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Brotherhood on the line

NFL linemen Nate Collins, Kyle and Chris Long have become like family off the field. Courtesy Nate Collins

The belly laugh conjured from the memory contorts Nate Collins into a convulsing mess.

Apparently, he knew much more in April about the Chicago Bears' first-round pick than anyone else in the crowd at the United Center for Game 3 of the Bulls' Eastern Conference playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets.

Hanging out with defensive tackle Henry Melton that day, Collins settled into his seat -- football, for once, off his mind -- to take in the excitement on the court as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced the Bears would be on the clock with the 20th pick of the 2013 draft.

When the pick came down, a stunned fan at the UC jumped up and belted out this: "Who the [expletive] is Kyle Long?"

Collins still cracks up at the thought of it because he knew, knew all too well.

"I turned around and was like, 'They picked Kyle?' I was like, 'Ohhh.' Then my phone starts blowing up," said Collins, a defensive tackle, who joined the Bears last season as a free agent. "It was funny finding out like that. Henry is like, 'Who is that?' I was like, 'Yo, that's [St. Louis Rams defensive end] Chris Long's younger brother.'"

It's Collins' younger brother, too.

*****

The No. 2 overall pick of the 2008 draft by the Rams, Chris Long hosted Collins during a recruiting trip to the University of Virginia in 2005, not far removed from a promising sophomore campaign with the Cavaliers, in which he played 12 games, contributing 46 tackles and a pair of sacks.

Collins would eventually choose UVa. By the end of his freshman year, when Long "took me under his wing," Collins explained, the two had become best friends and roommates.

"He's like a family member to me," Chris Long said.

Over the years at UVa, Collins became a fixture at the dinner table of Hall of Famer Howie Long, and his wife, Diane, at their home in Charlottesville, Va.

"Their family, they just welcome everyone with open arms," Collins said. "I'd be over at the house all the time with Chris. His dad, as soon as I met him, he gave me his phone number because I played nose tackle. He'd tell me if I ever needed help or if I ever wanted to pick his brain on anything, I could just call. I took advantage of that."

At the time, Kyle Long was a sophomore in high school.

On most days after finishing their workouts at UVa, Chris Long and Collins would visit the local high school, where Howie Long spent many of his days working with son Kyle, who as a junior was named to the all-state team as both an offensive and defensive lineman.

"Then after practice, my older brother and Nate would come over to work on stuff with my dad," Kyle Long said. "So that's when I started to really get to know Nate. They'd work on their club, they'd work on their rip moves, their outside-in moves. Nate was somebody that was over our house all the time eating dinner and hanging out; just a great friend of my brother's and mine."

The biggest of the Long brothers, a group which also includes Howie Jr., Kyle Long -- looking to carve out his own identity -- eschewed football for a baseball scholarship to Florida State despite playing a major role in St. Anne's-Belfield winning back-to-back state championships his junior and senior seasons.

Collins always laughed at the idea of Kyle, a hulking, 6-foot-6 pitcher, hurling fastballs from the mound. "I used to always laugh because I'd say to Chris: 'This is your younger brother?'" Collins said. "He's the biggest out of all of them. He's bigger than their dad, bigger than Chris, bigger than Howie Jr. I just used to laugh all the time because he was a baseball player. The guy looked like a football player."

*****

Kyle Long lived up to his menacing appearance after giving up baseball in 2010 for the family tradition. Long enrolled at Saddleback College in 2010, and left there for Oregon two years later. He started just five games for the Ducks. But his body of work, combined with freakish athletic gifts, led to the Bears selecting him with the No. 20 pick in the draft.

A week before the Bears made the pick, Collins and Chris Long pondered what might happen.

Collins asked Chris what would happen if the Bears picked his younger sibling. Chris Long replied: "Why?"

"I was telling him I hoped the Bears would pick him. I told him, 'That means I get a few free dinners a year whenever your parents come around to visit,'" Collins said.

Soon, though, the reality of the situation would hit. During the offseason, in which Collins served as a groomsman at Chris Long's June 22 wedding to Megan O'Malley in Charlottesville, the entire family (Collins included) vacationed at their home in Flathead Lake, Mont. There, the Longs and Collins took part in some high-altitude training, a tradition they've all agreed to continue in the coming years.

As the group rested during one of the sessions, Collins explained to Kyle that as a second-teamer, he'd wind up matched up against the rookie during drills because Long would likely be running with the starters.

Chris Long called the situation "nerve-racking" to ponder because they'll be "competing with each other. But it's also nice that they've got each other to look out for." 

*****

On July 28, the Bears took part in their first fully padded workout of training camp at Olivet Nazarene University. Minutes after the team broke for inside drills, Collins found himself lined up across from the team's first-round pick. Once the cadence was barked and the simulated snap commenced, Collins launched quickly at Kyle Long and the two locked up briefly for an encounter drenched in adrenaline, testosterone, speed and explosive power, full tilt.

With what appeared to be a mixed martial arts grappling move, Long launched Collins into the grass as spectators howled.

After practice, Collins said: "When he gets his hands on you -- that's one of the biggest things we know -- when you are going around him don't let him grab you because he's got that strength."

He'll likely have to use it again on another of his brothers, the biological one, come Nov. 24 when the Bears face Chris Long and the Rams in St. Louis. Collins thinks "Thanksgiving week is gonna be something special."

Chris Long doesn't want to think about it.

"[I've thought about it] some, but there's plenty of games between now and then that I've got to worry about," he said. "I certainly try to treat everything like just another game. It'll be fun. It'll be different. I don't know what to expect. I've never been on the field with my brother, on the same team or playing against him. It's uncharted territory, and I'm just better off dealing with it when it comes."

Until then, the elder Long brother takes solace in simple things, like the games of phone tag made easier by the fact his younger brother Kyle and Collins are seemingly always near one another.

"If I can't get ahold of Kyle, I can get ahold of Nate and vice versa," he said. "I can check on how they're doing. It's good to know they have each other's support. I know Kyle is in good hands."

Standing outside of the cafeteria on an unusually cool summer day at ONU, Kyle Long is a couple of practices removed from his first fully padded matchup against Collins. Instead of basking in that small victory from a couple of days before, the rookie extols Collins' virtues, how he's "tremendously strong in a phone booth," how he's "somebody I feel has been undervalued for a long time" because "he has a large chip on his shoulder," before adding that "those are the types of people you want to be around, because those are the kinds of people that push you to get better."

They push buttons, too. Collins did that in reminding Long of the story of how he found out the Bears drafted him.

"Nate goes: 'Oh my gosh, they picked Kyle?' Five starts in college, they should know who I am," Long said laughing.

"Hopefully in due time, they'll all figure it out."