Bears Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher’s legacy: Great player, even better person
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Brian Urlacher never was into himself — not his statistics, his touchdowns, his big plays or his moments. He wasn’t even into the Hall of Fame until he was voted for enshrinement into it.
So it was a little bit of a surprise that he could recite almost exactly the details of his production in one of his most famous performances — in a 30-3 rout of the Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Oct. 7, 2001 — when asked about memorable moments in his career.
‘‘The whole game for me,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t like looking at my stats, but I had a good game. I had a sack, a pick, a caused fumble, a touchdown, three or four tackles for loss and eight or nine tackles. And I scored a touchdown.
‘‘The whole stat sheet was filled up for me. That was my capabilities. That was my ceiling. I felt I could do that every game.’’
Truth be told, Urlacher only had one tackle for loss in that game. But the highlight was his 90-yard return of a fumble by Michael Vick, who had been stripped by Phillip Daniels, for a touchdown that gave the Bears a 24-0 lead in the fourth quarter.
It was considered a coming-out moment for Urlacher, but he already was well on his way to a stellar career. He was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 after the Bears selected him with the ninth pick of the 2000 draft, made the Pro Bowl as an alternate and was a second-team All-Pro choice after leading the Bears with 165 tackles and eight sacks.
‘‘We [always] knew he was good,’’ said Greg Blache, the Bears’ defensive coordinator in Urlacher’s first four seasons. ‘‘The Atlanta game in 2001, that was like: ‘He’s here. He’s arrived.’ He had hit that groove and became that playmaker and game-changer. He was always good. He was always a great teammate. He was always a great leader But that’s the game when he hit his stride.’’
But it was two weeks later — in a game against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati — that Blache became convinced Urlacher was even more than a game-changing, freakishly athletic playmaker.
‘‘It was a tight game, and [the Bengals] were running players on and off the field,’’ Blache said. ‘‘And [Bears secondary coach] Vance [Bedford] is in the [press] box, and he’s trying to tell me personnel. The Bengals were trying to mess with us. So I’m waiting and waiting [for the personnel call]. And when they finally go to the line, I didn’t get the signal to Brian.’’
The Bears led 3-0 in the second quarter. The Bengals had the ball at the Bears’ 15-yard line, driving for a go-ahead touchdown. But without a call from the sideline, Urlacher did the only thing he could do: He took over.
‘‘He puts us in two-man combo, which is the exact call I’d do against their personnel grouping, because he knows the game plan,’’ Blache said. ‘‘And [cornerback R.W.] McQuarters intercepts the pass, and the game’s over, for all practical purposes.’’
It was Urlacher who had forced the second-and-goal situation with a nine-yard sack of Jon Kitna on the previous play. That was Urlacher the athlete. But the next play was Urlacher the football player, leader and coach on the field.
‘‘That was one of the things about him: You knew he knew everything,’’ Blache said. ‘‘It was like he was in your head; he was on the same page with you. That’s one thing that fans don’t realize. That moment right then — those two games — I went: ‘This guy is the real deal.’ He’s not just physically gifted, but mentally and leadership-wise, he’s with you. From there, he just kept going.’’
Urlacher’s Hall of Fame enshrinement Aug. 4 in Canton, Ohio,was the crowning moment of a spectacular career that continued the legacy of great Bears middle linebackers. Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary preceded Urlacher into the Hall.
The celebration highlighted all the Urlacher achievements many Bears fans know by heart: an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, a five-time All-Pro selection, the 2000 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, the 2005 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a member of the NFL’s all-decade team for the 2000s.
Urlacher scored five touchdowns, including an 85-yard interception return against Brett Favre and the Packers in 2007. The Bears won every game in which he scored a touchdown.
But more than those individual accomplishments, Urlacher’s Hall of Fame enshrinement highlighted another big reason why he is an all-time great. He was a great teammate who loved the game and a leader who made his teammates better and led without bombast.
When he spoke with coach Matt Nagy’s 2018 Bears before the Hall of Fame Game against the Ravens on Aug. 2, he said it was the first time he had spoken to a team before a game.
Just as Butkus’ reputation for being a brutal, vicious, mean-spirited competitor overshadowed his great technique and instinct as a fundamentally sound player, Urlacher’s amazing feats on the field overshadowed the intangibles that made him one of the most respected players in Bears history.
‘‘The perfect leader,’’ former coach Lovie Smith said. ‘‘With a guy like that, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. Anything he’s a part of is going to be better. To try and put it into a few words on exactly what he brought to the table — he brought everything. Anything you needed at the time — leadership, a confident voice — he just knew what to do.
‘‘He was the best superstar you’ll ever be around. He treated everyone like you’re his best friend. Respectful to everybody. He did it all.’’
‘‘He was one of the greatest teammates you could ever have,’’ said former cornerback Charles Tillman, who played with Urlacher in 2003-12. ‘‘He made you feel like you were the star.’’
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who played with Singletary and coached Urlacher as the Bears’ defensive coordinator in 2004-06, echoed those sentiments. The respect was evident. Rivera took time off from training camp to fly to Canton for the enshrinement ceremonies, along with two of his players, former Bears Greg Olsen and Julius Peppers.
‘‘It was not just that he was a good football player, a smart football player, a tremendous athlete, but a good person,’’ Rivera said. ‘‘He really epitomized what it was to be a team member. He lived it.’’
