CHICAGO — It didn’t take long for us to get lost spinning down I-94 in Corey Wootton’s custom-wheeled, leather-finished SUV. Or was it I-55? … I-90? It was getting dark by the time we launched the 2013 Chicago Bears season, pulling away from Wootton’s new apartment in the Avondale neighborhood on the city’s North Side, leaving behind a pair of dogs and Wootton’s wife of 16 months, Felicia.
The couple had a final private dinner: takeout from Kuma’s Corner, a gem of a burger place down the street. Then Wootton ducked into his black truck. At 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, we were off, 60 miles to Bears training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., where Wootton was due to report by midnight. We had time to spare (or should I say, get lost).
After a couple of miles down the wrong interstate, we’re pointing fingers.
“You got me talking,” he says, laughing.
Of course it’s my fault. I asked Wootton, the defensive end drafted by Chicago in the fourth round in 2010, to let me ride with him to camp and along the way to share his feelings as he heads into a critical season. His rookie contract with the club is up after this year, one in which the team is transitioning under a new GM and coach and looking for a next-generation foundation for its aging defense. Training camp is equal parts dreadful and fulfilling for Wootton, who is excited to see where his spring and summer toils will take him. Still, he wouldn’t mind doing it in a locale other than Bourbonnais, where it’s hard to find a bacon burger with fried egg on top, and where there’s no Felicia.
On the road, our conversation got Wootton thinking and talking about his wife, a former DePaul basketball player, and her family in Missouri; and about their lake house. Soon we were headed down I-55 toward St. Louis before a glance at his smartphone snapped him out of it.
“In 0.2 miles, exit highway on the right.”
In minutes we’re back on track, swinging past industrial smokestacks framed in an orange hue by a setting sun rapidly giving way to a deep blue night. Our route properly recalibrated, Wootton revisits the subject of his wife, sharing the story of how a drunken matchmaker and the Internet landed him his love.
“She went to DePaul, I went to Northwestern,” he says. “One of my friends had met her out and about one night, and he called me—he was kind of intoxicated—like, ‘Dog, I think I met the perfect girl for you; she’s tall, she plays basketball, she’d be perfect for you.’ And I’m like ‘Did you get her number?’ and he hadn’t, so I figure I probably won’t meet her. Then she randomly added me on Facebook a few days later. We started talking back and forth. Long convo. And I was like, ‘You know, normally I don’t do this, but you seem like a cool girl. Mind if I get your number and hit you up sometime?’ So I hit her up maybe five days later and asked her on a date. We went to STATE bar in Lincoln Park.” More than four years later they were married, on April 6, 2012.
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Suddenly we’re slowing down. There’s a line of tollbooths up ahead under a glowing red sign: CHICAGO SKYWAY TOLL BRIDGE. We’ve gone off the path again—this time we’re southeast-bound, figuring to hug the western edge of Lake Michigan until the road took us east toward South Bend and Toledo on the way to New York.
“We went all the wrong ways,” he says. “What is going on?”
It’s 9 p.m., and as we navigate South Chicago side streets on a quest for I-57, a wide-screen TV rattling back and forth between the front two rows of seats, Wootton is imagining all the ways his career could have gone had he not torn apart his right knee in the final minutes of the 2008 Alamo Bowl. Perhaps he would have been drafted in the first round in ’09, and not the fourth in ’10. Instead of landing in what he terms a “perfect situation” in Chicago, he could have gone to the Giants, who were loading up on young edge rushers at the time, taking Jason Pierre-Paul with the 15th pick in 2010. Wootton grew up in Rutherford, N.J., in the shadow of the Giants’ practice facility. He says he could deal with playing in New Jersey today, but maybe not four years ago.
“It probably would have been a little harder,” he says. “I think now if that worked out after this year, I would be able to handle that, but early on you just never know if you’ll be distracted. I’m here, and most of my friends played college football, so they understand the grind. A lot of people from Jersey may not have understood.”
Wootton doesn’t mean to close the door on either New York team. Beyond this season, the future is an unknown for him. Last year, two weeks after he was married, the Bears drafted another defensive end, Shea McClellin out of Boise State, with their first-round pick, to throw in with Wootton and 33-year-old veteran stud Julius Peppers.
On draft day  I was pissed, I’m not gonna lie. They’re bringing this guy in to essentially take my spot. That’s how it is.
We’ve been going a cool 65 miles per hour for about 45 minutes now, but with 10 miles to go, Wootton brings up McClellin and steps on the gas. We’re at 75 before the first hint of traffic on I-57 South brings us back to the limit. It’s too dark to see the acres and acres of cornfields on either side of the SUV.
"When they drafted him, my thoughts were, They probably want to drive me out of here,” he says. “A lot of people before training camp predicted I was going to be cut, because I hadn’t proven myself. I just knew it was a big year.
“On draft day I was pissed, I’m not gonna lie. They’re bringing this guy in to essentially take my spot. That’s how it is. Every day when I worked it was about proving people wrong. When I came to [organized team activities] the coaches definitely noticed a difference. They were like, ‘Wow, what have you been doing?’”
