Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
What long seemed inevitable became reality Monday when the Bears terminated the contract of former star defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who for the last four seasons struggled to regain his place as a cornerstone of coach Lovie Smith’s defense.
The simple truth is that Harris was due $3 million in bonuses before training camp and no longer was a player who commanded big money.
“I kind of knew; it’s nothing personal,” Harris said. “I want to thank the McCaskeys. I want to tell my fans I love them, and I’m going to miss the city and my teammates. I think it’s one of the best locker rooms in the NFL.”
Asked if he was disappointed by the decision, Harris said, “I’m not disappointed at all. I’m ready to start all over. But it’s one of those bittersweet deals.”
The Bears also announced they had terminated the contracts of veteran linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer and tackle Kevin Shaffer.
Hillenmeyer’s future has been in doubt since he suffered a concussion in the third preseason game, and the symptoms returned in the season opener, prompting the team to put him on injured reserve. Hillenmeyer, the team’s longtime player rep and an outspoken advocate of concussion awareness, is believed to have sustained at least two severe concussions during his eight-year career. Late in the season, he still was weighing his desire to continue playing with the long-term health risks associated with repeated head injuries.
“While I won’t be filing any retirement papers tomorrow, if I’ve played my last football game, I’m glad it was with the Bears,” Hillenmeyer said in an e-mail. “Even though I was drafted elsewhere, I have absolutely loved my time as Bear.”
Shaffer started the season as the team’s swing tackle but was replaced during a Week 2 win in Dallas and became a bit player after that.
This was supposed to have been a bounce-back season for Harris, a three-time former Pro Bowl performer who had been plagued by leg injuries and ineffectiveness for three-plus seasons. Having undergone some sort of surgery during each of the previous three offseasons, he finally was healthy heading into last season. Though he played better as the season progressed, peaking with a11/2-sack performance in a playoff win over the Seahawks, he never consistently regained the explosion that made him unique earlier in his career.
‘‘I learned that it’s not what you go through, it’s how you go through it that will determine the outcome,” Harris said days before an NFC Championship Game loss to the Packers. “You can either get in a situation where you can fold if things aren’t going the way you wanted or you can work harder to get out of that situation. I learned how to persevere through that.’’
Harris said he changed his approach after being deactivated in the third game of the season and losing his starting job, which he later regained.
“I grew up,” he said. “I stopped pointing the finger at everybody else. I paid attention to myself, which was the most difficult thing to do.’’
Harris’ departure — coupled with Anthony Adams’ soon-to-be unrestricted free-agent status — means the Bears are thin at defensive tackle. However, the 2011 draft is deep at that position. Illinois’ Corey Liuget is one example of a prospect with all the traits of a dominant three-technique tackle, a position critical to the success of Smith’s scheme.
“The NFL is no different from corporate America, but people try to make it different because you have all these athletes,” Harris said last month. “It’s the same thing in business — if you’re not performing, you’re going to be demoted or fired. That’s what’s going on everywhere in America, so it doesn’t make it harsher because you’re an athlete.”
Harris said teams already have expressed an interest in him, and he may find a new NFL home sooner than later — presumably before a new collective-bargaining agreement is worked out. He wants to play for two more seasons.
“I think my best football is ahead of me,” said Harris, 27. “I haven’t hit my prime yet. I didn’t start feeling good until the end of the season.”
Contributing: Sean Jensen