For Bears OT Jordan Mills, one opening changed it all
BY PATRICK FINLEY Staff Reporter September 14, 2013 1:54AM
Jordan Mills initially wasn’t supposed to be in the Senior Bowl. His effort that week led him to the Bears, who have him starting at right tackle. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Updated: October 16, 2013 6:34AM
The champagne-colored 1998 Oldsmobile Cutlass lumbered toward Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The air conditioner didn’t work, two windows wouldn’t roll down and the driver’s side panel was missing.
An hour earlier, Jordan Mills had missed so many phone calls while working out in McKinnie, Texas, that he feared something was horribly wrong.
Now, after a short trip home in which he showered while his brother hurriedly threw his clothes in a bag, the offensive tackle was headed to the biggest job interview of his life.
Mills hadn’t been invited to the Senior Bowl in January after his final season at Louisiana Tech. But Tennessee lineman Dallas Thomas was hurt, and Mills was needed as a last-minute replacement. He had to fly immediately to Alabama and practice the next morning in a week scrutinized by every NFL personnel office and ending with a game four days later.
For Mills, a native of Napoleonville, La., this was his big break.
Driving in the hand-me-down car, Mills and brother Rodney Rhyans talked, the way they do before every game.
‘‘You’ve belonged from Day 1,’’ Rhyans told Mills. ‘‘When you get there, show them you should have been selected the first time around.’’
Getting a break was only half the equation. Mills is the Bears’ starter at right tackle Sunday — and former Bear J’Marcus Webb will be in a Minnesota Vikings uniform — partly because of what Mills did with the opportunity.
On his first day of Senior Bowl practice, the 6-5, 316-pounder fought with LSU’s Lavar Edwards and Florida State’s Everett Dawkins. That week, he tangled with players whose pedigrees surpassed most he saw in the Western Athletic Conference.
‘‘I’m all for my teammates, and if you push me, I’m gonna push back,” said Mills, the sixth of seven kids. ‘‘We got into it. But I showed my toughness. Twice. But it was probably more than twice.’’
After performing backpedal pass blocks in Louisiana Tech’s hair-on-fire offense, Mills showed he could protect in the Senior Bowl’s prototypical NFL offense — and that he could do it against elite competition.
‘‘One of the better weeks I’ve seen from an offensive lineman,’’ Mills’ agent, Scott Casterline, said, ‘‘and I’ve been doing this 31 years.’’
Had the Senior Bowl never called, Mills would have played in the Texas vs. the Nation All-Star Game, from which 14 players were drafted into the NFL.
By contrast, 94 Senior Bowl players were picked, including Mills, whom the Bears selected in the fifth round.
‘‘We’re looking for a guy that has a good anchor: good lower-body strength, good hand strength and good arms,’’ said Bears offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, who watched Senior Bowl practices on tape. ‘‘He fit those three traits. When we met him and got to know him, he was smart. And he showed toughness on tape.”
Mills replaced Webb after 10 preseason snaps, locking up the job decisively enough for the Bears to waive their former starter.
Kromer prefers the word ‘‘competitive’’ to ‘‘nasty.’’ But Mills has it, even if he’s quicker to smile than to speak off the field.
‘‘I’ve had to poke him and prod him just to get him to talk,’’ rookie right guard Kyle Long said. ‘‘He’s a very smart guy, a very bright guy, an attention-to-detail kinda guy.’’
Mills’ Week 1 performance against the Cincinnati Bengals spoke for itself. He allowed just one quarterback hurry in 35 pass attempts, grading so high that Pro Football Focus has him fourth in the rankings for rookie of the year.
He’ll be tested Sunday, though likely one-on-one; the Vikings blitzed only five times last week.
Mills now drives his dream car, a 2013 Dodge Challenger RT, leaving his Vernon Hills home using shortcuts handed down by veterans.
He wonders what would have happened without the Senior Bowl.
He’s thankful he’ll never find out.
‘‘You never know,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s why you stay prepared for anything. . . .
‘‘But I’m glad it happened like it happened.’’