Mitchell Trubisky is learning to lead

Football is a "sacred obsession" for Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

MITCHELL TRUBISKY'S POSTGAME media conferences are mind-numbing exercises in amiable banality. He greets every question with a cheery and time-buying "For sure" and then proceeds to break it down to its least interesting parts. This is by design -- he'd never allow himself to give anything away. Apart from the crowd, Trubisky describes football and his Chicago Bears teammates and coaches and their bond -- the whole sprawling, messy lot of it -- as "a sacred obsession." And he sees himself, the quarterback, as the keeper of that trust.

He exists within a self-enclosed and self-defined space that eliminates outside influences. In a move he dubbed "Zero Dark 10" for his uniform number, he has exiled himself from all media. He internalizes everything -- positive, negative, anything in between -- and during his 2017 rookie season, when the Bears went 5-11, there were times he read the vicious negativity on social media and wondered, "Is that who I am?" He hadn't thought he was a failure, or a blown draft pick, or just another in a long line of Bears' quarterback mistakes, but the more he read, the more he wondered. Is that who I am? He lent credibility to those who didn't deserve it, and they burrowed under his skin like an army of ticks. It's a troubling fray in the social fabric when a self-assured and accomplished 24-year-old can question his own identity -- his own worth -- on the basis of hair-trigger opinions from complete strangers.

"I know what that did to me when I let those voices get inside," he says. "It was not good for my mental health. People are one keystroke away from accessing you. Why would I allow people who know nothing about me to have an opinion? Why would I allow them to have that space in my mind?"

The solution was to wall off the outside world so thoroughly that the questions in his Wednesday media conference are usually the first time he learns what is being discussed outside the building.

"It's important to always be in control of your time and your thoughts," he says. "You can't let people on the outside take control. When you take away other people's power over you, you're in control of everything: your time, and how you're working, and your peace of mind, and how you sleep at night."

Nothing is left to chance. He walks through the Bears' locker room like someone determined to project calm confidence. He studies books on leadership and teamwork and greatness. He looks for ways to be inclusive: lifting offensive linemen off the pile; running out onto the field after a field goal to personally congratulate every guy on the unit; accepting blame (eagerly, almost too eagerly) for plays that go wrong. He ends his preparation every week with a Saturday night meeting with quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone and injured tight end Zach Miller. By this point -- around 10 p.m. -- every one of first-year head coach Matt Nagy's fever-dream plays has been indelibly repped into Trubisky's brain. But still, they go through the next day's game plan, spending 30 or 40 minutes, Ragone speed-reading formations and plays and packages as Trubisky scrawls out the answers on a dry-erase board.

"It's more of a time for reflection," Ragone says. This might sound strange, but there's something spiritual about the way it unfolds, the solemn call-and-response emanating from a quiet room.

"The first time I was in there, I was blown away," Miller says. "Now it's the highlight of my week, to watch him mentally roll through the game plan."

Nagy has mantras, so many mantras, and one of them -- Be obsessed -- reached Trubisky's ears as something slightly different. He reads it as: It's OK to be obsessed. "Now I'm conscious of it," Trubisky says. "Like, 'Oh, I am obsessed.' I realize now: I was obsessed before I knew I was obsessed."

This person bears no resemblance to Media Conference Mitch. I ask him: If you're aware that you're obsessed, does that make it less likely to consume you?

There is a long pause. The flags outside the second floor of the team's headquarters are starched perfectly horizontal, as if framed, inches behind Trubisky. He tilts his head to the side as if he has just thought of something and asks for the question to be repeated.

"Wow -- wow," he says. "Now we're getting deep."

He rubs his hands together, leans back in his chair and flips his baseball cap backward.

"Let's do it," he says.

THE QUARTERBACK IS the leader of the football team, and there is a template to follow: The leader is passionate and forceful, and the fate of every game means so much to him he can make the people around him care equally. The language required is sometimes exhortative, sometimes demeaning, always profane. His locker room speeches will make grown men forget the perils of the game and willingly sacrifice themselves on the pyre of American manhood.

But what if you're not that guy? And what if coaches have routinely told you that you have no choice, that there is no other way, that leading by example is for the meek and undeserving, that you can identify a true leader only by the bulges in his eyes and the pop of his carotid? What if you're a quarterback who finds himself residing in the game's DMZ: loving the game but unable to summon the make-believe anger?

Forget football. Try to imagine being 24 years old and -- because of your athletic gifts -- finding yourself the public face of a multibillion-dollar company. (I've tried; I can't.) Part of the gig for Trubisky is to lead older men who are -- because of his age, draft position and pay grade -- skeptical of his ability to lead them.

How would you go about convincing them?

You seek, that's how. On the mirror of Trubisky's master bathroom, he has affixed a passage from Joshua Medcalf's book "Chop Wood, Carry Water":

"True mental toughness is having a great attitude, giving your very, very best, treating people really, really well and having unconditional gratitude regardless of your circumstances."

He reads the words off his phone and stops to think about them. "That has nothing to do with football or even work," he says. "That's just life. If you can do those four things -- have a great attitude, do your best, treat people well, be thankful -- and put them together, you won't fail at anything."

There is no room for cynicism in Trubisky's world. There's a stack of books on leadership and group collaboration in his bedroom awaiting his eyes. (I'm pretty sure he ordered one recommendation, "Tribe," by Sebastian Junger, while we were talking.) He consistently cites "The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership," by Wall Street Journal leadership columnist Sam Walker, who spent 11 years studying the leaders of 17 dominant sports teams throughout history. The book was suggested by Bears GM Ryan Pace, who brought Walker in to speak to the organization. Trubisky not only read it but befriended Walker; they now have regular discussions throughout the season.

