Brian Urlacher is home where he belongs
CANTON, Ohio — It’s hard to imagine anyone traveling a more disparate path from small-town boy to NFL superstar than the road Brian Urlacher trod from the playgrounds and oil fields of Lovington, N.M. to Chicago and on to Canton, Ohio and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
To hear Urlacher tell it, he had almost no clue about the history and legacy of the Chicago Bears when the team made him the ninth overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft out of the University of New Mexico.
“I didn’t even know anything about it when I was drafted,” Urlacher said. “I grew up in New Mexico. I was a Cowboys fan, so I didn’t know about the history of the Bears. I didn’t know about the Bears defense.
“I knew about Dick Butkus and Walter Payton, but I didn’t know about Singletary, Bill George, all the other great players that came before me.
“I quickly learned because you guys didn’t give me a chance to adjust, so I learned real quick from the media what it was supposed to be like.”
There was a lot Urlacher didn’t know about football back in those adolescent days in Lovington, and he was still trying to figure a lot of it out by the time he got to high school.
“I missed practice, yeah,” he said. “I didn’t realize that practice was mandatory back then.
“Someone told me … my sophomore year. I wasn’t going to be on varsity anyway. But the practice was literally ... I could hop the fence and be at the practice field from my house. But I had to cut a yard that day, because it was a Monday or something and we cut this lady’s yard every Monday.
“So I was going to miss practice. I did miss practice, actually, to go do that. And they sent someone to my house to come get me.
[They] jumped the fence, came over to my house to get me — because I didn’t realize it was mandatory.
“So I was out mowing the yard when I should have been at practice. I made seven bucks, though, that day.”
Urlacher played his college football at New Mexico quite simply because the Lobos were the only school to offer him a scholarship coming out of high school. It was a big step up from tiny Lovington, but not exactly a giant leap into big time college sports.
A quick Google search of other noted New Mexico alum reveals that Urlacher is almost unarguably the most famous Lobo in any walk of life unless you’re a big fan of Penny Marshall — of Laverne & Shirley, Awakenings, A League of Their Own (director) and Cinderella Man (producer) fame.
But even there, Urlacher battled upper classmen for playing time at linebacker his first two seasons after playing running back, wide receiver, defensive back and serving as a return specialist in high school.
A coaching change after his sophomore year brought Rocky Long to New Mexico from UCLA, and Long recognized Urlacher’s unique combination of size, speed and athleticism and created a new position for him, the “Lobo Back” at which he was a hybrid linebacker/free safety in a 3-3-5 defensive alignment, free for the most part to run to the ball and hit people. Hard.
But Urlacher also continued to play some wide receiver and return kicks, and following his final college season year he actually was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the outstanding defensive back in the country.
Urlacher will tell you that from the time he started playing the game until he arrived in Chicago, he was never really sure what to call himself.
“I felt like I was out of position my whole career honestly,” Urlacher said. “If you saw me throw a football, you would think the same thing. I’ve got a good arm. I’d still be playing right now if I was a quarterback.
“The ‘Sam’ linebacker was not meant for me. Greg Blache and I have spoken about that a few times. He thought that was the best way to get me on the field quicker because mentally it would have been easier for me to handle, but it was harder to play ‘Mike.’
“I didn’t know where I’d end up eventually, and I guess they had a plan for me. I was going to go to the middle eventually, sooner than we thought because Barry [Minter] got hurt.
“But it worked out pretty darned good.”
The whole Chicago Bears thing did, too.
Once Urlacher was firmly ensconced at the middle linebacker spot, all he did was win 2000 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, go to four straight Pro Bowls from 2000-03 and four more in 2005, ’06, ‘10 and ’11, earn five All-Pro nods, win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2005 and get voted to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s. And, just this past August 4, he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, the 28th Chicago Bear and fourth Bears middle linebacker to receive the game’s ultimate honor.
For Urlacher, the weekend in Canton was of course a huge celebration with teammates, friends and family, and also a time to do a little house-cleaning in straightening up a few misunderstandings from late in his career with the Bears.
Halfway through his final season, in a 13-6 loss to the Texans, former teammate Danieal Manning had a big game for Houston, including an interception, after which Urlacher slapped his hand in congratulations on his way onto the field.
After the game, in response to media and fan critics upset with him for congratulating the opposition for a play that hurt the Bears, Urlacher replied, “That was a nice play. I couldn’t give a crap about what people think on the street. Get mad at me all you want ... I couldn’t give a crap about what people say.”
Afterward, Bears fans raged for days at Urlacher for saying he didn’t give a crap about them — even though that was clearly not his intent or meaning.
The nuance between not giving a crap about Bears fans, which was clearly not what he said or meant but the way many chose to interpret it, and not giving a crap about how they felt about his actions on that one play was lost on a large segment of Bears Nation.
When Urlacher then tried to negotiate a deal to return for the 2013 season but was rebuffed by general manager Phil Emery and new coach Marc Trestman, the end of his career in Chicago received nowhere near the treatment his icon status and Hall of Fame career demanded.
It was a bitter pill for a man who will tell you now that he was born to be a Chicago Bear.
“Definitely, 100 percent,” he said. “I feel like with my style of play and the way my mother raised me, my work ethic and the way the people in Chicago appreciate defense and hard-working people, no doubt I was born to play there.”
Never the most public or extroverted guy in the world, it was clear in his first few years of retirement that, while he didn’t talk about it much, Urlacher was disappointed in how things ended and less than comfortable as a retired Bear.
He has acknowledged there were a few folks with the organization then — no names named — with whom he was less than thrilled.
