Urlacher hung up his cleats officially this week, wrapping up a stellar 13-year campaign in which he was the monster in the middle for the Monsters of the Midway. He only wore navy and orange. A rare feet nowadays with players often changing teams at some point during their careers. Many latch on with another club just to hold on for a couple more seasons and cash a few more enormous checks. Urlacher could have certainly chosen that road. Instead, he leaves now preserving more of his health and all of his legacy.
When the Bears selected Urlacher out of New Mexico in the first round of the 2000 draft, expectations were high. The book on him was he could run like the wind and tackle with the best of them. The fact that he even returned some punts and played some wide receiver immediately pointed to a super athletic talent. Bears fans were intrigued and optimistic but also very cautious. After all, the team just came off of two drafts in which their first round selections brought in the likes of Curtis Enis and Cade McNown.
It didn’t take long however for the Windy City to breathe a collective sigh of relief. It seems almost comical now, but the Bears actually started Urlacher at the Sam linebacker position just to get his feet wet. He quickly moved into the middle, where he went on to have a superb rookie campaign.
Things only got better from there. Urlacher led a dark horse Bears team in 2001 to a division title, while piling up record setting tackles. Sure, bringing down the ball carrier is expected from the position, but it was the way number 54 did things that were unlike most middle linebackers. His closing speed was incredible. Scrambling quarterbacks who ran over Urlacher’s peers, often went nowhere against the Bears. Urlacher’s sideline to sideline pursuit was like no player in the league. A combination of talent and heart that resulted in a long day at the office for opposing offenses.
Urlacher’s athleticism stood out in other ways too. Acrobatic interceptions came in big spots again and again. He was even used as a receiver and ball carrier on fake field goal packages. While Urlacher continued to rack up the hits, a city fell in love with him.
Usually when coaches and players are linked in the NFL it is often a quarterback that we think of. Shula and Marino. Walsh and Montana. The list goes on and on. In Chicago though, it was a coach and a linebacker combination that really stood out for almost a decade.
The first few years of Urlacher’s time with the Bears were under Dick Jauron. Other than that shocking 13-3 campaign in 2001 however,Jauron’s teams were usually on the short end of the stick. When the Bears cleaned house and hired Lovie Smith, Urlacher’s career shot into full gear. Urlacher’s speed and linebacker/safety hybrid talents made him the perfect centerpiece for Smith’s Tampa 2 defense.
Together Smith and Urlacher led the Bears to three NFC North titles and an NFC Championship in 2006. It’s almost poetic justice that both men, who stood up for one another through the highs and the lows, leave the Bears organization at the same time. That said, if Marc Trestman’s offense is going to be as quirky as some believe, it sure would’ve been fun to see Urlacher out their for a gadget play every once in awhile.
Urlacher handled controversy almost as well as he handled a would be blocker. In 2007, Butkus made some public comments basically saying Urlacher needs to get tougher and hit harder. Keep in mind when Butkus played guys often bit, kicked, and stomped each other on a regular basis. Today, players are often flagged for fifteen yards if they sneeze near Aaron Rodgers. Many thought the criticism of Urlacher from Butkus was unwarranted. Perhaps Urlacher did as well. But, he didn’t get into a back and forth through the press, nor did he complain. He just kept trying harder. He kept getting better.
While Urlacher wasn’t as flashy a star as a Tom Brady or a Ray Lewis, he certainly took full advantage of his fame. He filmed countless commercials and his jersey is one of the top sellers in all of football. I guess you could say he was just as good at promoting himself as he was at reading a blocking scheme.
When a star skill position player is missing from a team’s offense, you already know it will be an uphill battle for that team to compensate for their loss. If someone told you the Saints will be without Drew Brees or the Vikings will lose Adrian Peterson, the impact can already be visualized. That’s because you see the long passes and marvel at the big runs. A linebacker’s work is often more mundane. The little things, if done right, usually add up to big dividends. Urlacher’s greatness may be best measured by what his team did or didn’t do, when he wasn’t there.
The Bears were downright dismal when Urlacher didn’t suit up due to injury. Many did not expect such a fall out from a team without a linebacker, but the impact of Urlacher not being there was huge. That is a testament to his play and his leadership abilities. He made his teammates better not only by example but by providing useful in-game information. The Bears had a coach on the field when Urlacher was in the middle.
Through all the success and all the fame, Urlacher stayed pretty much the same throughout his illustrious tenure as a Bear. He kept the same friends, wore the same clothes, and ate the same foods. I spoke to him in 2005 and he told me about how some fans would come up to him, hand him their baby, and snap a picture. Urlacher and teammate at the time, Jerry Azumah, had it happen to them just days before. Urlacher just didn’t understand why someone wanted him to hold their child so badly. A regular guy doing super things on the football field.
Brian Urlacher was a special Bears player. Yes, fans loved his play, but they really grew to actually love him. He was always there. Every Sunday you knew you could count on the man in the middle. Fans smiled with him when he held up that George Halas trophy in January, 2007, they read about him in the tabloids through Paris Hilton and Jenny McCarthy, they winced with him when the injury bug came biting, and they mourned with him when he lost his mother. Urlacher wasn’t just some football player to Bears fans.
Thirteen years flew by. Take a look at Urlacher’s rookie pictures and take a look at him now. You can see the age. It’s sort of like a president. You see the man so much that you have to look back to realize how different he looks. The navy and orange has some gray now. It is time to go.
Selfishly, Bears fans are happy that Urlacher leaves as a Bear. They should be happy for him too. Now, instead of taking unnecessary shots for another year or two, he can hopefully enjoy a long and healthy after football life.
The last time I spoke to Bears co-owner Pat McCaskey on the telephone he signed off with “Have a Hall of Fame day.” Good advice. Advice Brian Urlacher heeded every day for 13 outstanding years.