When Ryan Poles thinks about his childhood, images of football fields fill his head. He remembers when his father was a Division III football coach at St. John Fisher, Poles would sit on the sidelines of college training camps, the wires of coaches’ headsets draped around him.
“Back when there [weren’t] the wireless Bose headphones, they actually had wires that were strung across the sidelines,” Poles said. “I was 10 years old, and I’d be holding those at every practice during training camp. So [football] was always a part of the life, and I got started at a young age. It just became a passion from there.”
Poles’ early immersion in football blossomed into his career, and on Jan. 25, the Chicago Bears named him their general manager. According to Poles, a former Boston College football player and BC ’08, the lessons he took from his time on the Heights prepared him to become the Bears’ executive leader.
Youth football players across the country dream of reaching the NFL.They dream of running through the tunnel on Sundays, taking in the energy of fans, smoke, and fireworks. They dream of embellishing the field with nifty jukes, making eye-popping catches that electrify crowds, and getting an opportunity to pilot a team to a Lombardi Trophy.
Poles had that dream too.
After graduating from BC, Poles joined the Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2008, where he was a member of the practice squad but was cut from the 53-man roster in the Bears’ final roster cut in August 2008.
Hailing from Canandaigua, N.Y., Poles grew up around the game, hearing stories of his father’s days playing for BC in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and watching him play in the NFL. Junior Poles, his father, was a three-year starter for the Eagles.
Poles then came to BC himself as an offensive lineman—donning the number 72 just like his father. Though his dreams of playing in the NFL were cut short, he pivoted to the front office and served in a number of front-office roles within the Kansas City Chiefs organization over 13 years.
Now, Poles is taking his next step up the rungs of the ladder. Fourteen years after he left BC, Poles is headed to the Bears’ highest office. At the age of 36, Poles is the second-youngest general manager in the NFL. The average age of NFL general managers is 51.
“That’s one of the cool things about professional sports and about the NFL … it’s a meritocracy,” said Anthony Castonzo, BC ’11, who played on the offensive line with Poles at BC. “If you’re the best at what you can do, you will get that job. … They don’t write off people just because they’re younger. The fact that, you know, if he has proven throughout his resume and his interviews that he’s capable of leading a team as the general manager, they don’t care that he’s young.”
And according to Tom O’Brien, who was the head coach at BC during Poles’ first three years on the Heights, Poles has certainly proven himself worthy of his new job.
“I think from an early age, he set his mind out that once he graduated, he was going to get into the scouting business and go that direction,” O’Brien said. “He certainly paid his dues and worked his way up and deserves everything that he has received so far.”
Soon after being cut from the Bears’ roster, he returned to BC as a graduate assistant—a homecoming to the place that he credits for his success, not just as a football player, but as a student and a person. Poles said he chose BC not just for its football program, but for the quality of education he would receive.
“I had a mentality early on that it was almost like ‘Make a decision on the best school possible, and just imagine football wasn’t there,’” he said. “What campus do you want to be on? What kind of education did you want? Make the decision based on that, and then add football on top of it.”
O’Brien said many of the players he recruited had a similar mindset as Poles and that he appreciates BC’s emphasis on the “student” part of the word “student-athlete.”
“Any player that comes to BC has to be a student first,” O’Brien said. “We work to be champions in the classroom, champions in the community, and champions on the football field. If you’re not a champion in the classroom, … you’re not going to get on the football field.”
The education provided at BC was one of the draws for many recruits during O’Brien’s time at BC and an important part of his recruiting strategy, he said. Poles chose BC over other perennial football powerhouses such as Georgia and Ohio State.
“They came, they were going to get a meaningful degree, and once they graduated, they were going to set themselves up to have an opportunity for success” O’Brien said.
Trey Koziol, Poles’ former BC teammate and current confidante in the football industry, shared a similar insight. Poles became an offensive graduate assistant at BC after Koziol, BC ’08, left the position vacant to work for the Tennessee Titans. Poles recently tapped Koziol as the Bears’ co-director of player personnel.
“There’s no difference between Ryan you see at the office and the Ryan you see playing with his son and his daughter,” Koziol said. “He’s the same guy day in and day out, and I joke around because he’s just one of the most patient and humble guys you’ll ever meet. … Ryan’s that kind of guy you can talk about life to, you can talk about work, and he’s just a tremendous listener.”
The lessons Poles learned in the classroom at BC, such as how to be a strong communicator and how to work with the media, helped him transition to the front office, he said.
Poles got his start as a scouting and player personnel assistant with Kansas City in 2009 before making his ascent through the ranks within the organization. He became director of college scouting in 2016, assistant director of player personnel in 2018, and executive director of player personnel in 2021.
“I get a lot of people that are kind of like ‘Oh, you passed on Georgia and Ohio State and places like that,’” he said. “But I will see it through the lens of kind of a big-picture deal, where I knew I was going to get a good education if football didn’t work out. … The background, the education, the things that I learned, the people that I met were huge in terms of my success up to this point.”
