Bears retirements are rarely neat, sweet and complete.
Gale Sayers — a shell of his spectacular self following three knee surgeries — reluctantly called it quits at 29 in 1972 after losing fumbles on two of his three carries in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Dick Butkus, with the knees of a 60-year-old man at 31 in 1974, fought the Bears in court on his way out — filing lawsuits against the team for medical malpractice and disputed salary payments. His final game, as it turned out, was a 17-9 loss to the Chiefs in Kansas City on Monday Night Football. His arthritic knees forced Butkus to miss the final five games of a 3-11 season.
Brian Urlacher’s final play as a Bear is as painful as it is regrettable — the eight-time Pro Bowler pulled up with a hamstring injury chasing down Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on a third-down conversion in overtime of a 23-17 loss that helped keep the Bears out of the playoffs. Urlacher retired in a huff, feeling he was getting low-balled by the Bears in offseason contract negotiations.
More often than not, that’s the way it goes for even the best Chicago Bears. Walter Payton dourly shivered in a 23-below wind chill at Soldier Field as the final seconds elapsed in a disappointing 21-17 home loss to the Redskins in the playoffs in 1988 that marked the end of his Hall of Fame career.
Even when the Bears patched things up with Butkus and retired his and Sayers’ jersey numbers in 1994, it was a mess. The ceremony occurred in the middle of a monsoon at Soldier Field. A young Brett Favre wasn’t even very good (6-of-15 for 82 yards) and the Bears still lost to the Packers 33-6 to complete a miserable night. (Somehow, it seems unlikely the Bears will avenge that ignominy when the Packers honor Favre and former GM Ron Wolf at halftime of the Bears-Packers game on Thanksgiving night at Lambeau Field).
So it’s no surprise that after a typically unceremonious departure from the Bears in the offseason, Lance Briggs’ retirement already is an on-and-off affair. With Briggs throwing out a first-pitch at Wrigley Field, word spread quickly through social media that Briggs was announcing his retirement from football and joining Comcast SportsNet as an analyst. Even Comcast tweeted out, “Lance Briggs retires, joins CSN’s 205 #Bears coverage team.”
But that was only half-right. Briggs indeed is joining Comcast SportsNet, but he quickly tweeted that he has not officially retired. “Ahem. I have not filed any papers. I have NOT officially retired,” Briggs tweeted, with a picture of Lee Corso and a caption that said, “Not so fast, my friend!”
Though officially Briggs still is a phone call away from playing in the NFL — he still wants to play, given the right circumstances — retirement appears the more likely scenario. He played only eight games last season because of injuries. He missed Weeks 6-8 with a rib injury and missed the final five games with a groin injury. He missed seven games in 2013 with a ruptured pectoral tendon. So after playing virtually every game for 10 years, Briggs has missed 15 of 32 games with injuries the past two seasons. Even a rejuvenated Briggs might find it difficult to withstand the rigors of a full NFL season at this point.
And as Briggs said last year in training camp, his intention is to retire as a Chicago Bear.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It means the world to me. I could never retire anything else but a Bear. I’m a Bear, you know? Chicago … it’s kind of like football to me. When I was a little kid, I started playing football and fell in love with it.
“And my years in Chicago, whether it was happy times or tough times, I’ve fallen in love with the city. I feel in love with being a Bear and everything that means. Playing next to Brian [Urlacher]. Playing in that defense. Going to the Super Bowl. Whatever it is, I’ve loved every moment of it.”
The only certainty is that Lance Briggs deserves his due as one of the greatest Chicago Bears in franchise history. He made seven consecutive Pro Bowls (and should have played in an eight, but was beaten out by outside linebackers with big sack totals). He averaged 135 tackles a year from 2004-12. He had 16 interceptions, 15 sacks and 19 forced fumbles in his 12-year career. He had 83.5 “stuffs” (tackles-for-loss) since entering the NFL in 2003 — the most of any defensive player in the NFL during that span. Above all, no matter the circumstances — discontent with his contract, off-the-field issues, changes in the coaching staff — he did his job at a consistently high level.
“When the lights went on, this guy was showtime. He was exceptional,” said former Bears GM Jerry Angelo, who selected Briggs in the third round of the 2003 draft. “He never slumped. He always produced. And don’t minimize his durability. The guy played every snap. He and Brian were bionic.”
Briggs will have his day eventually. But when? And how? It would behoove the Bears to tidy up some messy unfinished business that clouded the end of the Lovie Smith era by honoring both Briggs and Urlacher at halftime of a game this season at Soldier Field. Two great players deserve to go out in style. And Bears fans deserve to see it happen. Just make sure to check the forecast.