LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Sean Spencer has spent a lifetime in football. During his six years at Penn State, the Nittany Lions were among college football's most disruptive defensive lines. Spencer then spent two seasons with the New York Giants, where he coached emerging star Dexter Lawrence.
Spencer knows rare talent when he sees it. When he arrived in Gainesville, Fla., as the Gators' new co-defensive coordinator, one player immediately stood out -- Gervon Dexter.
"I said he's different," Spencer told NBC Sports Chicago. "That's special."
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Bears general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus had the same inkling when they "graded the flashes" of a talented but raw defensive tackle who asked to play in a stance that didn't maximize his natural abilities while at Florida.
The Bears loved what they saw: Size, length, power, burst. Dexter is, in their minds, a one-of-one. He was a no-brainer selection in the Bears' draft room at No. 53 overall.
The excitement level for what Dexter can be is high at Halas Hall. But there's also an acknowledgment that a sprinkling of patience will be required.
Where those two -- expectations and patience -- converge is a good place to understand who Gervon Dexter is, what got him to this point, and what both he and the Bears hope will take him places few have gone.
Dexter, 20, was a late entrant into the football world.
Always a big, strong athlete, Dexter initially gravitated toward basketball, where he played on the same team as Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes. As a kid, Dexter dipped his toes in the football waters, but a banged-up ankle pushed him toward the hardwood.
Google Dexter's high school basketball highlights, and you'll see clips of a powerful forward with tremendous footwork and soft touch around the hoop. Football coaches at Lake Wales High School were intrigued by Dexter's special physical tools and got him to give football another try.
Two years later, Dexter was a five-star recruit headed to Gainesville with poor technique. Three years later, he was a second-round NFL draft pick by a marquee franchise with a rich defensive history.
That meteoric rise from happy hooper to NFL three-technique is a tribute to Dexter's mindset -- to his understanding of the work needed to make up for time lost. While he was working on his drop step and jump hook, everyone else was working on pad level, get-off, and developing a repertoire of pass-rush moves.
Once Dexter understood that football was his future, the gas pedal hit the floor so he could catch and pass his contemporaries.
"I put in the work," Dexter told NBC Sports Chicago during a sitdown at Halas Hall. "I like to say like the dirty hard work in the dark. I put in that work. During that time, I know when I stepped on the field, I made a choice. So even in basketball, I never want to half do anything. So when I stepped on the football field, I knew, ‘Okay, is this the choice that I'm making? I knew that I had to catch up. I knew that it was guys who had been playing for so much longer than me. So I knew that while they were sleeping, I needed to be doing the dirty hard work in the dark. I needed to be grinding because they already had that one up on me."
Florida asked Dexter to play in a square stance and to read and react to the offense. The Bears want him to use his God-given gifts and get upfield. Penetrate and disrupt. It's a scheme built to get the best out of Dexter. It should allow him to make an impact immediately as a rookie while developing into what Eberflus and Poles hope is a dominant defensive tackle.
The work to rebuild Dexter's stance started the minute he touched down in Chicago. It's an extensive process, but that work is ahead of schedule as we enter the dog days of training camp.
Dexter is a quick learner. He "adapts easily." He's also always working, always asking questions, and always absorbing knowledge.
The rookie is constantly picking the brain of veteran defensive tackle Justin Jones, defensive end DeMarcus Walker, center Cody Whitehair, guard Lucas Patrick, and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
Dexter is a film junkie. He takes detailed notes because it helps him never make the same mistake twice.
That work to climb the mountain doesn't end when Dexter leaves Halas Hall for the day. The rookie understands that his biggest impediment could be health. Interior defensive linemen, even the best ones, often see their careers hampered by an inability to be available.
Dexter is doing everything in his power to ensure there are no roadblocks to the rare air he hopes to occupy one day.
"I haven't even got close to where I want to be," Dexter told NBC Sports Chicago. "And the type of player I want to be, so I'm still working. I'm still asking those veterans questions. I'm still learning how to practice. I'm still learning what sets this offensive lineman takes. I'm still learning.
"I'm just doing everything extra. The asking questions, the staying after practice. I try to be one of the first ones out there at practice to get an extra get-off. So I try to get that extra stuff. I try to stay late. I mean, I invested in myself. I got like all the little stuff at home, like the recovery tanks, the ice tubs. I invested in all those little things just because I know that's what it's gonna take."
As imposing as Dexter's size is, it's everything else that has those around Halas Hall believing that things will come together quickly for the rookie.
"He’s massive, for one," Edmunds said. "A big guy that can move, we love those guys. He’s taken a step forward each and every day. His leadership, the way he goes about his business. Coach preaches it all the time: it’s a race to maturity. He’s definitely up front with that."
That maturity level is rare for a 20-year-old kid. But you stop being a kid when you become a dad.
