A giant among men, the second phase of Mack’s career is set to begin. What happens next is already written on the wall.
Khalil Mack has never been a man of many words. For a man accustomed to bending games and grown men, to his will, one would think he would have more to say. A player of his talents, of his gifts, is normally much more outspoken. Let’s say you’re a tackle on the blindside. You’re given the unfortunate task of blocking this titan. Verbal abuse as you’re laying on the ground is supposed to be built-in. Other forces of nature are unapologetic in their chaos, brazen about the fractured reality they create. Not Mack.
Mack keeps to himself among the sacks, forced fumbles, quarterback hits, body slams, tomahawk chops, Pro Bowl, All-Pro, and Defensive Player of the Year accolades. He says little on the field, and even less in public, in front of a microphone. When asked to describe what happened and why he’s so great, questions every superstar of magnitude is forced to answer ad nauseam; Mack sticks to the tried and true axioms of effort and teamwork if he says anything at all. Fits of wisdom about things like the excretions of canines concerning life are rare. If playing against him and flailing in desperation to even get in his way, you might hear a haughty cackle of mockery. But that’s it.
Mack has always swept in, caused devastation, then filed himself out in solitude. Every bit of every chaotic accomplishment is abundant, constant, save for his words. That’s who he is, that’s his personality, and that will never change.
In typical fashion, as he begins his eighth season as a professional football player, his fourth in Chicago, Mack has already achieved an important milestone. Before touching one blade of grass again, he’s done something that few of his contemporaries have managed in a fleeting field rooted in precarity and short expiration dates.
He’s crossed over the hill: He’s turned 30-years-old.
The Chicago of 2021 does not understand what it means to spectacle a consistently good football team. We can appreciate and revel in history, knowing who had come before and constructed, so to speak, the hallowed pillars at Soldier Field. But, for the most part, anyone with a pulse cannot conceive of a time when the Bears were a legitimate powerhouse to be reckoned with year after year. Those days are long gone, fleeting memories in black and white only to be watched in YouTube clips. History sold on a content platter, appearing farther in the rearview mirror with every passing month. Of late, for roughly four decades, to be exact, this is a franchise more synonymous with disappointment than anything we won’t cover our faces in shame over.
Despite that discontent, Chicago does know defense. Chicago knows when it’s watching uncommon greatness on defense, a transcendence that only a small number of us ever get the privilege to witness.
Recent history blessed the heart of the Midwest with Brian Urlacher. A 260-pound android with a successful dual mission prerogative of sometimes covering almost half a football field on its lonesome, Urlacher did things your average fragile human being simply trying to keep their head above water could only dream of. One of Urlacher’s running mates, Charles “Peanut” Tillman, wasn’t the premier defensive back of his era. Far from it. But tune into any random NFL game over the next five months, or next year, or 15 years from now, and chances are you’ll see someone punching the ball out of a ball carrier’s hands. The play-by-play announcer will reference Tillman and the patented, iconic “Peanut Punch,” and you’ll know that of his peers, the memory of his playing career might be the only one that’ll still be discussed in reverence every Sunday several decades later.
I should not have to remind you that Mack is the latest chapter of defensive greatness in Chicago. He’s a living, breathing section standing out amidst an epic tome of countless intimidators, technicians, ballhawks, and physical freaks. At 30, when many professional athletes begin to succumb to Father Time, let alone football players enduring untold punishment, Mack has the privilege to finish penning his chapter as if his age truly was just a number.
There’s a famous tweet denoting the expectations of the human body and the distance between a normal person and those tailor-made as “miracles” in sports. It’s accurate, both for its humor and how the best amongst our physical finest continue to plug along, alone.
It fits Mack like a glove — who, rest assured, isn’t like everyone else.
Great players don’t let themselves fade away into irrelevance as they age. You might say it already started to happen for Mack in 2020, but he was Pro Football Focus’s highest-rated edge defender last year. That performance was with a body feeling the toll of simultaneous knee, ankle, shoulder, and back injuries. Bruised, battered, and enjoying limited practice time, as a result, Mack somehow didn’t miss a game while playing on over 83 percent of Chicago’s defensive snaps. A sample size, a testament to what his physical form will desire in the coming years, to surrender to vulnerability, and what his mental resolve will shelve, indefinitely, so he can put the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame career.
The theoretical dropoff for Mack after 30 could, seemingly, happen any given season. But it’s more likely to be gradual, never noticeable, provided Mack still finds means to make quarterbacks eat turf. The rap sheet of the special men who have come before him says it will never be glaring.
If elite quarterbacks age like fine wine, then pass rushers are like a hearty stout. Some of their sharper edges and (hoppier) notes might fade over time, but they become richer, more complex, more accessible. Packers and Eagles great Reggie White made the Pro Bowl eight times after he turned 30. He had 16 sacks at age 37, which should be illegal. The Minister of Defense was offering blessings to 300-pound men well into his 30s. The all-time sacks leader, perhaps the greatest pass rusher of all-time, Bruce Smith, unthinkably had more sacks after turning 30 (112) than before (92). He played until he was 40. We should all be so lucky. In more contemporary times, DeMarcus Ware created 39 sacks in five seasons following his Pearl birthday and was even a valuable part of a Super Bowl champion defense in 2015 at the tender age of 33. Someone who Chicagoland should be intimately familiar with in Julius Peppers almost had 80 sacks in nine seasons, with three different teams no less, in his 30s. He was more of a situational rusher the more years waned on, but still someone an offensive game-plan had to be centered around for fear of failure.
Where each of these greats did lose a step, they still found a way to make it work, to be effective. What pronounced, imprinted footsteps for Mack to follow.
Mack will have every opportunity to be a thorn in the side of every offensive front, signal-caller, and offensive coordinator around, well after he exits the target American television demographic. Great edge defenders are afforded such benefits of any doubt, no matter how foolish those doubts may seem in the moment.
When Chicagoans nowadays talk about “not wasting a great defense,” I always think about Mack. There might be other talented players on this current Bears defensive unit like Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson, and Eddie Goldman, but Mack is the talisman, the one piece no one really wants to “waste.” No one else could have sent shockwaves throughout the league when he was traded to the Bears. No one else could have been the catalyst who helped give them the reputation they’ve earned, even as it now seems as if they’re likely on the downturn, at least for a short while. He’s the first and last player fans, pundits, and opponents will revel over the years from now from this era of Bears football, from that one time they got to watch Khalil Mack, to block and fail at blocking Khalil Mack, to be in Khalil Mack’s mere presence. The Bears owe it to him, more than anyone, to build a winner.
I don’t know where Mack will be after his football playing days conclude. Many NFL players return to their hometowns to give back to the original community that saw them grow up. Some don the tight shirt microphone and take a job in broadcasting to analyze, to wax poetically about the modern game. Save for a ceremony where his bronze statue is unveiled; I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying, knowing, that Mack won’t be stepping back into the limelight after he leaves it. That’s not who he is.
Mack is a man of few words, and he always will be. His body of work, his resume, his power, the destruction he leaves in his wake — they will speak for him.