Could Dan Dierking, lifelong Chicago Bears fan, morph into Dan Dierking, member of the 2011 Chicago Bears?
That depends on how things play out for Dierking, a former Wheaton Warrenville South star running back, over the next couple of weeks at the Bears’ summer training camp in Bourbonnais.
Dierking (5-10, 195), who remains WWS’ all-time leading rusher with 6,309 yards, starts his second full week at camp on Monday. He was signed by the Bears in late July as an undrafted free agent.
Dierking is one of nine running backs already in camp—among them incumbents Matt Forte, Chester Taylor and Khalil Bell, and newly acquired Marion Barber. He knows he faces an uphill battle to make the final cut, but he’s pressing forward and trying to make the most of his reps in practice.
“It’s been going real good,” said Dierking in a phone interview Friday evening from Bourbonnais. “I was getting tons of reps because the veterans weren’t allowed to practice until yesterday (Thursday).”
Thursday marked the first official day of the new NFL year. It also was the first day that veterans who had signed new contracts could begin practicing with their teams. Now that all the veterans are in camp, Dierking has seen his reps drop.
“I’m trying to make plays out there whenever I get an opportunity,” he said. “Most of the rookies’ reps have dropped down, but I’m not letting that discourage me. I’m trying to learn the playbook, and when I’m on the sidelines, I’m taking mental reps. I’m learning a lot from watching those (veteran) guys run on and off the field, how they’ve handled themselves in meetings and how professional they handle themselves.”
Learning the Playbook
Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz orchestrates one of the league’s most imaginative—and complicated—offenses, and his playbook contains hundreds of pages.
When Dierking arrived in camp on July 27, he was handed a three-inch binder. Welcome to Mike Martz' offense 101.
“I’ve got it right in front of me,” said Dierking, referring to the binder. “It’s stacked with papers. The playbook goes through everything from (quarterback) cadence, and then it gets into more depth with protections, routes and run plays. It’s pretty big.”
The first four days of practice, he said, were spent basically walking through myriad plays.
“It’s pretty complicated,” Dierking said. “All the rookies were kind of flustered trying to learn plays, but now I think we have a better idea of what’s going on.”
Dierking, who played college ball at Purdue and was one of the Boilermakers’ co-captains during his senior season last year, describes his first several days in camp as being a whirlwind of practices, walk-throughs and meetings.
“Everything is moving so fast,” he said. “The days are just packed full of stuff. I’m up between 6:30 and 7 (a.m.). We get out of meetings at 10 at night.”
Even though Dierking is competing with several running backs for a spot on the roster, he’s getting help and advice from veteran backs. He mentioned that fullbacks Eddie Williams and Will Ta’uto’ou, in particular, have taken him under their wings.
“They’re all good guys; Forte and Chester Taylor have been really good guys,” Dierking said. “Eddie and Will have really helped me on the field. They stand behind me and quiz me on the plays when I’m not in.”
Being one of several rookie free agents in camp, Dierking has become well-acquainted with his rookie cohorts. But there was one familiar face at camp when Dierking arrived—that being Kyle Adams, his former Purdue teammate who’s trying to make the team as a tight end.
“We’ve all become buddies,” he said. “There’s guys from all over the country, rookie free agents. We’ve kind of bonded and formed our own group.”
Every so often, Dierking catches a glimpse of established Bears stars such as linebacker Brian Urlacher and defensive end Julius Peppers going through their drills.
“Those two are in a league of their own,” he said. “Lance Briggs, Urlacher, Julius Peppers, watching those guys is definitely fun because they’re special players. I’ve been a Bears fan and have been watching Urlacher for years.”
Getting Into Camp
The process of how Dierking got invited to Bears camp has played out over several months. Last March, Dierking took part in a Pro Day at Purdue where he and several other Boilermakers worked out for NFL scouts. Shortly thereafter, he went up to Halas Hall in Lake Forest and worked out for the Bears, but that turned out to be the last time he’d have any direct contact with the team as the NFL lockout took effect.
Dierking continued working out on his own while the lockout dragged on over the next four months. When the lockout ended, he received calls from several teams to join their respective camps.
“The (Oakland) Raiders called and were really interested,” he said. “Around the same time, the Bears called.”
It was a no-brainer for Dierking when it came to choosing which camp he wanted to attend.
“I was kind of just a perfect fit for the Bears,” he said. “I packed my bags and headed out. I was thrilled when they called me. When I get a day off, I can shoot back up to Wheaton and see the family.”
Dierking’s parents, Erin and Scott, drove from Wheaton on Saturday to watch the afternoon session that was open to the public. Dierking has a younger brother, Shane, who was part of Wheaton Warrenville South’s 2009 state championship team. He is a defensive back entering his sophomore season at North Central College in Naperville.
“They’re thrilled about it,” he said. “I know my parents were ecstatic when I got the call from Chicago.”
Several of Dierking’s friends from his high school days also have made the trip to Bourbonnais to watch Dierking in action.
“They’ve been coming down all week,” he said.
If Dierking makes the squad, he’ll be following his father’s footsteps into the NFL. Scott Dierking, who, like Dan, was a running back at Purdue, spent eight seasons in the NFL—seven with the New York Jets. Scott’s best year as a pro occurred in 1979 when he rushed for 767 yards (4.1 yards per carry).
Scott is one of only six running backs in Purdue history to record a 1,000-yard season. (Two backs, Otis Armstrong and Mike Alstott, both of whom played in the NFL, rushed for 1,000 yards or more twice.)
“He’s always been supportive,” Dan said. “They’ve (his parents) always supported my decisions, but when it comes to advice on the football field, there’s not much you can give. Just try your best and try to have fun.”
Dan ended his career at Purdue last fall leading the team with 718 all-purpose yards, including 530 yards rushing (second on the team). The Boilermakers went 4-8 in 2010, but Dan said he was proud of the way he and his teammates came to play every weekend.
“It was a rough year,” he said. “We had so many injuries. At one point, we were down to our fourth-string quarterback who was a freshman. Even though our record didn’t indicate it, it ended up being a special season. There was no quit in that team, and that’s what I really enjoyed about it.”
With the current glut of running backs in Bourbonnais, Dierking knows he’ll have to make an impression on special teams to increase his chances of making the club.
“That seems to be the route,” he said, “but all rookies have to prove themselves on special teams. I knew I had to come in and carve a niche for myself on special teams.”