LAKE FOREST – Henry Melton had plenty of nearby football heroes to choose from as a kid growing up in the Dallas suburb of Grapevine.
Troy Aikman. Emmitt Smith. Michael Irvin. Deion Sanders. Charles Haley.
Did one of them stand out as his favorite?
“No,” Melton said this week at Halas Hall. “I loved Barry.”
Make that Barry Sanders, not Barry Switzer.
“I wasn’t a Dallas fan,” Melton said.
Melton had good reason to root for faraway teams despite living about 15 miles from Cowboys Stadium. His uncle, Ray Crockett, spent 14 years as a defensive back in the NFL, including five seasons with the Detroit Lions, seven seasons with the Denver Broncos and two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Deep in the heart of Texas, nobody could fault Melton for his lack of Cowboys love.
“I really cheered for whatever team my uncle was on,” Melton said. “Everyone respected my affiliation with whatever team my uncle was playing with.”
Now, Melton is gaining respect for a different reason. He has emerged as one of the NFL’s most productive defensive tackles heading into Monday’s return trip to Dallas, where the Bears (2-1) will play the Cowboys (2-1) on national TV.
Since the start of the 2011 season, Melton leads all defensive tackles with 10 sacks. He leads the Bears with three sacks this season to go along with two tackles for losses and four quarterback pressures as part of the league’s sixth-ranked defense.
On an aging defense, Melton has provided a youthful spark.
“He’s young, he’s explosive, he’s always in the backfield,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “We rotate so many guys up front. I’d like to say he’ll be great all season long, but hopefully he stays healthy and keeps doing what he’s doing. He’s a good football player and just creates havoc in the backfield.”
It’s an important role, albeit a much different one than Melton had as a teenage standout in Texas.
Melton excelled as a running back at Grapevine High School, where he was named a second-team All-USA selection by USA Today in 2004. The Texas Longhorns recruited him to play in the backfield, where he appeared in 25 games as a freshman and sophomore, but as a junior he was converted to a full-time defensive end.
Melton said he embraced the move to defense. It paid off as the Bears selected him in the fourth round (No. 105 overall) of the 2009 NFL Draft, and the 6-foot-3-inch Melton bulked up to 295 pounds as the Bears moved him inside to defensive tackle.
“I went into Texas with an attitude of, ‘I’ll get in where I fit in. I’ll play anywhere,’ ” Melton said. “I ended up moving around, and the rest is history.”
Another chapter of Melton’s history will be written Monday.
Melton cannot wait for it to unfold.
“It’s everything in the game: Monday night, going back home, my family’s going to be there, and everybody’s watching,” Melton said. “It’s definitely going to be exciting.”
Bears bits: Running back Matt Forte (ankle) and receiver Earl Bennett (hand) were limited for a second straight practice Friday. The Bears will practice again today before heading to Dallas. … Fullback Evan Rodriguez (knee) and linebacker Brian Urlacher (coach’s decision) did not practice.