Jo-el, Ee-yay-boo-nee-way. He’ll answer to his nickname Iggy, sure. But you should get No. 45 Joel Iyiegbuniwe’s full name comfortable on your tongue, because you’ll be chanting it as soon as the Chicago Bears hit the field.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker is geared up for his sophomore season with the Bears, having been scooped up as a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, coming by way of Western Kentucky University. He appeared in all 16 games his rookie year, as well as the now-infamous playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Quite an achievement considering he’s hustling to make a name for himself on a defense widely regarded as the best in the league; it includes fellow linebacker Khalil Mack, the perennial Pro Bowler and 2016 defensive player of the year.
Not only is Iyiegbuniwe amassing invaluable experience playing among a defense that finished first in the NFL last season in fewest points allowed, he’s looking to retired legends for inspiration. “Being a linebacker like Brian Urlacher and Mike Singletary … those are guys I’ve definitely paid more attention to because of their position and the greatness they showed playing here. That’s what I’m chasing,” he says.
Iyiegbuniwe’s joining the Bears was a homecoming. He was born at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital on October 12, 1995, and moved from Bolingbrook to Bowling Green, Kentucky, at the age of 8, where he remained until he got the call from the Bears. The first person he called after the draft was his mom. Iyiegbuniwe recalls, “She cried tears of joy … it was a special moment.”
While Iyiegbuniwe is a gifted athlete, education was always the first priority growing up with two parents in the medical field, and he has post-football aspirations of being a pediatrician. “My teachers back in elementary school always told us to write down three things we wanted to do when we grew up. Mine was always ‘Be a doctor’ and ‘Be a professional athlete,’ ” he says. “I love kids and working as a pediatrician is just what I want to do.”
Pursuing medicine in any tangible way is on hold, as he puts his full focus on football, but Iyiegbuniwe regularly seeks opportunities to feed that interest. “Anytime I can go on hospital visits, talk to the doctors and patients, I try to do that. It’s been fun. As far as football … you’re around the trainers and doctors a lot. I’m always asking questions to see what I can learn.”
His unyielding commitment to family, sports, and education didn’t go unnoticed by his former Western Kentucky University coach Mike Sanford Jr. “Truly, off the field, he’s the type of guy you want your kids around,” says Sanford. “I have three children and I want them to watch Iggy and follow the way he lives his life. The way he talks to authority, the way he treats his family, loves his family, loves his teammates. But when he steps on that field and you get him between the white lines … he’s a maniacal football player.”
So how does Iyiegbuniwe toggle between gentleman and game mode? “For me it’s getting mentally prepared,” he says. His game-day prep involves getting good sleep, running through plays and notes in his head, hydrating, and prayer. Not to mention letting Drake, J. Cole, Future, and Chance rap him into the mental zone. After the game, a sausage, pepperoni, and pineapple pizza from Parlor Pizza Bar help him refuel and decompress. “When I’m not playing, I’m just a regular guy,” he says.
His passion should come out full force this season. Historically, the previous season’s Super Bowl winner hosts the first game, but as the charter franchise of the NFL, the Chicago Bears intercepted that honor as they celebrate 100 years alongside the league.
Making this milestone extraordinary is the fact that Virginia Halas McCaskey, the 96-year-old majority owner of the Bears who has seen almost every game they’ve played, is the daughter of the original founder, owner, and coach, George Halas, who purchased the then-Decatur-based team for $100 in 1920. Despite name and venue changes along the way, it has remained in the Halas-McCaskey family. This family-focused legacy is embedded in the organization’s culture and in its approach to building today’s team.
They’re carefully architecting a family that will evolve into a well-oiled, game-slaying team. The Bears entered into preseason training camp with a roster of 90 and will cut it down to 53 when they kick off against the Green Bay Packers on September 5. Dwindling those numbers involves looking at not just a player’s athletic ability but what type of person they are.
A draft pick like Iyiegbuniwe is a textbook example of this methodology, and will make the team one to watch this season. Sure, the roster is stacked with solid teammates but behind it all something more intangible: a comaraderie reminiscent of the ,85 Bears, when the “Super Bowl Shuffle” became a rallying cry throughout Chicago.
Mirroring this sentiment, when asked if he thinks the Bears can win the Super Bowl this year, Iyiegbuniwe answered with a quick “yes.” He followed saying, “I think we have a great team overall, all three phases: offense, defense, and special teams. We’re a close-knit group. Everybody gets along with each other and we believe in our coach. I think that’s really what it takes. So, we’re excited for this year and looking forward to chasing that trophy.”
• Get after it like a Bear with a HIIT class at Bears Fit facility in Vernon Hills, using the same state-of-the-art equipment as the team. (155 E. Townline; bearsfit.com; $59/individual membership)
• Show Bears love on Insta by taking a selfie with the 6-foot-tall bobbleheads placed around the city. They’re created in the likeness of Bears legends through the decades.
• Kick off the NFL’s 100th season with a free party featuring appearances by former Bears greats, photos with the Vince Lombardi Trophy and 53 Super Bowl rings, and a watch party. Held in Grant Park before and during the Bears’ first home game, September 5, vs. the Green Bay Packers.
• Try on a replica of William “The Refrigerator” Perry’s Super Bowl ring, the largest one ever crafted, and see if you have what it takes to secure a Super Bowl win using the Quarterback Challenge with Richard Dent at the Chicago Sports Museum. (Water Tower Place, 835 N. Michigan, Level 7; chicagosportsmuseum.com; $10/adults, $6/kids)
• Be like Iyiegbuniwe and watch a game from Parlor Pizza Bar. Don’t forget to snag a snap in front of the Chicago-Bears-commissioned mural of a Ditka-like bear enjoying a slice by artist J.C. Rivera. (108 N. Green; parlorchicago.com)
AT THE SHOOT
To capture Joel “Iggy” Iyiegbuniwe for our cover we naturally gravitated to his home turf. Having the run of Soldier Field was exhilarating but even more so was this second-year linebacker’s confident, easygoing presence. “There’s just something about the way he carries himself. … You find yourself drawn to him,” says our writer Maria Chambers.
Photos by Maria Ponce