BOURBONNAIS – Sam Hurd was 17 years old when he discovered winter.
Hurd grew up in San Antonio, where the average temperature in January is almost 50 degrees. So when the first cold snap arrived during his freshman year at Northern Illinois in 2002-03, he felt as though he had landed on a different planet.
“I was like, ‘Hey, ... what’s this? Where am I?’ ”
Hurd said with a smile recently at Bears training camp at Olivet Nazarene University.
“When that first winter came, I missed like a week of school. I didn’t know any better. I was like, ‘Do you really all go to school in this?’ I just slept in my room.
“But after that, I got used to it. I was like, ‘All right, I can handle this.’ ”
Ten years later, Hurd tackles challenges with the same positive attitude.
The Bears signed Hurd, 26, to a one-year deal last month to help on special teams and provide depth at wide receiver. He spent the past five seasons with the Dallas Cowboys after earning a roster spot as an undrafted free agent in 2006.
Hurd (6-3, 200) said he was eager to sign with the Bears. His wife is from Chicago, and he had fond memories of his time at NIU from 2002-05.
“It’s always been my second home,” Hurd said.
Likewise, Bears coaches quickly became comfortable with Hurd on the field. His practice repetitions increased this week because of a head injury to Earl Bennett, and he took advantage of his opportunity with a diving catch across the middle during team drills.
“His energy is what we’re looking for in that group,” Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. “He’s a tall guy who can run, obviously, but you just can’t tire him out. Those are the guys you like.
“He’s learned three positions right away, which is a big help for us. You can move him around. He’s going to make a spot for himself.”
Perhaps several spots.
Hurd, who wears former Bears wide receiver Rashied Davis’ No. 81, stood out on special teams in the Bears’ preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills. On a second-quarter kickoff, he sprinted downfield and stripped the ball from Bills returner Marcus Easley.
Fellow Bears special-teams player Craig Steltz pounced on the ball for what appeared to be a takeaway. However, the play was erased because of an illegal-formation penalty.
Bears special teams coach Dave Toub said Hurd’s instincts were impressive. Hurd tallied 72 special-teams stops in Dallas, including 40 in the past two years, plus two forced fumbles.
“It was great to see,” Toub said. “Last year we didn’t get any turnovers [on special teams]. We got the ball out a bunch, but we didn’t get any takeaways.
“Sam Hurd was able to rip that ball. He stripped it right away. He knows exactly what to do. He’s a veteran.”
It wasn’t always that way.
Not so long ago, Hurd was a wide-eyed freshman trying to balance schoolwork and football at NIU. He went on to catch 143 passes for 2,322 yards and 21 touchdowns during his four years in DeKalb under longtime coach Joe Novak.
“My NIU experience was great,” Hurd said. “It was a big growing-up lesson for me. I would tell anybody to take a chance and take advantage of it.
“It’s like being released in the wild. Now you’ve got to fend for yourself.
“It was an awesome experience. It made me better as a man, and it gave me a chance to get out here and prolong my football career.”
This fall, Hurd plans to return to campus to meet the team and attend a game.
For now, he’s busy learning Martz’s playbook and adjusting to life with the Bears.
“The guys here are great guys,” Hurd said. “They have a great tradition and they work hard.
“That’s all I want to bring to the table. I want to work hard, bring some good leadership, and just come out here and be the best I can be.”