Can David Montgomery Save the Bears?

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterOctober 9, 2019


CHICAGO — Anxiety is reaching an all-time high. As it should be.

The radio airwaves should be electric. The boo birds at Soldier Field should be quick to fly. The pressure on the Bears to win should be growing. And growing.      

Because these Bears, undoubtedly, should be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

A generation of fans tortured by the franchise 200 miles north is desperate to find reasons to believe. With every play, they ask themselves: Is this the stuff of champions? These are the types of plays our '85 legends made, right?

Khalil Mack makes them believe. Shoulder-dipping around Riley Reiff with the torque of a Maserati for a strip sack before then ravaging a Vikings double-team—inside help couldn't even save Reiff—to tomahawk Kirk Cousins down, he may be the closest we'll ever see to another Lawrence Taylor.

And how about Roy Robertson-Harris (who?), side-steppin' a guard with ease before lassoing Cousins and breaking into the robot? Or Nick Williams (huh?), bench-pressing the Vikings' offensive line as if it's a plateless barbell for two sacks? He was out of football two years ago. Or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, pick-sixing the Redskins one moment, staging a game of tug of war in the end zone the next? Or Sherrick McManis, punching the ball out at the goal line in London against Oakland?

Such is the theme. In Chicago, it's defense, defense, defense, a problem pretty much every team this side of Patrick Mahomes would gladly accept.

Sooner or later, though, the Bears need an offensive player to make them believe.

A threat. Something. Anything.

Those '85 Bears suffocated offenses, no question, but they also boasted a running back named Walter Payton.

These Bears need their own version of that.

And that player needs to be David Montgomery, because, frankly, he just may have the potential to be the closest thing to Payton the Bears have had since the Hall of Famer retired 32 years ago.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 06: David Montgomery #32 of the Chicago Bears celebrates after rushing in his team's first touchdown during the match between the Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on October 06, 2019 in London, Engla
Jack Thomas/Getty Images

Sound like hyperbole? Take it from the man who'd know best: Payton's son, Jarrett, who himself played running back at the University of Miami and is now a fixture in the Bears' local media scene. He calls Montgomery a Swiss Army knife who coach Matt Nagy can use everywhere—"Put Montgomery in and watch him spin!"

Back in June, while at a wedding in Iowa, Jarrett saw on his phone that Montgomery had included his Twitter handle in a tweet saying he was watching clips of Walter:

So Jarrett sent the eager rookie more clips to absorb, and Montgomery has not stopped.

One trait stands out, above all others, to Montgomery.

"His will," Montgomery says, "in not wanting to go down."

And what does Montgomery want to separate himself from other NFL backs?

Simple: "My will to not go down and not give up."

Jarrett thinks it's not so far-fetched, adding that Montgomery "has something special, man. It's hard not to see when you watch him in games."

For Montgomery, this Payton-like element to his approach to running—this refusal to leave any inch on the field—is natural. It's a direct extension of his life.

He thinks of his friend, who was murdered. He thinks of Cincinnati. The poverty. The times his family needed to open the oven just to stay warm, and the times they'd buy gallons of water and boil it to fill the tub. He thinks about his brother, still locked away in prison.

Montgomery is not sure what his ceiling is in the NFL, nor is it something he thinks much about. Nagy has relied on him more and more, perhaps a reaction to his team scoring one touchdown on its first 24 possessions this season.

Montgomery now has two touchdowns, though he was thoroughly stuffed by both the Vikings (2.5 yards per carry) and Raiders (2.3) the past two weeks.

For his part, he says he simply wants "to grow" as a playmaker within this offense.

That won't be enough now. The Bears need more.

Fans have seen epic defenses spoiled enough.

Growing up in Cincinnati hardened him. "The struggle," he calls it. "Being poor." As his family bounced from home to home, with his parents laid off from job to job, Montgomery makes it clear that Mom and Dad "never stopped." Every time they were knocked down, they found a way to get back up.

Montgomery cannot even count how many houses he lived in growing up. For three years of high school, he even lived with one of his best friends to alleviate the burden on his parents.

He remembers the water getting shut off some days, the electricity and gas on others. Hence, the improvising.

The only goal then, he recalls, was to not go to sleep hungry.

He doesn't view such facts as revelations.

"That's the normal in Cincinnati," Montgomery says. "Of course the crime rate is what it is."

Indeed, in Cincinnati, your odds of becoming a victim of a violent or property crime is around one in 16, according to Neighborhood Scout.

Odds Montgomery lived up close.

First, he lost Vince Turnage. Vince is the reason Montgomery flashes what appears to be a peace sign after touchdowns—"V's up," he calls it. Vince wasn't only his older brother Jared's best friend; he was also a mentor for Montgomery and many others at Mt. Healthy High School. "The neighborhood hero," Montgomery calls him. "That role model."

