LAKE FOREST, Ill. — There was “Club Dub,” the Chicago Bears‘ postgame victory party, and the “American Idol”-themed dance-offs on Saturday mornings.
Surely the fun-loving, free-wheeling Bears had seen it all from Matt Nagy, their 41-year-old head coach. But the man largely responsible for flipping the organization’s stale culture on its head had a new trick up his sleeve — literally.
“So he got us, like, a magician,” Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “It was amazing. This guy was unreal.”
Matthew Furman is something of an institution at corporate events. He has performed at functions for golfer Zach Johnson and NBA MVP Steph Curry as well as Notre Dame football, the New York Jets, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins.
For 17 years, Furman, a professional magician and mind reader, has performed for the celebrities in the grandstand, in the clubhouse and at the VIP parties throughout the week at the American Century Championship Celebrity Golf Tournament at South Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
This past July, Nagy played in the event. When he wasn’t golfing, Nagy hung out with other celebrities including friend and Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich. However, he couldn’t escape Furman, who seemed to be, well, everywhere.
“Whether it was in the grandstand after playing golf or at the functions they have at night or during dinner or fireworks, everywhere you looked, Matt was just walking around doing tricks, and it would always start with it being three or four people, and by the end, there would be 30 or 40 people,” Nagy said.
“So one night I start thinking to myself, ‘How cool would it be to break up the monotony of training camp and get him in here to perform in front of the guys?’ He never messed up his tricks. At least, we didn’t see it. So I thought it would be a little outside of the box and bring him in so we could get away from football a little bit.”
That’s how Furman ended up in Bourbonnais, Illinois, the site of Bears training camp.
“It was unbelievable, man,” Bears receiver Cordarrelle Patterson said. “Some of that stuff he was doing … I was like, ‘No way, man. No way!'”
Furman’s best trick, according to several players, was having Nagy pick a random card from a full deck, sign it and slide it back into the middle of the deck. Furman then put a rubber band around the deck and tossed it up 25 feet to the ceiling in the team’s training camp auditorium. Amazingly, the card signed by Nagy stuck on the ceiling, and the rest of the deck fell back down into Furman’s hand.
“My thoughts on magic are it’s not really magic. It’s just an illusion,” Amukamara said. “I mean, he was doing something, but we just couldn’t figure out what he was doing. It was so cool.”
Added Patterson: “Stuff like that just blows your mind. You go home and try those tricks, but they don’t turn out like that.”
The card trick was a hot topic the rest of camp.
“After he [Furman] left that day, the card stayed up there, so every time we went in the room, we’d look to see if the card was still up there, and it was,” Bears receiver Taylor Gabriel said. “I’m wondering right now if that card is still up there.”
“Everybody likes a good trick,” Furman said.
The Bears are out to prove that last season’s NFC North title was no sleight of hand.
With a roster full of Pro Bowlers, the Bears are expected to contend for an NFC Championship after losing to the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round of the playoffs at home in January, thanks to the infamous, double-doink, 43-yard field goal miss by ex-kicker Cody Parkey.
Expectations are sky high for a team that last reached the Super Bowl in 2006 and last made the playoffs in consecutive years in 2005 and ’06.
The Bears still have questions — kicker, obviously — but the core is relatively young, accomplished, talented and under contract.
What ties it all together is the culture Nagy has created.
“Everybody has a little bit of different swagger to themselves,” Patterson said. “But you got to keep your eyes open and your ears open with Nagy because he’ll throw something at you each and every day — and it’s fun. You never know what the challenge is going to be.
“He might come out here one day and run the whole practice. The next day he may be like, ‘Hey, I have a magician for y’all.’ He’s a great coach, and he brings that energy each and every day. If we mess up, he yells at us. If we do something right, he smiles at us. It’s just exactly what you want in your head coach.”
Nagy is big on variety.
“The one thing is where you can get monotonous in practice and meetings is doing the same thing over and over again,” he said. “So we’ll have some fun in meetings. We’ll maybe make some jokes on some guys here or there. Prince in particular we like to pick on.
“And then in practice, too, there’s that balance of not being too crazy serious and letting the guys be themselves. I feel like one of my strengths is probably not sticking to a script. I believe in just, if I feel like it’s a day where we want to have fun, we do.”
And winning is fun.
Amukamara won a Super Bowl as a rookie with the Giants in 2011. That’s fun. But it wasn’t like ex-Giants coach Tom Coughlin was Mr. Amusing.
“I tell everybody when I went from Coughlin to Gus Bradley down in Jacksonville, it was like going from private school to public school,” Amukamara said. “Coughlin, no hats in the building, you start five minutes early, everyone had white socks at practice, no music at practice … [With Gus,] we’re playing basketball in meetings, playing music videos, music at practice, you can wear whatever you want, even when you travel. Coughlin was, like, full suit and tie. Gus was, like, just look presentable.
“Nagy is a great mixture. It’s good for where I’m at in my career. When I was a rookie, I needed that structure, that routine. Now, late in my career, I’ll take any bone I can get, any way I can feel relaxed, it’s great. Nagy does that. … Rookies love him too because he earns their respect. He can lay down the law when he has to.”
The Bears were one of the biggest surprises last season. They had lost 10 or more games in each of the previous three seasons. Then they traded for All-Pro linebacker Khalil Mack, went 12-4 and won the NFC North.
But even though the wins piled up, players now regret not enjoying the season enough. After the doldrums of the John Fox era, who was the coach for the previous three seasons, some players kept wondering if the bottom would eventually fall out.
It did not. But reaching that conclusion took time.
“I was one of those quote on quote doubters too,” Amukamara said. “When Nagy first walks into the room for the first meeting, and he brings out the Super Bowl trophy, and he tells us, ‘This is what it’s all about. This is what we’re aiming for,’ in my head, I’m like, ‘Dude, you are a first-year coach. We’re kind of rebuilding and stuff like that.’
“And then that first week, we get Khalil [Mack], and we play Green Bay, and we’re like, ‘Shoot, we may have something.’ And then we keep going. It was either Week 13 or 14, and I was convinced that we were going to win the Super Bowl. We played the Patriots, we played the Rams, we got everybody’s best, and we knew that no one was messing with us.”
The current Bears have been all-in since the offseason program began in April.
Gabriel, in particular, made it a point to remind teammates to have even more fun than they did last season.
“That was one thing I kind of initiated — it was to enjoy the moment,” Gabriel said. “Enjoy these times we get to come out here and grind. Don’t look at it like, ‘Oh, man, we got to come out here and practice.’ Look at it like we’re out here to hang out, enjoy, make plays and have fun.”
The head coach hiring a magician for the team helps too, right?
“I’ve never seen anything like that. That goes to show you what type of guy coach Nagy is, what type of head coach he is,” Gabriel said with a smile. “That’s why I feel like we go out there and play our hearts out, just because of that guy. That’s a head coach you want to play for. I love him for that.”