CANTON, Ohio – Speeches were never Brian Urlacher’s thing, and seeking the spotlight was never his way. OK, there was that Paris Hilton thing, but that was an aberration, if not the definition of temporary insanity.
So no one came to Canton on Saturday night expecting something special from the former Bears linebacker. Whatever needed to be said had been said on the football field, and isn’t that what the Pro Football Hall of Fame is all about? Excellence?
But we found out there’s more to him than he ever let on. He finally let us in.
“I was a football player,’ he said. “That was my job. But that’s not who I am. I’m a husband, a father, a friend, a provider and a role model for a lot of children, which I try to embrace as much as I can.’’
He talked about his father.
“He passed away in 2004 in my fifth year of training camp,’’ said Urlacher, who was 7 when his parents divorced. “We were not close, but I still loved him. He wasn’t around much once we moved (from Washington state) to New Mexico. Whatever his reasons were, it didn’t matter to me. I know as parents sometimes we have to make difficult decisions, and I forgave him – just as my mother would have wanted me to.’’
He talked about his mother, who sometimes worked three jobs to support the family. She passed away in 2011.
“She was at all of our games,’’ he said. “And we knew she was there because she was the loudest person screaming in the crowd, sometimes embarrassingly so. Most of the time, actually. This was her way of letting us know she was rooting for us.’’
He talked about what people think they know about him but don’t.
“I believe there’s a misconception that I grew up with privilege, that I had it easy,’’ he said. “Quite the opposite actually. I began work when I was 12 years old pushing my lawnmower around town, mowing yards, and later I was working at the oil fields of Lovington and when I went off to college, a lumberyard in Albuquerque. My mother definitely taught me the importance of learning my way. Mother, thank you. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here today.’’
He talked about some of his favorite Bears. Lance Briggs. Mike Brown and “his little squeaky ass voice.’’ Charles Tillman. Olin Kreutz. Alex Brown. Dusty Dvoracek.
“(He) impacted me greatly,’’ Urlacher said. “Even as a rookie, he stepped in and took control of the huddle and held people accountable. If he saw something he didn’t like, he’d shout, ‘Shut the blank-blank up and listen!’ And as a rookie, that’s pretty hard to do.’’
It was wonderful. The bust next to him. The people who helped him along the way in front of him. And Urlacher opening up.
“One of the things I immediately missed the most (after retiring following the 2012 season) was eating lunch in Dean Pope’s office,’’ he said. “Dean was one of our video techs, and every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, we’d kick him out of his office and eat our lunch together – we being Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza, Patrick Mannelly, myself and every once in awhile, Brad Maynard would sneak in there to take some verbal abuse. We never talked football. We talked trash.’’
Thanks to modern follicle procedures, Urlacher the man now has hair on his head. Urlacher the Hall of Fame bust does not, and thank goodness for that. That’s how we should remember him, a bald, shorn, Uncle Fester of a linebacker. His look was not just his signature, it was him. When you pointed out to men in Chicago who tried to copy his look that it helped to run a 4.5 40-yard dash and have a defensive back’s change of direction for the look to work, you got looks of incomprehension.
Oh, well. All those guys went in with him on Saturday night, all the Bears fans who somehow saw a little of themselves in him. The blue-collar part of him, yes. The rest of it, no. That was a gift from above.
“It makes me very uncomfortable speaking about myself (and) what I accomplished on the football field,’’ he said. “After games, I never wanted to talk about what I did. I wanted to talk about what Lance did, what Charles did. I always thought I could I do better.’’
OK, we’ll talk about him. He could fly. Not fly the way Michael Jordan flew, not vertically. Horizontally, sideline to sideline, from here to there. He was built differently than other linebackers. Skinny hipped, he could turn on a dime and go from zero to 60 in a blink. He could drop back in coverage, making him the perfect linebacker for Lovie Smith’s Cover 2 defense.
Someone asked him Friday if he had changed the game, and the answer is no. The only way he could have changed the game is if coaches could have cloned a 6-foot-4 speedster. They couldn’t, so he went on being him, and the Bears caught lightning for 13 years. Then he was gone, and scouts kept looking, fruitlessly, for the next No. 54.
He enjoyed himself Saturday night, and it was good to see. That side of him was rarely on public display when he played. He had an up-and-down relationship with the media, and sometimes it showed up when he was in front of cameras. But none of that was in attendance at the Hall of Fame. Just a smile and some heartfelt words.
“The most coveted position in pro football for a defensive player is to play middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears,’’ he said. “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.’’
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