Robert Tonyan’s NFL career blossomed over six seasons while catching passes from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
But all the while Tonyan, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound tight end, kept in his basement the jersey and autograph from a childhood hero, former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Tonyan, 28, grew up in McHenry and played quarterback for McHenry East before moving to wide receiver at Indiana State and tight end with the Packers. His NFL dreams along the way often were colored in orange and blue, and this week he made that a reality by signing a one-year contract with the Bears.
He joins a growing list of Bears players from the Northwest suburbs, including fellow tight end Cole Kmet, returning linebacker Jack Sanborn and new linebacker T.J. Edwards.
“Did I think I’d be a tight end for the Bears? No,” Tonyan said on a videoconference call with Chicago reporters Friday. “But did I think I’d play for the Bears? Yeah, absolutely. In my brain I was playing for the Bears my whole life. I’m just super pumped to be here.”
Tonyan entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2017 and had limited contributions in his first two seasons on the field in 2018-19.
He had a career year in 2020 with 52 catches for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns, but his 2021 season was cut nine games short because of an ACL tear. He recovered in time to play in all 17 games in 2022 and had 53 catches for 470 yards and two touchdowns. But it took a while to feel like himself on the field again.
“It’s difficult because you don’t play football for a whole year, and your body and mind kind of check out of the actual football aspect of things,” he said. “Neurologically speaking, your body is not used to those movements and playing and straining and stuff like that. But toward the end of the year, the last four games after our late bye week, I started feeling like myself again and being able to put my brand of football out there that I was seeking. I just ended strong, and it gave me a better feeling about going into the offseason and going into this process.”
Tonyan said he spent most of Thursday talking with Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who worked with him in Green Bay. Tonyan said he thinks he can be a good complement to Kmet. And he wants to bring another playmaker to the offense for quarterback Justin Fields, from whom he saw good progress last season while watching from afar.
Bears general manager Ryan Poles said in a statement that Tonyan is “a great addition to our roster with his familiarity of the scheme and pass-catching ability.” Poles also has brought in new wide receiver DJ Moore and running back D’Onta Foreman over the last week to help Fields.
“(Fields) is a mentally strong young player,” Tonyan said. “That’s hard to do when you come in the league when you have a lot of — whether it’s positive or negative — things being said about you in the media, just keeping your cool and playing your game. … He’s staying in there, taking hits, popping up. He kept coming back for more.
“That’s what you want in a quarterback and a leader, someone who doesn’t quit or back down, playing through injuries or whatever it may be. I’m just super excited to be a part of that.”
Tonyan makes the switch in the Bears-Packers rivalry during a strange time in Green Bay as Rodgers hopes to be traded to the New York Jets this offseason and the Packers prepare to move on with quarterback Jordan Love.
Tonyan said the offseason uncertainty has been “kind of the norm over the years,” noting he doesn’t think that’s negative but just something that goes with the tail end of players’ careers. He said Rodgers has “earned the right to have that attention and say-so with his future.”
Tonyan didn’t necessarily need to know the details of the Packers’ quarterback plans before making a decision on his next move.
“Just holding my future in my own hands was the biggest thing for me this year,” Tonyan said. “Making the right decision, the next move just very cautiously. I think — not I think — I believe, I know I made the right decision.”
Joining the Bears is the next step in a winding journey for Tonyan that included throwing for 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns at McHenry East. He played one season at quarterback at FCS Indiana State before switching to wide receiver for his final three seasons. He had 150 catches for 2,047 yards and 20 touchdowns there.
After going undrafted, he joined the Detroit Lions but was cut before the 2017 season and eventually latched on with the Packers.
“Some people’s paths and destinations are just different, and it just kind of goes to show my personality is just keep going,” Tonyan said. “There are going to be ups and downs, but if you can just stay even-keel internally, just have a vision and the goals at the end, and when you see that light at the end of the tunnel, just kind of take advantage of it.
“Just trust the process and home in on your own craft and your own work. Worry about yourself. Don’t compare. Just keep working and things are going to work out for you.”