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Leading with head and heart

Published: Monday, Sept. 23, 2013 11:56 p.m. CDT
Bears head coach Marc Trestman is pictured on the sideline during the third quarter of Sunday night's game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The Bears won 40-23.

LAKE FOREST – It’s easy to poke fun at Marc Trestman.

He looks like an accountant. He speaks like a scientist. He wears long pants and long sleeves to practice on steaming-hot days because of the importance of sun protection.

By now, though, it’s clear that Trestman is more than capable as an NFL head coach.

And Monday offered another reminder that Trestman’s leadership skills at Halas Hall extend well beyond drawing up Xs and Os or preparing for left-footed punters.

We all know the feel-good news: The Bears improved to 3-0 with a road win against the Pittsburgh Steelers and are one of seven unbeaten teams in the NFL.

We all know the feel-bad news: Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton rushed the passer, took a funny step and was lost for the season, just like that. Melton, 26, tore the ACL in his left knee and will require surgery once the swelling goes down.

What we didn’t know – at least, what I didn’t know until Monday – was what happened in the wee hours of the morning after the Bears’ return flight landed at O’Hare Airport.

That’s when Trestman the coach became Trestman the counselor.

Melton, who flew home with the team shortly after being carted off of the field, did not want anyone to drive him home. He might have torn ligaments in his knee, and he might have lost millions upon millions of dollars in next summer’s free-agent market, but he didn’t need anybody’s sympathy and he certainly didn’t need a chauffeur.

So Trestman sent text messages to Melton to make sure that he made it home safely.

And when Melton returned home, he texted his coach to let him know he was OK.

And when Melton and his mother arrived to Halas Hall at 11 a.m. Monday to confirm the bad news about his knee, guess who was right there with them in the trainers’ room?

It was Trestman, the first-year head coach who quickly has bonded with his team.

“We had a player hurt,” Trestman said. “And it wouldn’t matter if it was the first player on the team or the 53rd. He had a significant injury, and he was hurting.”

The NFL can be a strange business, both wildly generous and horribly cruel.

One moment, a young man has millions of dollars in his bank account and keys to a Maserati in his pocket. The next moment, that man is lying on his back on a cool grass field in Pittsburgh, and trainers are huddled all around, and TV is going to commercials.

These are the moments that players across the league fear most. They stand and look down at their teammate and friend, and deep down inside they know it could have been their ACL, their season, their career.

“It’s sad,” said Bears wide receiver Earl Bennett, whose locker at Halas Hall is a few feet from Melton’s. “I mean, any time you see a player go down, it’s sad, because you don’t know the extent of the injury. Henry is one of those guys who’s been working hard all offseason. It’s sad to see him go down.”

Now, it’s time for the next man up.

In this case, that man is Nate Collins, a 6-foot-2, 296-pound defensive tackle who has yet to make a start in 25 career games with Jacksonville and the Bears. Replacing Collins as a valued backup could be Zach Minter, an undrafted rookie who last played for the Montana State Bobcats in the Big Sky Conference.

As for Melton, the only certainty is a long, grueling injury rehabilitation. If all goes well, he should be ready for training camp next season, although it’s anyone’s guess as to which team he’ll be playing for because his contract expires at the end of this season.

“He’s terribly disappointed,” Trestman said. “We’ve just got to let this settle for a while. We lost a very good player. ...

“We’re not happy about it, but this is the downside of the National Football League. Players are going to get hurt, and the team’s got to respond.”

And the coach has to lead with a heart as well as a headset.

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