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Bears linebacker by day, Kellogg student by night

When he’s not hitting the books, Hunter Hillenmeyer is hitting offensive linemen — hard enough to help propel his team to the Super Bowl

By Matt Golosinski

1/23/2007 - A balanced attack of brains and brawn is helping Hunter Hillenmeyer succeed on and off the football field.

The 26-year-old Chicago Bears linebacker has helped lead his team to the National Football League’s championship, and now on to the Super Bowl in Miami to face the Indianapolis Colts on Feb. 4. But his skills are not limited to the gridiron, as Hillenmeyer is also pursuing a Kellogg School MBA degree during the off-season.

A fourth-year NFL player out of Vanderbilt University, the Nashville native lines up with some of the league’s best, including teammates Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, both Pro Bowl selections this year. Even at 6’4” and 238 pounds, Hillenmeyer admits sometimes being the “third wheel” in that powerful defensive line, but the team-oriented No. 92 says he is perfectly happy with his supporting role. His steady performance has earned him a reputation as a very smart player who makes few miscues. In the locker room, some teammates have dubbed him “CNN” since Hillenmeyer, a student in the Kellogg Part-Time MBA Program, is the go-to guy for information on any number of subjects.

Before the Bears leave for Miami — where Hillenmeyer says “every hour will be accounted for; you go from practice to meetings to media day” — Kellogg World tossed a few questions at him as he returned from dropping his parents at the airport Monday. We asked him about football, but also about how his Kellogg experience figures in his life today and how he sees it shaping his future.

Kellogg World: Congratulations on an outstanding victory against New Orleans.

Hunter Hillenmeyer: Thank you. It was so much fun. I had a ton of family in town. It still hasn’t really sunk in yet. Today I watched the game film and have been trying to figure out all these Miami travel arrangements.

KW: Urlacher gets a lot of ink, well-deserved, but when it comes to driving strategic change or implementing an innovative marketing plan, I bet you got him beat.

Hillenmeyer: [laughs] I don’t think he’d disagree with that.

KW: How challenging has it been to balance your professional football career with your goal of earning a Kellogg MBA?

Hillenmeyer: I answer that by tipping my hat to my classmates, the ones working all day and then coming to school at night, because I don’t know how they do it. Truth be known, in the off-season, when I take most of my classes, I’ve got a lot more free time than the average person in the program, even though we still have obligations with the team year-round.

KW: So the off-season isn’t like a summer break? You’re still working out with the team, right?

Hillenmeyer: Yeah, but I might be done by two o’clock during the off-season. I actually thought about taking a class on Monday nights during the season, because Tuesday is our day off, but that’s been too much. So I take all my classes during the winter and spring.

KW: In class, do your peers treat you like a celebrity?

Hillenmeyer: I don’t think so, especially not in the context of the academic environment. It’s those Kellogg nametags that get me into trouble! Your face doesn’t get you much recognition because in football we always have helmets on, but the nametags can catch people’s attention. In some of my classes, though, I feel like I have to spend the first two or three weeks disproving the ‘dumb jock’ stereotype so my group will accept me as one of their own. [laughs]

KW: What do you think your academic pursuits help you bring to the game, in the locker room or on the field?

Hillenmeyer: Well, me wanting to go to business school has nothing to do with me being in the NFL. But obviously there are some lessons that carry over. For instance, classes that deal with group dynamics play into the football setting just as they would in any setting. The real reason I’m in business school, though, is to prepare for opportunities that will be down the road, after I retire from sports. They say the NFL means “not for long,” since the average career is about three years.

KW: It’s a bone-crushing pursuit, so I’m not surprised. Are a lot of guys in the league as forward looking as you seem to be, getting ready for a career after they hang up the cleats?

Hillenmeyer: I think a lot of guys do a better job than they sometimes are given credit for in terms of preparing for life after football. That’s the biggest reason I’m at Kellogg now, though there are a lot of reasons I chose the school. There’s no team you could play for where you would have better opportunities to pursue part-time graduate study than with the Bears here in Chicago. Even if I hadn’t played in the NFL, I would likely have been going back to business school at this age. It’s a career path that I had planned.

KW: So why Kellogg?

Hillenmeyer: I talked to people about Kellogg and about the University of Chicago. But for a whole bunch of reasons, including a better class schedule for me, I preferred the Kellogg program. Kellogg has expertise in a million areas, but it has a particular reputation as a strong school for entrepreneurship and marketing, areas that especially interest me.

KW: Your dad, back in Nashville, is an entrepreneur too, isn’t he?

Hillenmeyer: Right. Mostly in restaurants, but he’s definitely a “deal junkie.”

KW: What’s your game plan with respect to leveraging your degree down the road?

Hillenmeyer: Right now, since I’m going to be here for another four years, I’m focusing on my core classes and figuring out the details as I go. But entrepreneurship is one area that I find appealing, and Kellogg is a great place to be.