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January 08, 2021

Three Chester natives — a player, a coach and an exec — look to make a run with Chicago Bears

Chester has a player, coach and front office presence with Chicago Bears... what are the odds?

NFL High School Football
Ronell Williams, Bilal Nichols LaMar 'Soup' Campbell.jpg Submitted photo/for PhillyVoice

Ronell Williams, Bilal Nichols and LaMar 'Soup' Campbell all work for the Chicago Bears, and all hail from Chester, PA.

Deep in the city of Chester, amid the pot holes, crabgrass growing through cracked concrete, soundtrack of police sirens and the side street muck that attracts stray dogs, lies its heartbeat — its people, many of the unseen faces who do extraordinary things that waft through the shadows.

Ronell Williams, Bilal Nichols and LaMar “Soup” Campbell met at an interesting juncture in their lives at the intersection of the NFL’s Chicago Bears — by way of Chester.

Williams, 28, a Chester High grad, is in his second season as the Bears’ defensive quality control coach. Nichols, 24, is a 6-3, 313-pound defensive tackle in his third year with the Bears, a 2018 fifth-round draft pick, and the sagacious 44-year-old Campbell, who holds a vital role as the Bears’ director of player engagement since 2017, who everyone on the team confers with, from head coach Matt Nagy on down.

They are three men at three different stages of their lives, one on the field (Nichols), one coaching (Williams) and one in the front office (Campbell )— all examples of success.

“That’s been the true pleasure of all of this with the Bears, being with Bilal and ‘Soup,’ two guys from Chester and we challenge each other,” said Williams, who is a graduate of West Chester, where he was an all-American linebacker and could have played in the NFL, if not for a knee injury. “You learn especially being around Bilal and LaMar, that we’re the standard. We realize that we can’t have a lot of slip ups, and we all hold each other accountable.

“I suppose I’m the middle child, between Bilal and Soup (laughs). We’re three guys from Chester, who arrived here in the same city with the same NFL team, and we’re all here together. Let’s be real here, Chester is rough, there are no bones about it. But if you do things right, the city will take care of you.”

The connection started before Williams arrived in Chicago. He met Campbell, a 1994 Strath Haven and 1998 Wisconsin graduate who played five years in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, while he was still trying to make it in the NFL. A relative of Williams contacted Campbell on his behalf to impart some advice. Instead of calling Williams on the phone, Campbell got on a plane and showed up to speak to Williams in person.

“Ronell and I knew each other before he took the job with the Bears,” said Campbell, who possesses a graduate degree from Wisconsin. “When I got a chance to catch up with Ronell about a coaching opportunity, it just so happened one of his former coaches, Bill Shuey (the Bears’ assistant linebackers coach), was here. He mentioned Ronell and Ronell coached with him at Widener.

“I follow the path of the athletes that come out of Chester, and Ronell has worked for everything that he’s received. I knew of Bilal, because Chester is such a small city, where everybody knows everybody. When we drafted him, my cell phone went off. To have three black men from Chester, we all know our city, and know these guys and their ‘whys,’ our ‘whys’ connected, because we’re all from Chester and we all want to inspire our city.

“I couldn’t be prouder of both of them.”

Campbell, Nichols and Williams are together every day, and because of COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve remained in constant contact with each other through text messaging and DMs.

“I had my run, I had my chance to play in the league, and now to see Bilal on the football field and Ronell as a coach, it’s such a proud moment to see them succeed, knowing that they’re from Chester,” said Campbell, who’s working on a doctorate. “We’re playoff contenders — and two guys from Chester have something to do with that.

“Ronell is going to be a great NFL coach, but if he didn’t get hurt, he would have been in the NFL. Ronell Williams will be a head coach in the NFL one day, because he grinds at everything he does. Bilal has been doing great in this league, and he’ll continue to do so.

“Football is a people business. You see the things in Ronell that makes people want to follow him. The NFL is full of people who work hard and strive at a high level. I don’t say that just because Ronell and Bilal are from Chester, but because they connect with people and they’re leaders.”

When Nichols arrived with the Bears, Campbell and him bonded immediately over their Chester connection.

“Bilal knows Ronell and I are watching him, because we’re pushing each other,” Campbell said. “Under normal circumstances, we would see each other every day, sitting in my office, talking about home and what we all would like to accomplish.

“When I watch both of those guys, we’re all from a blue-collar, hard city like Chester, we know what it takes to get here, and they make sure they’re in my office when those Tastykakes come (laughs) from home.”

Nichols is from Chester though went to school in Delaware, where he eventually went to college. He and his younger sister grew up with their maternal grandparents on 21st Street in Chester. His grandparents kept him preoccupied with sports, playing in the Chester Biddy League, like former Chester hoop stars Jameer Nelson and Tyreke Evans.

But Nichols’ grandparents also noticed something else — kids his age were getting in trouble.

“I feel like we have to change the narrative that’s going in Chester and inner-cities across the country,” said Nichols, a graduate of Hodgson High in Newark, Delaware, who eventually went on to graduate in three-in-a-half years from the University of Delaware. “I had a lot of friends in and out of jail at a really young age, and saw a lot of things at a young age that no kid should see. Sports was a way to keep away from the nonsense.

“It’s why I say we need to break the chain of violence going on, because we know that there are so many good things coming out of Chester — and you have three successful examples that come from that environment in me, Ronell and LaMar.

“We were able to make something out of ourselves. Media plays a big role, portraying people that the only way to make it is through sports, or selling drugs, but there is more to getting the youth to understand that you can go to school and it make it other ways.

“The funding isn’t there like it should be. These kids from Chester feel that they’re being ignored; that no one cares about them, so it’s why the violence and drugs go on, it’s why I’m talking to Ronell and Soup about doing something about it.”

The trio are thinking about running a football camp in Chester in the near future, but want it to also go beyond football.

“We’re looking to do something for Chester and are in constant dialogue about this,” Williams said. “It went from not just being a quick football camp, we’re thinking more than football. Soup wants classes for these kids about life lessons, and something way beyond football. Soup is the one who said, ‘Football should be the least of our concerns.’

“It’s not just something we’re just going to patch together, and Bilal is amazing with new ideas. We’re all going to be involved, but we’re going to have to see where the COVID-19 allows. We want to invest in a summer program that outlasts all of us — and we want to do it right.

“We need and can make a change. We know that now. We need to highlight the positive. We need to make people see that there are good things that can come out of a city like Chester.”

Just look at three Bears — Williams, Nichols and Campbell. They'll face the Saints Sunday afternoon in the NFL Wild Card.

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.