But the chill has thawed a bit at a time in recent years, and in his acceptance speech in Canton, Urlacher went out of his way to permanently cement his place in the hearts of all Chicago Bears fans.
“To the Chicago Bears, the charter franchise in National Football League history, first I must acknowledge the fans,” he said. “I never got a chance to say goodbye to the best fans in the world. Even when we stunk, they sat in their seats in Soldier Field freezing their butts off every time. And in case you don’t know, our fans know defense.
“The most coveted position in pro football for a defensive player is to play middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears. Just think about it — the history of this position is unmatched by any other team. Bill George, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and now, I can barely say it, me.
“I hope over my 13 seasons I made all of you Bears fans proud. Becoming a Bear was like playing for family. And to play my entire career with one team is a testament to the tradition of the Chicago Bears. I know it’s due to our founding father, George Halas.
“Thank you Virginia Halas McCaskey and George McCaskey for continuing that legacy. “Thank you George for always treating us with dignity.”
Any sense that Urlacher was just blowing smoke to be politically correct had been erased a day earlier, when he told a small group of media how touched he was and what it meant to him for Virginia and George to show up at his private party for family, friends and teammates the night before.
“That meant a lot to me and my family,” he said.
Asked if the room stopped when they arrived, Urlacher explained, “It did. She walked into the room and everyone was like, ‘Whoa. That’s George Halas’ daughter.’
“And that’s the way I felt. We got her sitting down, she stayed for about an hour, listening to Lee Brice play some songs and then she was gone.
“George and I have become pretty close over the past few years. I’m honored, honestly, for them to be there and take the time out of their . . . that was late for her (12:20 AM).
“It was late for me, but it was late for her as well.”
There was more to the healing process in Canton. New head coach Matt Nagy asked Urlacher to give a pregame speech to the current Bears before their exhibition game against the Ravens the Thursday night before his induction, and Urlacher accepted.
Whether that acceptance was welcome or reluctant was a bit unclear, as Urlacher has never been particularly comfortable with his celebrity and his humility in understanding why these new Bears would want to hear from him is genuine.
Urlacher explained, “I’ve always tried to lead by example and never [have] been a speech guy or a big talked or rah-rah leader.
“I’d never given a pregame speech before, but I was really honored when Coach Nagy asked me, and it was really pretty cool.”
After the game, Nagy talked about what it meant to his young Bears and how cool he thought it was when Urlacher showed up in the locker room and most of the younger players just stopped what they were doing and stood jaws a gape when they realized it was really Brian Urlacher.
Nagy said he could see in the eyes of his players how awestruck they were to have Urlacher there with them.
A number of players after the game made remarks like, “I can’t believe I actually got to meet Brian Urlacher.”
It wasn’t at all unlike the way Urlacher describes his first weekend in Canton and the new “teammates” he was meeting, many for the first time.
When asked who he was the most impressed with at the Ray Nitschke luncheon — an annual affair only for Hall of Fame inductees, with no cameras and no microphones — Urlacher said: “All of them. Everybody. To sit there, and I didn’t know what to expect because it’s only gold jackets in there, no one else is in there.
“To hear some of those men talk and tell some stories about each other and what they’ve been through before the Hall of Fame and while they’re in the Hall of Fame, I just sat back and listened.
“Any time someone opens their mouth, I am glued to them because I want to hear what they have to say, I want to hear all their stories. You watch the inductions, but you can’t get it all in there. So just to hear stories. I mean, Joe Namath is a stud. To hear him talk, and when he talks, people turn around and listen.
“Jim Kelly — I was a huge fan of his when he played — to hear his story, what he is going through. Chris Doleman. There are so many guys. Michael Irvin had some great things to say this morning.
“All of them. I could go on and on if you wanted me to.”
When you get to know him a bit, clearly one of Urlacher’s most endearing qualities is that he doesn’t really get that he is every bit as impressive and awe inspiring to many as each of his fellow 317 NFL Hall of fame inductees.
Visiting with him, you can tell that Urlacher still misses Sundays, and while he’s obviously not in game shape today, he does still look like it wouldn’t take him more than a couple weeks in the gym to be ready to go.
However, clearly his playing days are forever behind him, and unlike many of the greats who are unable to walk away from the game, Urlacher doesn’t harbor any ideas about returning as a coach or on the business end of the NFL.
Asked if it’s something he’d ever consider, Urlacher pauses for just a moment before saying, “No. I love the game. I’m a huge fan of football. I love to watch.
“Coaching? Our coaches work so hard. They’re in there 80-90 hours a week. I don’t want to do that,” he said. “I hated watching film when I played. I was not a film guy. I’m not scared to say it. I just did not like watching film. I had a good idea of what the team was doing, and I just let my instincts after that go out there and play.”
The next NFL coach, scout or general manager with that approach to the game will certainly be the first, and don’t expect it to happen any time soon.
Looking back on it all, does Urlacher have any regrets?
“Well, I regret not winning the Super Bowl. We squandered that opportunity,” he said. “The thing is, you think you’re going to get back and it’s hard to get back to that game. We never got back, so … that’s the one thing.
“But playing-wise? No, man. I feel like I did it the right way. I had fun when I was out there. I had fun in the locker room — just enjoyed it.”
There was some healing for Brian Urlacher to do, but he does appear now to be a man who is extremely content with where he’s arrived in life, and by all accounts every member of the Bears organization from ownership to front office and throughout the coaching staff are thrilled to have him back home where he belongs.
Whether or not he was truly born to be a Bear, this past summer was the time when Urlacher was truly coronated — for now and for all time as one of the greatest ever.