By Kyle Means, Regal Radio
Brian Urlacher turned 35 on Saturday and a couple days earlier he turned into a former NFL athlete.
As such, Urlacher avoids the kind of odds-defying career that has become more common-place in the NFL — the player pushing 40 or even flying past it, still slinging passes or catching them, although at the high-impact positions like linebacker its still hard to see an active 40 year old, let alone a star. So as a Chicago Bears fan and an appreciator of healthy brains, it is good to see Urlacher step aside when he is doing so.
Mike Ditka (shout out to him on the jersey retirement — a long time coming) said on ESPN that he saw Urlacher recently and that he’s never looked so good physically — of course, that’s pretty much impossible, but to even entertain that idea means a lot of good things for Urlacher going forward.
Number 54 can enjoy the years of his life to come, he’ll continue to live off the many platitudes and benefits that come with putting in the work he did in the League, the lack of a John Elway moment not withstanding.
In spite of his lack of Super Bowl championships, Urlacher stands as the first icon of the Bears franchise in the 21st Century and maybe the one who stood the longest as the face of the franchise on his own outside of Papa Bear, a heady position when you really think of it — Urlacher dated famous blondes and brought them into the skyboxes at Soldier Field (don’t think Doug Buffone ever got down like that), he was the nationally-endorsed, Entourage-appearing hulk who was also accessible, but that also made it hurt more for fans at times like last December when he spoke out against fan and media distaste towards his coach Lovie Smith as that whole era was reaching its final days.
Urlacher was a Lovie guy, so it makes sense that his time ended with the team not long after Smith was finally shown the door. It looks like Urlacher was shown the door as well in a more passive-aggressive way. You can make arguments all day either about how the Urlacher camp or the Bears approached their off-season negotiations, both sides being intractable in a way that keeps us from seeing an official final lap from one of the franchise’s greats.
From Urlacher’s side we know his motivation was pride — he wasn’t going to be dictated to in regards to his worth, not even from the team he loved so much. With the Bears downgrading him as they did, it made it hard for Urlacher to go out on the market and catch any bites — another good result for Bears people (he’s ours and only ours) but not for the still-hungry athlete…well, hungry in some ways.
Urlacher revealed as much this week that he likes the prospect of sleeping in now, of avoiding OTAs and training camp. Hopefully and already on those days where the sun greets him and he slaps the snooze button like an off-angled offensive lineman trying to stop his blitz, Urlacher can look back on moments like this and feel the same things that we felt when they first happened.
Urlacher came out of the University of New Mexico as a risky experiment picked in the top-10 of the 2000 Draft by a team with a horrible 90’s record of draft picks. Picking Urlacher was the defining moment in modern Bears history where they didn’t screw themselves by overthinking. By the end of the year he was a phenomenon in Chicago, the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and a first-time Pro Bowler.
Above is a video UNM put out last week saluting its most famous football alum, showcasing what had to have been monsterous hits for all involved at that level. A couple more hits are showcased in this short video ESPN put up, showing Urlacher as one of the main representatives of the state’s athletics along with Katie Hnida and the Pit, UNM basketball’s home.
The only triumph of the Dick Jauron era, a true Cinderella season for the Bears– a 13-3 record stood as the Bears’ first double-digit victory season since 1991 and the NFC Central title was the franchise’s first since ’90. Urlacher himself proved that his rookie year was by no means a fluke, racking up 90 tackle, three interceptions and six sacks, continuing to take advantage of the hefty Keith Traylor and Ted Washington-anchored line, which opened so many lanes for him to meet running backs at or to jump in front of receivers. A year later Urlacher racked up 118 individual tackles, his career best.
Maybe the best Nike commercial Urlacher was featured in. He typically was featured with an assortment of other athletes in his commercials and in this one the motley crew around him included Michael Vick, Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones. Nike got a lot of mileage out of a preposterous premise by keeping a realistic look in the clip and really selling how transferable the athletic talents of each of these people really are. Certainly Urlacher looked at home on the ice and his open-ice check was superb, maybe he could have been a Dustin Byfuglien-type figure in the game if he chose.
Check out an extra national Urlacher ad, from 2008, his funniest with Old Spice.
Urlacher’s favorite play, as revealed in an interview with Dan Patrick (which you can see below). Not an interception return or a bone-rattling tackle, or even the lone receiving touchdown in his career from 2001. Sort of a corny answer — the selfless football player puts a grunt play above all his highlights — but everything about this play was cool as hell, as exciting a play Chicago saw in its pre-Devin Hester years.
2005 stands as Urlacher’s greatest individual year, he won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award, leading the NFL’s top defense with 98 individual tackles (24 assisted) and six sacks, a true triumph after playing only nine games in 2004 when he was injury-hobbled and the team went 5-11 in its first year under Lovie Smith.
Of course, this was the Super Bowl year, as well, and to have played in that game and do so as the team’s obvious captain helps assert his place among the great players of his era and of the Bears’ franchise. Aside from the obvious outliers of Gayle Sayers and Dick Butkus, every other great Bear played in an NFL Championship or Super Bowl — most of them won and Urlacher would not join them on that list but he (and 2006 team defensive MVP Lance Briggs) led another top-three defense, the motor that got the Bears back to this rare level.
In 2010 the Bears made their long-awaited return to the postseason after making a splash in the offseason by acquiring Jay Cutler. Finishing 11-5 and winning the NFC North wasn’t enough this time as those hated Packers did the Bears in once again in the two franchises’ only ever playoff meeting, which you can see from the sidelines here (the NFL aint about that video embed life, not for the only somewhat technically savvy at least). Like his main coach, Urlacher really took on the responsibility of upholding the Bears’ honor against Green Bay and in this game he had another vintage performance, tackling seven, recording a sack and a big interception and 39 yard return, giving the Bears some momentum at the time when Cutler was out the game and Todd Collins (cue the Underdog theme song) came to save the day.
Of course, the Packers wound up winning the game and the Super Bowl, leapfrogging the Bears and Urlacher in what turned out to be their last best chance in the era. After the season Urlacher’s respect among his peers was re-enforced by his being voted the #49th best player in the league in the NFL Network’s inaugural Top 100 Players in Football special.
The following season after the tough Packers loss, Urlacher shows just how athletic he still was in Week 1 against an overwhelmed Matt Ryan.
Urlacher limped out the season though, matching the fate of the injury-plagued Bears, who lost Cutler and Matt Forte and others during the later half of the season and lost five games in a row before salvaging this one in Minnesota.
The fight was back in the Bears by the beginning of next season, they jumped out to an 7-1 start and looked like real contenders to return to the Super Bowl, which it was becoming apparent would be needed to save the job of Lovie Smith and maybe others. In a good ol streetfight with the Lions, who’s aggressiveness in the rivalry as been obvious in the Suh era, Urlacher responded to some abuse Cutler had to take by sneaking in some extra hits after a play — Butkus would be proud.
What has to go down as Urlacher’s last great play, a pick six to officially put the Bears’ 51-20 win over Tennessee in Week 8 in “out of hand” territory. The way he slogged down the sideline after was a departure from the way he’d jet on similar plays earlier in his career and was good for a chuckle, but the play has to be seen with a bit more gravitas at this point– the old warrior making one last statement as to just who he was.
If Urlacher was gonna be stopped it was gonna have to be because of something abstract, something like perceived value, cause once on the field, no matter how hobbled, his real value was always obvious.
Urlacher made the rounds to some specific media outlets that he feels comfortable with upon making his announcement. The videos below show his most revealing interviews on The Dan Patrick Show and with Josina Anderson of ESPN.
Follow Kyle Means on Twitter @Wrk_Wrt