In the Wake of the News
11:22 PM CDT, September 26, 2013
As early as his college days at Wayne State in his native Detroit, Bears general manager Phil Emery got paid to help determine who stays and who goes.
Emery worked as a bouncer at Coral Gables, a bustling nightclub where crowds up to 1,000 gathered to hear live music. Emery's best friend, Bob Belknap, checked IDs while the starting guard for the Wayne State football team and backup door guy supplied the muscle in case things got messy.
"It wasn't like 'Road House' with Patrick Swayze because Phil tried to be as diplomatic as possible, but there were fights,'' said Belknap, a retired 33-year veteran of the Houston Police Department. "If there were, I didn't have to turn around and look because I always knew Phil would be there. He was as solid then as now, the same guy.''
Sunday at Ford Field, that guy brings back to Michigan his unbeaten Bears team led by his hand-picked coach only a few miles from where Emery excelled as a Division II player from 1978-80. The Bears won the first time Emery returned to Detroit as an NFL general manager on Dec. 30, but he was too busy evaluating Lovie Smith's job status to savor the experience. This time, Emery can take a measure of satisfaction from his boldest decisions making such a big impact on the Bears' quick start.
He hired coach Marc Trestman, who connects with Jay Cutler. He drafted guard Kyle Long, who looks like he started more than five college games. He nudged Brian Urlacher into retirement, and the defense keeps creating turnovers. He rebuilt an offensive line that transformed from one of the league's worst in 2012 to a unit that has protected the quarterback better than 30 NFL teams.
Through every meticulous step, Emery let his head rule his heart and separated emotion from the equation — a difficult task this weekend if he pauses to reflect on how football has brought his life full circle.
His first exposure to pro sports as a kid came at old Tiger Stadium at a Lions-Rams game. He attended the first game at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1975, cheering on the home team. He introduced his wife, Beth, to pro football one Thanksgiving Day at a Packers-Lions game.
This will be no ordinary business trip for a man known for being all business.
"This trip is extremely important because ... a victory would put us in the lead of our division," Emery said. "From a personal standpoint, it always is special to me for us to play in the city I was born."
That happened Jan. 16, 1959, after Emery's family moved to Motown from the South like so many people seeking employment. The son of a coal miner's daughter and a General Motors factory worker, Emery grew up in a blue-collar home with parents committed to improving their children's lot in life. His first job was as a 12-year-old paperboy and his appreciation for education grew after toiling two summers at the GM plant.
When then-Wayne State coach Dick Lowry recruited Emery out of Garden City East High School, he recalled signing a disciplined student of the game who loved lifting weights in his garage no matter how cold the weather.
"Phil had size, speed, strength and intelligence and could have played at a higher level like the Mid-American Conference,'' Lowry said of the all-conference guard. "He was a super recruit.''
It was at Wayne State that Emery befriended Belknap, a classmate and co-worker for the oddest of jobs. Once, Emery worked security at Cobo Arena outside singer Bob Seger's dressing room five straight concerts. He patrolled ringside for a Tommy Hearns championship fight and a Randall "Tex" Cobb-Earnie Shavers bout.
A trusting bond developed with Belknap, the first person Emery called after his wife upon getting the Bears job — even if it was 12:15 a.m. During a WBEZ-FM 91.5 interview shortly after arriving at Halas Hall, Emery called his friend, a career officer who spent nine years as an undercover narcotics cop, his "role model.''
"It's just the opposite,'' Belknap said. "Phil's a hero to me and others because of all the stuff he's dealt with.''
Belknap referenced the grit Emery showed every time he changed jobs over 35 years and the grace he and Beth displayed raising their daughter, April, whose epilepsy requires the care of her parents. Belknap regularly texts Emery, who visited on Memorial Day, and can think of only one occasion his old buddy would consider more special than Sunday's homecoming.
"The only thing better would be Phil standing on the field at the Super Bowl,'' Belknap said.
If that happens, rest assured Chicago will be even prouder of Emery than Detroit is.
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