A star and team captain across multiple sports who was on a track and field scholarship at Akron, the 19-year-old Turnage was murdered in a home invasion the morning of November 17, 2013.

Turnage was back that weekend to watch Mt. Healthy win a state playoff game over Winton Woods, to watch sophomore QB David Montgomery supply the heroics. Montgomery overcame multiple interceptions that night to punch in one touchdown on a QB sneak and throw the game-winner, a deep bomb up the right sideline.

Then, Turnage was gone. Shot once in the head, police said, while trying to help his girlfriend escape the invasion through a basement door. Gunmen were holding his family at gunpoint upstairs through the robbery. While Turnage's girlfriend identified Damon Kirkendall as the killer, Judge Melba Marsh determined there was not sufficient evidence for a guilty verdict—there was no DNA or forensics linking him to the shooting—and the defense maintained she misidentified their client. Kirkendall was acquitted a year later.

The family, Montgomery and everyone in the community never received closure.

Montgomery, sitting in the Bears locker room, takes a deep breath.

"That...that sucked," he says. "But it created me. It gave me a different drive—a hunger—to be even better than I was the day before."

LANDOVER, MARYLAND - SEPTEMBER 23: David Montgomery #32 of the Chicago Bears warms up against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on September 23, 2019 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Then in 2015, his brother, Maceo Feltha, was convicted of a murder, which, per court documents, was the result of a drug dispute, and sentenced to 15 years to life. 

This all rocked Montgomery's family more than anything in their home getting shut off and was going down right when Montgomery was preparing for college.

So at Iowa State, when he wasn't rushing for 2,925 yards and 26 touchdowns in three years, Montgomery worked to raise money for Maceo's commissary account, money that helped his brother make phone calls to the outside world. He'd typically give him $100 every two weeks.

Montgomery acknowledges he doesn't know what went down but believes his brother, who has said his confession of guilt was coerced but was denied an appeal when he failed to testify on his own behalf. "People say what they say," Montgomery says, "and I believe what I believe."

And now Montgomery has hope. While declining to go into details, he says his family is working on finding a lawyer to appeal the case and is confident they'll win this time.

"It's all in the works. Everything will work out the way it needs to," Montgomery says, adding of Feltha: "He's a good guy. I love him."

In going through all of this, Montgomery created his own identity, maturing into a person determined to serve. Going first-team All Big 12 was nice, and so was getting drafted 73rd overall by Chicago in April, but becoming an Eagle Scout back in high school is right up there on his list of accomplishments. He still cherishes this as much as anything, because being a scout taught him how to be a man.

To officially become an Eagle Scout, Montgomery spearheaded a drive raising items for the homeless, for the people in Cincinnati struggling worse than he was. "You hate seeing stuff like that," he says. "Seeing people not having anything. So you try to help as much as possible."

At Iowa State, Montgomery famously became very close to a six-year-old named Hunter Erb, who was suffering from a heart condition called pulmonary vein stenosis, where veins carrying blood from the lungs to heart become partially blocked.

He's naturally drawn to people in need. His first instinct is to help wherever help is needed.

To give people hope.

The quarterback the Bears are pinning so much of their future on, the one not named Mahomes or Watson but who was taken ahead of both in the 2017 draft, walks through the locker room, grinning ear to ear on this day in mid-September. Never mind that the city is going nuclear over his rocky performance in Denver a few days prior.

Mitchell Trubisky is a force of positivity. Always. And, damn, is he excited about Montgomery and everything Montgomery is bringing this team. His love for the game. His "workmanlike" mentality every practice. His running style, which Trubisky calls "fearless."

"He can make you miss," Trubisky says, "or he can run you over. He's got outstanding balance. He's a balanced all-around back. He wants to go in there, do his job, and he's all for the team. He's been awesome."

Trubisky knows all about Montgomery's upbringing—"he's just special"—and says he sees Montgomery's selfless nature up close every day.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Two games later, against Minnesota, Trubisky suffered a shoulder injury, which only increased Montgomery's value and magnified the player that life in Cincy created.

A running back who won't go down easy.

He's no burner, as a 4.63 time in the 40 at the combine revealed, but nothing about Payton seemed elite, either. Not at first glance. Instead, there was a raw toughness to Payton, his son says. The same thing he sees now in Montgomery. Like his father, Montgomery will fight. And fight. And force two, three, four guys to bring him down.

"His toughness on the football field just screams what my dad was all about," Jarrett Payton says. "He does not shy away from anything."

