One-hundred three perfectly plated tables set for over 1,000 guests filled the Marriot Hotel Conference Center Thursday night.

A benefit staged for the annual American Red Cross Evening of Stars Gala in Uptown Normal, people seemed to be there for something other than the dinner and the donations.

It was Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy.

Entering from a side door of the elegant banquet hall, Nagy walked to the stage, high-fiving youth football players from the Bloomington-Normal area.

Posing for pictures with players from both Redbird women’s basketball and volleyball teams beforehand, Nagy seemed to emit electricity with every encounter.

And his speech was more of the same.

“How awesome is this," Nagy opened with 1,000 pairs of eyes glued to him and moderator, WJBC broadcaster Dick Luedke on stage. "It's great being here with all these crazy fans that love football, that love winning and you feel it. It's just good people who love their sport, love their team, we love our city. From the boys [Chicago Bears] coming in on Monday, being back at it, you kind of just get chills. It feels right, guys are ready and I'm excited to get at it."

Father and youth football coach Nick Catoni couldn't believe the opportunity his team and his son, Vincenzo, gained meeting last year's NFL Coach of the Year.

"He'd been anxious for weeks to meet him. He's really excited," Catoni said of his son. "I know the dads are excited too. It's awesome. Everybody is going to jump at something like this, it's such a great experience for the kids as well."

Teammate Jackson Hilt says he would be careful not to "pass out" when meeting him at the gala.

Nagy achieved nothing short of solid last year for the Bears, transforming a program stuck in the cellar of the NFC North for years to a 12-4 powerhouse in 2018, collecting Chicago's best record since its 2006 Super Bowl appearance.

Along with claiming a NFC North Championship title as well as leading the team to its first playoff appearance since 2011, Nagy was named the Associated Press and National Football Writers Association’s NFL Coach of the Year in his first season as a head coach - anywhere or ever.

He was not in awe or star-struck of the honor. Rather, he still has something more important on his mind: a Super Bowl ring.

Hard to believe he was a real estate agent once upon a time.

“I worked at Keystone Custom Homes and on every Monday, we had a spin the wheel day and whoever sold the most houses at the end of the month, got to spin the wheel. On the wheel was a bunch of money and it was like a bonus. I had no idea how to sell houses but, I wasn't losing that thing," Nagy said. "I sold eight homes in one month... and I walked to the wheel one November, spun the wheel, and got like fifty bucks. That's when I knew [real estate] wasn't for me."

During his short-lived real estate career, Nagy talked of his then-budding ties with NFL executives, specifically in friend and former wide receiver at his alma mater, Kansas Chiefs general manager Brett Veach.

Nagy was a quarterback who played six seasons in the now-folded Arena Football League, finding himself in transition to achieving his first full-time coaching job for the Philadelphia Eagles.

But it was not like that at first, as Nagy was under the impression of playing football again, not coaching it.

“I went to the University of Delaware and one of our wide receiver was a guy by the name of Brett Veach [who] just so happened to be an assistant to Coach [Andy] Reid," Nagy explained. "I was still playing in the Arena Football League and he called me up and asked me to do this internship in Philly. I got three weeks off to go to this camp and, I'm an intern at this point, Coach Reid calls me into his office in the middle of preseason and asked if I was in shape, had an agent and could play. I said yes, yes and yes. I played in the fourth preseason game against the Patriots."

"I was in all the meetings for three weeks under the impression they would sign me as a player," he continued. "But they told me to go put the coaching shorts back on, and that crushed me. I went home for the rest of that football season and at the end of that year, Coach Reid called me up in January [saying], 'hey listen, I got an entry-level job with the Eagles.' That call was on a Tuesday, I was flown out on a Thursday and that was in 2010."

Nagy coached with the Eagles' from 2010-12, following head coach Andy Reid to Kansas City in 2013. Working as a quarterbacks coach under Reid from 2013-15, he became the offensive coordinator for the Chiefs in 2016 before arriving to Chicago last season.

Following the Bears' 16-15 first-round playoff loss to Nagy's former Eagles January 6, it is hard to forget the emotions Chicagoans felt in the aftermath of stained defeat.

Nagy has repeatedly stated to the media that this is only just the beginning for a rebirth of the Bears' reign as "Kings of the North," not shying away to reiterate that Thursday night.

As far as the tattered kicker situation in Chicago, Nagy knew, "there would be no way to avoid that question tonight."

"These kids are human. They're good people and I think sometimes we as players, coaches and fans, want to place a blame on a lot of different people. I'll always go back in a lot of different areas and think, we could've been better, and having not come down to that. But that was last year..."

“Things happen for a reason," he continued. "We try to tell our players this and to me, we've all witnessed it in sports recently [referencing the adversity faced by Virginia basketball and Tiger Woods]. To be able to turn that negative into a positive; that's what burns you. We went through some highlights and lowlights and, when [the season ended], you could hear a pin drop. That's failure. But that's not a bad thing, because we're going to utilize that negative and turn it into a positive going into this year."

As the NFL draft begins next Thursday, Bears general manger Ryan Pace, Nagy and their staff have a tough choice to make in effort to complement the team's foundation in Mitchell Trubisky, Tarik Cohen and Khalil Mack.

But for now, Nagy keeps quiet until draft day.

“Depth,” chuckling to keep hush of any sort of a reveal. “We’re going to get depth and we’re going to get better.”

Nagy stepped off stage and was hurried through a side door, leaving to another round of spectator-induced chants of “Let’s Go Bears,” offering hope for a new season, a new beginning and another successful evening with a star.

JONATHAN BARLAS is Sports Editor for The Vidette. He can be reached at jgbarla@ilstu.edu. Follow him on Twitter @janveselybarlas


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