From the very beginning, Brian Urlacher was the reluctant superstar – and in many ways, he still is.
One of the reasons is a level of humility that was almost impossible to believe and somehow still exists despite all that he has accomplished.
In his rookie season, Urlacher was by far the most compelling player on a Bears team that became a double-digit loser for the fourth year in a row. He was clearly uncomfortable with the attention. He would conduct interviews at his locker, with his head down, staring at the floor, speaking his words so quickly and so softly that they were nearly inaudible.
Some in the media took it as insolence or indifference. But upon deeper investigation, it was revealed that Urlacher just felt badly that he was the only one getting any positive publicity, which he felt should be shared with his teammates, especially when the Bears rebounded to 13-3 in 2001.
“I’ve never been a big fan of me, me, me,” Urlacher recently told Bears play-by-play announcer Jeff Joniak in an interview for the team’s web site. “I’m a deflector. I didn’t want to take the accolades or the attention.”
Even in looking ahead to Saturday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which is supposed to be a celebration of his brilliant career, Urlacher will deflect.
“It’s not my day,” he said. “It’s my opportunity to thank other people who got me there.”
On the field, Urlacher had an uncanny ability to always be in the right place at the right time, which was the result of his meticulous film study. But even for that he gives credit to someone else.
Urlacher had already won the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2000, had been voted to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons and made first-team All Pro twice before head coach Lovie Smith and LB coach Bob Babich came to Chicago. But Urlacher believes he became an even better player after that, and he says it was because of Babich, who will present him at Saturday’s ceremony. Under Babich’s tutelage, Urlacher made four more Pro Bowls, two more All-Pro teams and was named the 2005 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
“I just feel like once (Babich) got here – and this is no slight to any coach I had before him – there was just a change in the way I played the game in terms of my attention to detail,” Urlacher said. “I knew exactly what gap I had, I knew exactly what gap everyone on our defense had. I knew what every guy on our defense was supposed to do on every play, and that’s because of him.”
That only brought him more attention. Urlacher learned to deal with it, but never embraced it. He always wanted just to be one of the guys.
Toward the end of his career, in the dog days of another training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in sleepy Bourbonnais, Urlacher and a couple teammates dropped by T.J. Donlin’s, the local watering hole on an uneventful weeknight. That was back in the days when players were occasionally allowed to mingle at night during camp, a much better time, by the way.
That particular evening, a couple writers covering the team, myself included, challenged him and Lance Briggs to a game of bags out on the deck.
“You sure you wanna do this,” he said with a smirk, starting early with the gamesmanship.
The only other patrons were a handful of locals, a comfortable atmosphere, even for a guy looking to avoid the spotlight for a couple hours. Urlacher could not have been more of a regular guy, trash talking his inferior opponents, discussing the team and even talking about the never-ending attention that came with his celebrity.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I thought. “How much of a hardship could that be?”
But, by the end of the second game, the few had become a crowd that overflowed into the parking lot. It took less than 15 minutes for word to spread that there was a Brian Urlacher sighting.
“Now, I see what you mean,” I said.
Not that he had a problem performing in front of a crowd, even in bags. With previous throws covering most of the hole and Urlacher needing his final toss to go in for the win, he nailed it. Then, feigning surprise, he said: “Dude, did that go in?”
“You know it did,” I muttered, but I had to laugh. This was a guy, who was the face of a franchise and the most well-known athlete in Chicago at the time, just throwing some bags, drinking some beers and being normal.
And that’s all Urlacher wanted to be, especially with his fellow players.
“He was the best,” Babich said. “He was a great teammate – not a good teammate – he was a great teammate to his fellow players. Off the field, he was as good of a person, character–wise, as he was a football player on the field.”