Asked what Urlacher’s legacy should be, Rivera mentioned the obvious — ‘‘tremendous football player, tremendous athlete’’ — but also added: ‘‘Good person. Did things the right way.’’
Urlacher, who was born in Pasco, Washington, and grew up in Lovington, New Mexico, never was an effusive leader. But he grew into a great one — a natural one — with the Bears.
‘‘I felt like I led by example,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘I didn’t have to say a lot. When I did, guys listened. I didn’t feel like I had to be out there yelling and screaming at guys. I did that sometimes, mostly on game day. I just didn’t feel like I needed to do that.’’
During the Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend, Urlacher reveled in the great moments of his career, even though many were tinged with disappointment. A few of the highlights:
The 2001 season
The Bears went 13-3 under Dick Jauron that year.
The season was fueled by game-ending interception returns for touchdowns in overtime by safety Mike Brown — 33 yards against the 49ers and 16 yards against the Browns — that put the Bears on their way at 5-1.
‘‘I don’t think that’ll ever be done again,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘You look at the way we won those two games . . . that’s never going to happen again, I don’t believe.
‘‘It was fun. It goes to show you how we found ways to win games. 2001 it was under Jauron. 2006 it was under Lovie — two different head coaches. But we found ways to win. That’s a testament to the players we had there.’’
The 2006 Super Bowl season
The Bears had one of the greatest starts in franchise history during the 2006 season.
The Bears opened 7-0 with a 221-69 scoring margin, including victories of 26-0, 34-7, 37-6, 40-7 and 41-10 — plus the memorable ‘‘Miracle in the Desert’’ against the Cardinals. In that game, Urlacher had 25 tackles, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble that Tillman returned for a touchdown to spark a rally that turned a 20-0 deficit into a thrilling 24-23 victory.
The Bears beat the Seahawks 27-24 in overtime in the divisional playoffs and the Saints 39-14 to win their first NFC Championship Game since 1985. They lost to the Colts 29-17 in Super Bowl XLI, Urlacher’s only Super Bowl appearance.
‘‘Great memories, fun week,’’ Urlacher said of the Super Bowl experience. ‘‘I think about the guys. I think about the run we went on to get there. We had some big games in the playoffs. That season was so fun. Great group of guys who played together. [Quarterback] Rex [Grossman] was great that season. He was so fun.
‘‘And the city of Chicago during that run was unreal, too. We couldn’t go anywhere without people saying, ‘We love you! Playoffs!’ Whatever it was. It was just a cool run we went on.’’
It’s an old lament, but it might have been different if the Bears had not lost defensive tackle Tommie Harris and Brown — the team’s second- and third-best defensive players — to season-ending injuries.
‘‘And we didn’t give up 400-some yards? Yeah,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘Mike Brown was the smartest player I’ve ever played with, no doubt. So there are some coverages we may or may not have screwed up in [the Super Bowl] that I don’t think happen if he’s back there. Tommie was the most explosive D-lineman in the league at that time. He was missed. We had zero sacks in that game, as well. So who knows? It doesn’t matter now.’’
The 2010 season
Urlacher revived his Hall of Fame credentials in 2010 after a subpar season in 2008 and a missed season because of a dislocated wrist.
The Bears won the NFC North at 11-5 but missed a chance to keep the Packers out of the playoffs in Week 17, losing 10-3 at Lambeau Field. They ended up losing to the Packers 21-14 in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field.
With the Bears down 14-0, Urlacher intercepted a pass by Aaron Rodgers at the Bears’ 5-yard line but was tripped up by Rodgers — the only player in his way — at the Bears’ 45. Three plays later, Todd Collins, who had just replaced an injured Jay Cutler, threw an interception. But Urlacher’s pick could have been a momentum-turning play.
‘‘If I would have scored, yeah, I believe so,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘We were down 14-0 at that point. He throws me the ball, and I take it back to the 50. And I think two or three plays later, they had the ball back and it didn’t matter.’’
Those three special seasons and the 2005 season (11-5) that ended with a one-and-done home loss to the Panthers in the playoffs marked Urlacher’s best chances to win a Super Bowl. But he does not consider that a void in his career.
‘‘Not at all,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘Did I fall short in that category? Yeah. But I’m not going to define my career based on whether I won a Super Bowl or not.’’
That’s kind of the point. In an era in which players’ careers often are defined by Super Bowl success, Urlacher’s career is defined by the type of player, teammate and person he was as a Bear.
‘‘I admire his ability to be a great person to anybody he meets,’’ Blache said. ‘‘He always wanted to be the best teammate and best player he could be. A lot of guys might want to be the best player but are not concerned about being the best teammate. He’d welcome rookies. He’d talk to everybody. He didn’t care whether you were the president or the janitor, he always had a smile, came to practice with a smile. There were days it would be cold, with a bitter wind blowing across the field, and he’d come off the field with a smile. And I’d go, ‘What the hell are you smiling about?’ He has fun with everything he does. I admire the person. If there was a Hall of Fame for people, he’d have to be inducted for that one, too. Because he is that kind of person.’’
When people come to Canton to look at Urlacher’s bust in the Hall of Fame, that’s the player he wants them to remember.
‘‘I hope they realize how much fun I had when I played the game,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s the one thing I want people to realize — that I had a great time when I was out there. Win or lose, whatever, I still had fun when I was playing football.’’