Football / Sports

After refusing to quit, Michael Ola making most of opportunity with Bears

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Michael Ola considers his mother to be his biggest supporter. Pamela John has helped push her son up the rungs of professional football's ladder, a climb as improbable as it was circuitous.

She encouraged him when he spent the 2011 season out of football. She was there for him when he tried out for the Virginia Destroyers of United Football League but wasn't signed. She supported him when the Jacksonville Sharks of the Arena League cut him, and when pursuit of his dream took him north to the CFL.

And when the Dolphins waived him in May?

"I think right now you should give up," John recalled telling her son.

She chuckled this week as she told the story. It's a good thing her son didn't listen.

Ola, 26, is expected to start his second consecutive exhibition for the Bears on Thursday night against the Jaguars at Soldier Field. Coaches are studying him extensively while incumbent starter Jordan Mills nurses a sore left foot and top backup Eben Britton remains out with a strained left hamstring.

That bodes well for Ola's chances of making the Bears' 53-man roster, as does his familiarity with coach Marc Trestman from their time together with the Montreal Alouettes. But given all the setbacks Ola has overcome just to earn this opportunity, he already has succeeded.

"I had to experience failure," Ola said, "I failed a lot, got cut a lot. Got told I wasn't good enough a lot. Got told by different teams that we don't feel like you can play here.

"I can't take it for granted. I was just yearning to be in this spot. Now that I'm here, camp is tough, it's hard, but I wake up and think, 'Man, I'm here. I'm a Chicago Bear.' "

Ola finished his college career at Hampton (Va.) University, an FCS school, in 2010, just in time for the NFL lockout in the spring of 2011. He spent that season at home.

"I figured I wasn't really good enough to make it," he said. "At that time, I was just searching for myself."

Support from family and friends and deepened religious faith motivated him.

"He's a very hard working man," said John, a nurse in Orange, N.J. "I know that he can do anything he puts his heart to, and his passion is football. He loves playing football, so he's doing what he loves.

"Like I told him: 'If it's really what you want to do, keep doing it. Hopefully one day you'll make it.' That's all he's doing."

His climb included failed or brief stints with teams whose jerseys you won't see around town. Hartford Colonials. Virginia Destroyers. Jacksonville Sharks. Orlando Predators.

In 2012, he intersected with Trestman in Canada. There, the league's limit on non-Canadian players was problematic.

"In Montreal, it was a very difficult situation for him," Trestman said. "Believe it or not, he wasn't a starter because you have a Canadian ratio and our O-line was Canadian. So Michael for a while couldn't understand why he wasn't playing."

As Ola climbed from the practice roster to the starting lineup, Trestman invested in him in ways now familiar to other Bears.

"I got to know him very well through all the conversations we had to allow him to understand how he had to work," Trestman said.

Ola took advantage of injuries with the Alouettes that season, just as he's doing now. He continued his ascent in January when he signed with the Dolphins, but they waived him in May.

That disappointment pushed Ola's mother to her end point. But Ola let the waiver process play out and it ended with a reunion with Trestman.

Now, Bears coaches are praising his versatility. He can play guard and tackle on both sides of the line, a rarity.

"He's a good athlete, and he uses his hands really well," offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. "He's growing each week."

A major part of that growth is mental. Sometimes Ola has to convince himself that he belongs in the NFL. He felt such assurances from within as he trotted onto Soldier Field for the Bears' exhibition opener last week.

"Sometimes I'm just so focused in ... that there are times when I forget to sit back and be like, 'Man, I'm runnin' with the (first-string),'" Ola said. "And because this is my first year in the league, my gauge of how long it takes players to get to the position I'm at and me just being thrust in there, I definitely need to do more sitting back and appreciating it. But at the same time, not resting on that but still trying to earn my spot on this team."

John, meanwhile, is making up for all the appreciation her son doesn't have time for.

"I've always had faith in him that when he puts his heart to it, he'll make it," she said. "I'm a proud mom right now."

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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