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Draft Day Dream, "My Chicago Bears!"

Carlos Nelson will forever be associated with QB Justin Fields. Here’s how the Auburn Gresham community leader got to the NFL stage weeks after losing his father, an avid Chicago Bears fan.

On a chilly, rainy April night in Cleveland, Carlos Nelson and his wife, Tanya, waited for the Chicago Bears to go on the clock at No. 20 in a covered area a good distance from the NFL draft stage.

All of a sudden, an NFL official hurried over and told them they had to run. The Bears had traded up to No. 11, and they were needed backstage.

Before that night, Nelson — an Auburn Gresham community leader the NFL picked to represent Chicago in the first round — had wondered how he would drum up excitement to announce the Bears picking a cornerback or offensive tackle at No. 20, as many had predicted. Maybe if the Bears picked Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater or cornerback Greg Newsome II, that would be fun, he thought.

When he was told the Bears moved up, Nelson at first didn’t realize Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was still available. He assumed the Bears were taking Alabama quarterback Mac Jones and thought, “I’ll try to be excited.”

“I wasn’t going to be excited, to be honest with you,” he said.

Then he saw the card. He was so thrilled, he started to rush to the microphone when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stopped him.

“Carlos, are you trying to take my job?” Goodell whispered. “I’m supposed to go first.”

Nelson stepped back to wait as Goodell introduced him.

“I kept looking down at the card, saying, ‘Is this really happening?’ ” Nelson said. “He announces me, I go up there and it was just organic that I’m thinking these are my — me and my dad — my Chicago Bears. I was just so excited.”

Nelson raised his voice and fist as he read the card: “Boy, how exciting is this? With the 11th pick of the 2021 draft, my Chicago Bears select Justin Fields, quarterback, Ohio State!”"

Carlos Nelson, CEO of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation, was chosen to announce the Bears' first-round pick at the 2021 NFL draft in Cleveland.
Carlos Nelson, CEO of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation, was chosen to announce the Bears' first-round pick at the 2021 NFL draft in Cleveland. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

No matter how Fields’ development goes over the next few years — but especially if the talented rookie’s career pans out as general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy hope — Nelson’s announcement will be a key moment in Bears history.

For the man who read Fields’ name — a fan who has dedicated his Sundays to watching the Bears on TV with his father — the moment was even more emotional because of the personal events leading up to it. A major turning point in a yearslong project on Chicago’s South Side. The death of his father and older sister just 13 hours apart a few weeks earlier. And a serendipitous call from a Bears partner letting him know the NFL picked him to be in Cleveland.

“Even though I’m an engineer and an MBA and the CEO of this organization, when they put the card in my hand and I walked out onto the stage, all of that dropped and I just became a mushy-brained Da Bears fan,” Nelson said. “I just became a superfan of the Bears. So when you see me out there pointing to Bears nation, that was real, man.”

‘An angel’

Nelson was born during the Bears’ 1963 NFL championship season and called the team his “first love.”

Everyone in his family knew that when he and Cleophus Sanders, who married his mother in 1969, were watching, they weren’t to be bothered.

They bonded over the Bears during the lowly Abe Gibron years in the early 1970s. They loved Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus and the Lovie Smith defenses of the early 2000s. Nelson always will remember watching Greg Latta’s winning touchdown catch in 1977. Sanders never forgave Steve Fuller for the 1985 loss to Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins. And Nelson jokes that Sanders’ last words were “Cody Parkey.”

After Sanders’ funeral last month, Nelson’s daughter pulled up a video she had taken of Nelson and Sanders yelling at the TV after Parkey’s missed field goal in the Bears’ 2018 playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

The memory of that sting now somehow brings fondness during a much greater loss.

On April 2, Nelson’s older sister, Sharon Nelson-Cruikshank, 68, died of lung cancer. On the same day, Sanders, 87, was in the hospital for tests for several medical issues, but his family expected him out that day, Nelson said. Sanders frequently asked his wife about Nelson-Cruikshank. After learning his daughter had died, Sanders, whom Nelson described as an honorable man who loved his wife and children, also died, just 13 hours later.

It was the week of Sanders’ funeral that Bears Care director Marge Hamm called Nelson to invite him to the draft. Nelson broke down in tears as he thought about what it would have meant to Sanders to see it.

“Marge said, ‘Your dad must be an angel because he’s making things happen,’ ” Nelson said.

Nelson had a previous relationship with the Bears through his work with the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC), but Hamm didn’t immediately realize the significance of the honor to Nelson.