"The book taught me that there's no cookie-cutter way to lead," Trubisky says. "Leading is not just what Hollywood tells you. It's not the big pregame speech. It's how you carry yourself every day, how you treat the people around you, who you are as a person."

"There's a level of vulnerability he's comfortable with," Walker says. "Mitchell making a study of leadership shows a couple of things: You have to have the right instincts, but you can be systematic about it. You can learn it. There is a right way to do it. I've never met anyone who is so thoughtful about this topic. Football has been slow to embrace this, and to see someone like Mitchell come out of this narcissistic American football complex is a breath of fresh air."

Of course, there are still times when tradition has its place. During practice last year, before his first start in Week 5, Trubisky stood in the huddle competing with four or five voices as he attempted to call a play.

"Shut the f--- up!" he yelled.

Surprised by the ensuing silence, he looked around, nodded his head and called the play.

"You never know how they're going to respond, but the guys loved it," Trubisky says. "That's by no means a go-to thing for me, but they were like, 'OK, Mitch is finally going to take control of the freakin' huddle. Let's freakin' go.'"

Zach Miller, who may or may not have been one of the Bears talking in the huddle that day, says, "Well, it told us one thing. It told us Mitch's got a little dog in him."

TRUBISKY IS TWO days away from helping the Bears complete a 12-4 regular season and nine away from Sunday's first-round playoff game against the Eagles. He has thrown for more than 3,200 yards and 24 touchdowns despite missing two games, and his ability to extend plays and escape trouble (421 rushing yards) adds an element of unpredictability to Chicago's offense. Much like the Rams' Jared Goff a year ago, Trubisky has blunted the disappointment of his rookie season with the help of a young, offensive-minded head coach whose attitude -- and innovation -- has brought fun back to Soldier Field.

Trubisky's rookie season, under John Fox, was a study in unimaginative playcalling. Run-run-pass-punt, run-run-pass-punt. If the goal was to lead the league in third-and-9 -- mission accomplished. During their first meeting after the new coach was hired, Nagy told the No. 2 pick of the 2017 draft, "I'm giving you the keys. You play the game the way you know how -- no restrictions. Ball out and make throws."

Trubisky got in touch with as many teammates as possible. The conversations all began the same way: "Dude, I can't wait to play for this guy."

There are times when Nagy's creativity, with all the motions and pitches and fakes and sweeps, makes it look as if a toddler got a turn at the whiteboard. "He's literally open to anything," Trubisky says. "Nothing is too far out of the box." The weirdness was on full display Sunday against the Vikings. Bradley Sowell, a 6-foot-7, 312-pound offensive lineman, lined up in the backfield on several plays and even ran a deep seam route on a second-down play in the fourth quarter. "He's a good athlete," Nagy said with a shrug. "This week he was a fullback." On a two-point conversion after their final touchdown, the Bears had two defensive players and Sowell as eligible receivers. Trubisky hit linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski for the score.

"Like high school again," says offensive tackle Bobby Massie. "Last year at this time, we were talking about where we were headed on vacation. Now we're having the most fun we've ever had playing football."

The change in demeanor is all over Trubisky's face. He and several of his teammates began growing "playoff beards" in Week 2, a ballsy move for a team coming off four straight last-place finishes in the NFC North. The result, 17 weeks later, is that half the guys in the locker room look as if they should be explaining the difference between Citra and Chinook hops as they work the taps in a craft brewery. Trubisky's look -- not that he cares -- alternates between actor-prepping-for-a-role and soup-kitchen regular.

"I'm hoping it's going to be here for a while," he says.

TRUBISKY HEARS A lot about "The Line." Best as anyone can define it, The Line represents the demarcation between a play with high mathematical probability for success and one with a high probability for disaster. Or, more colloquially, it separates the smart from the stupid.

Trubisky can run. He possesses the nimbleness and field awareness of a playful Labrador, combined with the confidence that no feat resides beyond the scope of his athletic skills. There are times when you get the feeling there's nothing he won't try. Trubisky also plays for a team with a defense (Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith) that's good enough that all its quarterback really needs to do is stay resolutely on the smart side of The Line. Hence, potential conflict.

The problem is basic: No quarterback takes the field hoping to manage the game, and nobody as competitive and driven and obsessed as Trubisky wants to be the guy who just holds everything together long enough for the defense to pull it out in the end. Few athletes are built that way. That's what makes The Line an existential threat. It doesn't exist until it's crossed.

"So true -- so true," Trubisky says. "The moment you mess up, you figure out exactly where the line is. It's hard, but when you're watching from the outside, it's really easy. When you screw up, it's obvious: 'Hey, you crossed the line right there.' But when you get away with it, you're just having fun and playing ball. And if you never push your limits, you'll never find out what you're capable of."

Which brings us back to the dangers of obsession.

"Sometimes you want that obsession to consume you, and sometimes you don't," Trubisky says. "But then that brings me to another point: control. If you're conscious of something, then you're also in control. And that also takes me back to the social media thing -- always being in control of your time and your thoughts. Don't let people on the outside take control. You're in control of your time, and how you're working, and your peace of mind, and how you sleep at night. Being aware that you're obsessed gives you that control."

That reminds him of something else. The friend who recommended "Chop Wood, Carry Water" gave Trubisky a framed quote from the book for Christmas. It reads:

"Your true value is not what you do or how much success you have. It's about who you truly are as a person."

There will come a time when the pain and the hits and the corporatism of the game take their toll, but that time is not now. Right now the world remains fresh and conquerable. Dissent and doubt are relegated to a space beyond the gates, and he no longer asks himself, "Is that who I am?" He knows, or at least he's getting closer.

Yeah, it's deep. It's supposed to be.