And when you don't have that 4.3 speed or a 235-pound frame, you need something...special. Something unique. Jarrett's father wasn't a back who'd shoot out of a cannon, either, but he did possess a stutter step, scissors kick, high step. Whatever you want to call it, this is how Payton kept tacklers off-balance. It was a revolutionary move.

In Montgomery, Jarrett sees something different too: rapid, choppy feet.

In tight quarters, his feet never stop moving.

"That's the special part of his game: His feet are so good," Payton says. "That's why he can take that contact, that first contact, and eat it up like it's some cereal and keep going for more yards. Love it."

He sees that same "determination" in Montgomery, that "vision of where he wants to be." That's why Jarrett Payton is right with Bears fans hoping this can be the next offensive player to complement a defensive machine.

Jarrett hopes Nagy will give the rookie the ball as much as possible, because he can run inside, he can run outside, he can be the one who slams the door shut on a win with four minutes to go, which will be crucial as the weather turns in the Windy City. A defense that held offenses to an NFL-low 17.7 points per game last season is holding them to 13.8 this season.

When the Bears get a lead, all they'll need to do is protect it.

With Montgomery, maybe they can.

Trubisky isn't the only one who sees potential greatness. Wideout Allen Robinson compares Montgomery to LeSean McCoy because of the way he moves laterally to elude tacklers. Robinson was sold after a six-yard run in Week 1, when Montgomery made four people miss.

Then again in Denver, when he was stuffed behind the line and somehow fell forward for positive yardage.

"There aren't many people you see across the league who are doing stuff like that," Robinson says. "Especially with the quickness which he's doing it with."

Adds Tarik Cohen, Montgomery's complement in the Bears' running back stable: "His ability to not concede to being tackled. He'll run the ball until you're forced to tackle him."

And guard Kyle Long: "His refusal to go down. ... He's a guy who carried the load for a long time for Iowa State, and it's a seamless transition to doing it here."

He's explosive.

He's what the Bears' perpetually explosive-less offense, one that constantly let the defense down before, needs. Right now.

"For him, the sky is the limit, really," Robinson says. "That dude comes into work each and every day, and it's fun to play with him, and it's fun to watch him play."

Montgomery shies away from the hype. Mention the way his teammates talk about him, and he deflects, doesn't make eye contact, keeps his focus on the TV showing NFL Network above. Many here say he's shy, reserved and reluctant to open up to outsiders.

It's hard to blame him.

All spring and summer, the hype machine was cranked up. He was the rookie shooting up your fantasy cheat sheet, the breakout candidate.

So far, the results have been solid at best. Not spectacular.

But now the temperature's dropping, and the stakes are rising.

The Bears may have a big bet laying on Trubisky's ability to return from a dislocated left shoulder, suffered in Week 4 against the Vikings, and prove his many doubters wrong, and they will dabble in the playmaking potential of guys like Cohen and Robinson. But they need to lean heavily on the run with a historically great defense brewing, a unit that could have everyone reminiscing about the '19 Bears for decades.

A workhorse back could be the missing piece.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 29:  David Montgomery #32 of the Chicago Bears runs with the ball while being tackled by Xavier Rhodes #29 of the Minnesota Vikings in the third quarter at Soldier Field on September 29, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by D
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Montgomery is a very religious person. He reads the Bible often, saying it has molded him into the man he is today, and that's a man who still wants to give back as much as possible. He's in a position to help but admits not as much as he wants. Yet.

Over time, Montgomery aims to help the homeless here in Chicago and, eventually, "all over the world." Take his game to the next level, and he can bring shelter to those stranded…and secure his family's future forever…and find his brother a better lawyer…and, quite possibly, save this Bears offense in the process.

His eyes, still locked on that screen above, squint. His voice lowers.

He won't get caught up in any savior talk.

"For me, I try to give great effort all the time and be sure that I put my best foot forward with confidence and give everything I've got when I get the opportunity."

Even Peyton Manning, old and broken down, made a few plays through the 2015 postseason to help out an epic Broncos defense. Just as rookie back Jamal Lewis helped the 2000 Ravens 19 years ago and Walter Payton high-stepped through defenses 15 years before that.

Defense, and defense alone, cannot take a team to a Super Bowl.

So now it's on Montgomery to get fans talking every Monday morning.

Payton's son is hopeful. He sees Montgomery becoming Trubisky's "best friend" on the field, a player who'll help the quarterback take timely play-action shots downfield to Robinson, to everyone. Run this offense through Montgomery, and just it may take off.

"The Bears defense is ready to win a championship right now," Payton says. "The offense just has to bridge that gap a little bit closer to that defense. If they can do that, anything is possible for this Bears squad.



Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.


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