With the Bears, Poles will have the opportunity to put the lessons and skills he has learned to use at the highest level. Castonzo said he is confident that Poles has what it takes to serve in the Bears’ top role.
“I guess the first thing that pops into my mind is he’s kind of unflappable, you know?” Castonzo said. “He’s a very even-keeled guy. I don’t think I ever saw him really get too wound up or overwhelmed by anything.”
Though Castanzo only played with Poles at BC for one year, he gave credit to Poles for helping introduce him to the program.
“When I came in as a freshman, he was a fifth-year senior, and our team was very good,” Castonzo said. “I was a true freshman, and, you know, I kind of had my eyes really big and I didn’t really know what to expect. And Ryan was instrumental in kind of helping me feel comfortable and making me feel like I was part of the group and part of the line and he was always really good to me.”
Castonzo said he and his teammates—the offensive line in particular—had a bond as close as family, all thanks to Poles.
“He wanted to make sure we were all kind of part of the same brotherhood,” Castonzo said.
Poles said he hopes to bring that same family mentality to the Bears organization.
“If you build a roster, it’s not about one person—it’s about the group,” he said. “Who can work together? Who can communicate not only on the field, but in the office as well? That team mentality and everyone pulling their weight and doing things the right way and really not needing you know, the publicity or the fame or the credit, that’s a big part of that mentality.”
Koziol said even in such a competitive environment as the NFL, Poles has found a way to be a unifying figure on every team he has worked with.
“It’s a very macho, alpha-driven industry in sport, and it’s like that as a player too,” Koziol said. “But it’s never about Ryan. So, you know, like it’s made up with him being an offensive lineman, and knowing what a consummate teammate is. That’s just who he is as a person, because he treats everybody in the building—from the custodians to the owner—the same way.”
In addition to establishing a team-oriented mentality with the Bears, Poles said that one of his goals as general manager is to bring back championships to the city of Chicago, a city he believes is filled with tradition.
“[Chicago is] just a place that has a rich tradition,” Poles said. “It’s been a while, but they’ve been successful here. They got the most Hall of Famers in the Hall of Fame. And I think with that comes pressure. … To be a part of that would be amazing—just to bring in more Hall of Famers is kind of a goal of mine and a goal of our staff is to bring in really good players.”
He believes that a championship football team will help uplift the Chicago community.
“I’ve always thought this city’s one of the best in the country,” Poles said. “The people, the city itself. There’s a lot of energy here and again, I think it’s even better though when the Bears are winning.”
Koziol spoke to Poles’ skills as a leader, preaching his discipline for managing tough assignments. He said he believes Poles inherited the same energy that O’Brien brought to BC’s football program—doing tasks the hard way and rejecting shortcuts. Koziol said he believes Poles will be accountable for everyone in the building and instill work ethic through good habits, both on and off the field.
“Nothing ever seemed too big, you know,” Koziol said. “You never see Ryan rattled. It’s a funny story, but it’s like, he would be the guy if the fire alarm went off in the building to say ‘Hey, don’t panic. Everything’s okay. We’ve just got to go out the exit this way. We’ll be fine, and everything’s cool.’”
Koziol said he sees Poles as a brother. Because of their personal relationship, Koziol was overjoyed when the Bears announced Poles as the new GM, knowing how hard he had worked to secure the position.
“The pressure rises with him,” Koziol said. “He always seems to rise to the occasion, and you’d never notice it. We were always a little bit short staffed in Kansas City, but it was never too much for him. He got into directing personnel and stuff, and his role grew and grew and grew, you just saw the way he operated, and it wasn’t a matter of the position he held.”
When Castonzo thinks about Poles, he thinks not only of his tranquil demeanor, but his sense of humor. Even when serving in serious roles, Castonzo said Poles adds an element of fun.
“He actually interviewed me as a scout when I was coming out to get drafted,” Castonzo said.
“I’ll never forget he had only put 10 guys on the defense on the test that he gave me, just to see if I would notice that they were missing a safety. And when I called them out on it, it was kind of a funny little moment. He’s like ‘Yeah, you got me.’”
O’Brien said the hard work that has gotten Poles to this point will be the key to his success as a general manager.
“You have to start off at the bottom rung and you work your way up the ladder, and, you know, he’s checked all the checkmarks off on his way up this ladder to give him this opportunity,” O’Brien said. “Certainly the Bears thought he was supremely qualified to do this job.”
Poles said he wants to lead by example for generations of BC football players to come by returning to BC and giving advice to players, a plan he has discussed with current BC head coach Jeff Hafley.
“I want to be a resource for them,” Poles said. “I think that’s the next-level piece, is to be a helpful hand to the guys that are in a position you have been in before, and maybe I can give them a little bit of knowledge and wisdom that can help clear up their future goals. That does mean something.”
Images Courtesy of the Chicago Bears