CANTON, Ohio — When I sat down with Brian Urlacher at a picnic table outside of the lunch room at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville in 2000, the rookie linebacker was a week into his first Bears training camp and already struggling to learn a new position — strong-side linebacker — and headed toward a humbling demotion.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “You’re used to doing something right your whole life, you do it well every time you do it and now you can’t do it and you don’t know why. I know it’s another level, but it’s just frustrating. I make myself look like a rookie sometimes.”
Already, the ballyhooed Urlacher was feeling at least a little of the pressure of being tagged as the next great Bears linebacker.
“I know people say I’m the next Butkus,” he said. “It’s not fair to me to be compared to him or anybody else. Maybe later in the year if I start playing well, maybe they’ll start comparing me to him.”
There’s only one Butkus, as we all know. But this weekend at the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the ultimate confirmation that the once-struggling Urlacher indeed became the next great Bears linebacker.
The well-deserved celebration of Urlacher’s magnificent career was supposed to set the stage for Roquan Smith’s Bears debut Thursday night. Alas, the obvious storyline was quashed by Smith’s absence because of a contract impasse with Bears’ management, and there’s no end in sight.
Be that as it may, the weekend is about Urlacher more than Smith. And Urlacher provided a surprise Thursday night, visiting the Bears’ locker room and giving the team a hearty speech before the game.
“I’m excited for your all’s season. I think you guys are going in the right direction,” Urlacher said in video released by the Bears.
Then he got to the heart of the matter.
“And one more thing about the tradition of the Bears. I’m 28th going into the Hall of Fame. Think about that — 28 Hall of Famers before you guys have put this jersey on: Walter Payton, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Gale Sayers — the list goes on and on.
“Just realize that and be proud to put that jersey on. I was proud to wear it for 13 years. It didn’t always work out for us, but it was still fun. Had great teammates, great memories. Just happy for the organization.
“Have fun tonight. I wish y’all could come to the party after the game,” he added, to much laughter from the players. “I threw it out there to your coach, GM [Ryan] Pace, but I was shot down.”
It made an impression.
“That was awesome,” rookie linebacker Kylie Pitts said. “It was cool. I took it to heart and went out there and had that little motivation.”
“I lit up like a little kid when he came through and signed autographs and just shaking his hand,” safety Deiondre’ Hall said.
“At first, I was a little starstruck,” said cornerback Doran Grant. “Growing up, you’re used to seeing him [on television]. Then you get to see him and talk to him and actually touch him; dap him up — it’s a pretty good thing. And he’s just one of the guys.”
Urlacher was an extraordinary player with a unique combination of size, speed and football instinct. He was the consummate teammate. He learned quickly. And he not only exceeded lofty expectations, he fought his way through some tough times to do it — the rookie-year demotion, the injuries, coaching changes and personal foibles that became highly publicized. And when his career hit a lull in 2008-09, he responded with Pro Bowl seasons in 2010 and 2011. Good luck chasing that, Roquan Smith.
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