls a lot. We'll be warming up for practice and he's jumping up and down. It's like, 'Calm down Kyle, we have two-and-a-half hours of practice here. Let's just work on our techniques.' But he loves to play, and he loves to get better."
Already, though, Long has shown leadership qualities, blending in well without being ingratiating. In the Bears' first offseason minicamp meeting, he walked the rookie linemen to the second row and asked if they could sit behind the quarterbacks. And he has become an enforcer on the field.
"He has natural people skills they teach in seminars," Bears general manager Phil Emery said. "He knows how to fit in the group and he cuts across all demographics and situations."
After a brief morning walkthrough, Long spends some time with his mother, Diane, who has flown to see each of his Bears games. Long says brother Chris has no right to be envious because mom already has seen so many of his pro games over the previous five years. And besides, Chris has a wife in the stands; Kyle is single.
After a lifetime of watching his mother prepare meals, Long can cook a bit himself. But not like his Italian mom. "You watch her: It's a craft," he says. "I love smelling that garlic in the air. I feel the smells and tastes are what bring a house together, especially after a long day's work."
Tonight, though, it's a sushi restaurant.
Long is very close with his family. He tries to talk with his mom and dad and two brothers every day. Howie can't come to Kyle's games because of his responsibilities as a studio analyst for Fox, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have a strong bond with his middle son. When Kyle is finished with a game and he checks his text messages, he finds a long list of texts from his father, who shoots them off as plays are happening.
As a player, though, Kyle is trying to be a little less like dear old dad. "His dad played defense, and defense is all about aggression and momentum," Kromer says. "Offensively, you have to play with more leverage. Seeing Kyle was a defensive player for most of his life, it's a constant battle to try to get him to use controlled leverage as opposed to momentum."
Long is back at the team hotel and ready for bed by 10 p.m. Neither he nor his roommate, Jordan Mills, wants to be the last one asleep, because both say the other snores. Mills wins the race, but Long still gets a good amount of shuteye.
This game day starts like all game days for Long, with a plate of spaghetti and red sauce, and a chicken breast.
But the rest of the day won't be like any other game day he has experienced so far.
It's an all-day battle for Long, both with Suh and fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Early in the second quarter, Long points out to an official that Fairley is grabbing his helmet. "There are so many hands going on that sometimes you might grab a facemask," he says. "Anything past that is kind of bush-league." After the next play, Fairley and Long have a brief scuffle.
On the same drive, Long plows Suh several yards away from a Matt Forte run, but Suh pins Long's arm against him and slings him to the ground after the play. Long goes straight for Suh and pats him on the rear. "It was a good move on his part," Long says. "I told him, 'Let's keep going.' It's fun to play against a good player like that."
Long and Fairley keep the conversation going throughout the game, and even have an exchange after the game. "I think he has a crush on me," Long says, laughing. "He is a nuisance, and I mean that in the best way possible.
Both Lions defensive tackles make some big plays in the game, but Long is responsible for giving up none of them. He acquits himself very well in a 21-19 Lions victory. Fox analyst Daryl Johnston praises Long during the broadcast for staying square so much better than he did earlier in the season.
"He's come on," Garza says. "Now he knows what he's doing on plays. Every week he's more comfortable with the offense. Once you know which way you're going, it helps. You can see he's more comfortable with his technique. There is some growth there. He was battling Suh every single play."
Despite the loss, and despite a few missed opportunities, even Long acknowledges what he did wasn't half bad, especially compared to his first shot against the Lions. "The last time we played I didn't use my hands in pass protection," he says. "I gave him a couple free shots to my chest with his hands, which in turn made me lose leverage. I felt better this time. I was able to play with a lot more confidence and play within my techniques."
But it isn't the victories within the loss Long will carry with him. It is the frustration from missed opportunities, the disappointment over what could have been in a critical NFC North loss.
Milestones aren't always easy to recognize as they happen. Someday, though, Kyle Long will look back at this game, and this week, and understand.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.