“He had made reference to being a Bears fan. I have learned after the fact how intense their fandom was and how it was really a shared passion,” Hamm said. “The way things turned out, I just can’t imagine who could have been more thrilled. To be able to pick a quarterback, and a Black quarterback … on so many levels, it was just, ‘Wow.’ ”

Community impact

As part of the NFL’s COVID-19 relief efforts, the league held a “Draft-a-Thon” in conjunction with the 2020 and 2021 drafts during which it raised money for pandemic relief and recovery. This year, the NFL focused on four pillars — mental health, food insecurity, health disparities and the digital divide — and solicited teams to submit community representatives who were making a difference in those areas.

The Bears submitted Nelson’s name.

Nelson’s grandparents moved to Auburn Gresham on Chicago’s South Side the year he was born, and as an adult, Nelson bought his first home down the street from theirs.

He worked for 15 years as a mechanical engineer and wasn’t involved in the community much, but he decided to volunteer with the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation after 9/11. At the time, the GAGDC was a startup, and when the executive director took a job elsewhere, leaders asked Nelson if he would like to take over the role.

He committed to it short term and 18 years later still leads the organization with a mission to improve the quality of life of residents, including addressing business and housing development, health access and equity, educational enrichment and community engagement.

As part of a quality-of-life initiative to address vacant lots and buildings, the GAGDC acquired a 60,000-square-foot building near 79th and Halsted in December 2016 and for years tried to get funding for the renovation.

The draft card announcing the Bears pick of Justin Fields that Carlos Nelson, CEO of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, was chosen to announce at the 2021 NFL draft.
The draft card announcing the Bears pick of Justin Fields that Carlos Nelson, CEO of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, was chosen to announce at the 2021 NFL draft. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Last summer, as Auburn Gresham struggled with the pandemic — including suffering the first COVID-19 death in Illinois in retired nurse Patricia Frieson — the Pritzker Traubert Foundation awarded a $10 million grant to a project that includes turning the building into a “Healthy Lifestyle Hub.” The new facility will have a full-service health center with dental, primary care and mental health services, a sit-down restaurant, bank, pharmacy and offices to provide 100-plus jobs.

The Bears, who have been involved in the neighborhood since 2016, including holding an annual Christmas celebration for families at Leo High School, donated $611,000 that will go toward a test kitchen and a community training center consisting of a multipurpose instruction room and conference space in the hub. Hamm said the donation comes as organizations such as the Bears are beginning to shift their charitable focuses from COVID-19 relief to recovery.

“(It’s) addressing some of the inequities and providing capital and other resources for infrastructure so that, should a pandemic hit again, there is equal access to healthcare — we won’t see the same results as we saw before,” Hamm said. “It was like this investment could be part of what we do organizationally to advance that community, decrease disparities in healthcare access and really help on their recovery not only from a health standpoint but really from a community standpoint.”

Thanks to those and other donations, Nelson said the GAGDC hopes to open the healthcare center by April 2022.

The NFL recognized that work and picked Nelson to be one of four team community members to announce draft picks in the first round, representing the league’s health disparities cause. Hamm was thrilled at the selection.

“He’s so positive,” Hamm said, “and I’m sure that has a lot to do with how he’s able to really manage all of the different constituencies that come along as you’re trying to get a project like that put together.”

My Chicago Bears

Every time he hears the clip, Nelson feels the same as he did that Thursday night in April, when his businesslike demeanor melted into superfandom in front of millions of viewers.

“I get that same energy that comes up from my toes,” Nelson said. “And it’s not because it’s me, but it’s because of that selection. I’m just so excited for that.”

Nelson gets joy from knowing he was part of an important Chicago sports moment and especially loved watching an Instagram Live video in which Bears safety Eddie Jackson talked him through the pick.

“Carlos, you’d better say what I’d like to hear,” Jackson said to his TV. “C’mon, Carlos. Let’s go.”

Nelson now hopes to display Fields and Jackson jerseys when the new building opens in Auburn Gresham.

He has the draft card with Fields’ name on it — autographed by Goodell — displayed in his living room. And one heck of a story to tell anybody who will listen, including an Ohio State fan who asked him to recite the pick at a gas station on a recent road trip.

Nelson also has the bittersweet dream of how his father might have reacted to watching it all.

“I just think he would have been crying for joy and a level of pride to see his son out there,” Nelson said. “Especially announcing my Chicago Bears.”


Keywords: Auburn Gresham, Chicago Bears, Chicago Bears Care, Draft Day, gagdc

Posted in Auburn Gresham in the News, Business, Housing, Economic Development, Community Highlights, All news


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