Corey Wootton's first big-time NFL play was Brett Favre's last play, period. (Andy King/AP)
Nine miles to exit 315, Bourbonnais, and we’re talking about Wootton’s other huge motivator: Brett Favre’s last play. It was Wootton, a then-anonymous rookie defensive end, who with his first career sack slammed the then-Vikings quarterback into the turf in a December 2010 game at the University of Minnesota’s stadium. When the 277-pound Wooten, whose body fat measured out this offseason at 11%, slung Favre to the ground, the quarterback’s head hit the hard surface, and he left the game with a concussion. The Week 15 meeting had been moved to the Gophers’ outdoor field following the Metrodome roof collapse, and much was made of the condition of the field, frozen in spots. Wootton went from screw-up to history-maker in the span of a few minutes.
“I don’t know what I was doing, staring into space or whatever, and Peppers is trying to come by the sideline, and we ended up having to burn a timeout. And [defensive coordinator] Rod Marinelli is like ‘Corey, what the...! You’re supposed to be on the field, you’re supposed to be watching out! You better do something!’ And then I’m thinking I’ve got to make a play now. I’m over here messing up. I come off the ball and ended up getting a sack, and I didn’t even know what happened, I was so excited.”
It would be his only sack in two seasons. Israel Idonije played end opposite Peppers during that time, and Wootton saw the field sparingly, struggling with injuries. “Everyone asks me about that first sack,” he says. “And that became a big thing for me, not being known just for that. That’s why last season was a big year for me, just to show that I could be a player for the Bears and really contribute.”
McClellin was drafted, but the Bears sat Idonije in favor of Wootton in the final seven games last season. In 2012 he played 54.5% of the defensive snaps, according to the Chicago Tribune, and finished third on the team with a career-high seven sacks. McClellin played a little over a third of the snaps and had 2.5 sacks. Like his Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, Wootton will wait to see if the team will renew his contract.
Unless you’ve established yourself as a perennial Pro Bowler, every year, every training camp, every practice is huge.
“Everyone says, Huge year, huge year, but every year is a huge year,” he says, the volume of his voice rising. “Unless you’ve established yourself as a perennial Pro Bowler, every year, every training camp, every practice is huge. Yes, it is a huge year, but I’ve got to approach it the same way I did last year. It’s me competing against him for a starting job. On the line we rotate so everyone gets a lot of reps, but still you want that job, you want that title of being the starter. I don’t just want to be the starter. I want to be the best defensive end in the league.
“I have no ill will… me and Shea are friends. We help each other out and give each other tips. I’m always encouraging, especially when he was a rookie. It takes a while to get used to this level, and it can get you down.”
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It’s 9:43 p.m., four miles to Bourbonnais. For Wootton, the name brings back memories of summers past and the teammates who made them hell—guys like offensive tackles Frank Omiyale and Chris Williams. They knew all the tricks to trip up youngsters. On passing plays, hand punches to the chest were Wootton’s weakness. “They had really strong hands,” he remembers.
Omiyale and Williams are gone now. Gone too is the man who ran the show: coach Lovie Smith, now out of the NFL after failing last season to make the playoffs despite a 7-1 start. The team prettied up a stretch of five losses in six games with two final victories to finish 10-6. Their playoff fate came down to the Packers and Vikings on the season’s final Sunday—with a Vikings loss, the Bears would be in as a wild card.
“When we got off the plane from Detroit, we were listening to the game on the way home,” he says, “and we knew if Minnesota won, that could be Lovie’s job. It seemed like Green Bay was going to win, and then Minnesota kicked that field goal. Everyone was just crushed because Lovie had been there for almost 10 years. The next day when we had a team meeting and physicals, we heard [about Smith’s firing]. Some guys on the team were crying—that’s how much of an impact Lovie had on people.”
Phil Emery brought in former CFL coach Marc Trestman, an unknown to players on the current roster. “Everyone loved Lovie, but in this league you move on. You go with what you’re dealt with. A lot of people really like Coach Trestman and what he’s doing. He’s bringing more discipline, more regimen to the practice schedule. The offense loves it. They looked great in minicamp. Tempo was really fast.”
We’re cruising through Bourbonnais now, down a weaving canal of side streets that Wootton knows by heart. A left at the fire station and we’re on the campus of Olivet Nazarene, the football practice fields on our right, framed by a row of high-powered light bulbs 75 feet up. It’s getting real now. The butterflies return. Wootton hasn’t felt like this since last December. It’s a restlessness evoked by churned grass and sweat-soaked football pads in the Illinois plains.
“I always get nervous before camp, games, even preseason games,” he says. “You want to do the best you can. You’re nervous about how things are going to go.”
As we approach a check-in tent manned by a lone Bears staffer at 9:50 p.m. Wootton concedes there’s added pressure on him this season. “In a sense, with the contract, there is,” he says. “And last year I wasn’t even expected to make the team. This year I’m getting more recognized.”
He gets his dorm assignment from the team sentry, pulls into a parking space and unloads the wide-screen television, some clothes and his Playstation 3. The guys play FIFA and Madden, though many prefer Xbox. “That’s usually the best part of camp,” he says. “Take your mind off of what went on that day. Everyone is out there grinding. At the end of the day we’re all kids. Guys in their mid-20s, late-20s playing video games, goofing around.