On May 9, 2022, Gervon Dexter Jr. entered the world, and his already motivated and hard-working dad found perspective and another fuel tank for his engine.
Becoming a parent changes everything. For Dexter, the birth of his son has helped him see things differently on the field because he sees everything differently off it.
"I think now having him, it's not just me on the field," Dexter told NBC Sports Chicago. "So I've learned to be selfless. Just because, like playing the game of football, everybody wants that sack. Every defensive lineman, you want that sack, you want that sack, but sometimes you may have to contain. You may have to be that guy who is the picker and penetrator, and you won't get the sack, but somebody else will. And that definitely comes from my son.
"Like there's been times where I'm tired. And my fiancee, she's tired, and we're looking at like who's gonna change his diaper and you got to be it. Sometimes you got to be that person who, okay, I'm gonna, I'm gonna change his diaper this time. And that's what I learned. And even with him, he's watching me. He's depending on me. And that's the same thing on the field. I mean, you look to the right, you look to the left and you got a guy who's depending on you to be at your gap. So I that's definitely what helped me. I've become a better teammate, for sure."
Justin Jones has been around the NFL. He knows that rookies come in all different forms. Some enter the NFL as somewhat finished products close to their ceiling. Others are balls of clay that will take time to mold into something special.
But Jones hasn't seen one like Dexter before.
"We talk about all sorts of things that the average rookie probably wouldn’t recognize," Jones said of his mentorship of Dexter. "But he’s not your average rookie, in my opinion."
"Not the average rookie" might be selling Dexter short. He's a 6-foot-6, 312-pound game-wrecker with 4.88 speed, rare burst, and elite strength.
Spencer called Dexter "a humanoid" with an ability to "press and extend" similar to Dexter Lawrence. Jones sees something limitless.
"He’s going to be a force in this league," Jones said. "I really do believe that. I haven’t seen anything like him in a very long time."
That's a lot to put on a second-round pick who was polishing his post moves five years ago.
The expectations for Dexter are threatening to jump the guard rails before the season even begins. But those expectations never enter the rookie's mind. It's noise from places he doesn't visit, and in a language he doesn't speak.
"I want to win. That's the main goal," Dexter told NBC Sports Chicago. "To be a winner. I mean, I think you'll start to see individual goals get unlocked when you start winning. So that's one thing that I noticed. So right now, my goal is just to win and do whatever I do to help this team win. And I think all of those like things will start coming -- Defensive Rookie of the Year, all of those things that every rookie says he wants to be, I think those things start coming as you start to win.
"I feel like I can I feel I can help this team win. I feel like I can dominate my role. And that's any role. That's whatever coach wants me to be -- what type of player he wants me to be. And whatever time I get on the field, I know I’m going to dominate that role for sure. And that's no question."
As big, strong, and fast as Dexter is, he admits that the NFL showed him the importance of technique. Everyone at this level is big, strong, and fast. Add in technical proficiency, and Dexter won't be able to impose his will on everyone as he did in Florida.
That's where the "dirty work in the dark" comes in.
Dexter knows his pad level has to get better and more consistent. He read scouting reports on himself prior to his final season at Florida, and "poor pad level" was all over them.
If he wants to get every ounce out of the gifts he was given at birth, Dexter will have to empty the tank daily. The bucket will have to be overflowing with sweat.
There's a motto from famed runner Steve Prefontaine that perfectly encapsulates Dexter's mindset.
"To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift."
Dexter hears all the praise and talk about what he can be. He doesn't let it sit with him or even pause to digest it. To speak of potential is to talk of something not fully realized. NFL history is littered with the bones of potential that wilted and died on the vine.
No, Dexter doesn't want to talk about potential. His visions are of what lies at the end of the road -- of the end destination.
"It's only potential if you if you never tap in," Dexter told NBC Sports Chicago. "Like everybody will say, ‘Oh, he had the potential.’ I know for sure I'm not gonna be that guy. Because I'm working, and I'm getting after it. So like I say, I appreciate that people see that ability in me, but I have to do it. It's up to me.
"I just want to be great. You know, so I'm going out there, I'm getting after it and I don't let that stop me. I know some guys get to a point where they hear people saying that about them and they kind of get settled. And that's definitely not me. I definitely want to go down as one of the best defensive tackles to ever play the game of football as well as one of the best teammates to play the game of football. So I'm gonna get after it. I'm not going to stop."
That end destination? What Dexter imagines when he lets his mind drift between diaper changes, cold tubs, film study, and everything else -- Immortality.
“I’m going to come back here with my family and have my number hanging up," Dexter said. "I’ll be on this [Halas Hall mural]."
With that, Dexter stood up and stolled off into the bowels of Halas Hall. There was work to be done.