On a path that offered other options, Brian Urlacher takes his biggest step yet
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CANTON, Ohio — The player who lives in the film room? The guy who studies opponents on his own for hours on end, who files away tendencies, who makes other teams pay on game day with his attention to detail?
Yeah, well, that person wasn’t Brian Urlacher.
‘‘I hated watching film when I played,’’ he said. ‘‘I was not a film guy. I’m not scared to say it: I just did not like watching film. I had a good idea of what the team was doing, and I just let my instincts go after that and went out there and played.’’
Those instincts, combined with outrageous athletic ability and a body that rarely was bothered by something as human as injuries, are the reason the former Bears linebacker will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
There never has been anything subtle about Urlacher, nothing gentle or ironic. He saw the ball, and he went after the person who had the ball. And woe to that person. But here’s some irony for you: The man who hated to watch film spent months preparing his enshrinement speech. He hired a speech coach to help him sound better. He even has studied tape of his delivery, which is the audio version of studying film.
‘‘I’ve actually listened to myself on a recording, which I hate doing because I hate hearing my voice,’’ he said.
I hope the speech touches on how close his talent came to not being recognized and how the twists and turns of life can take us in directions we couldn’t possibly have imagined.
He had one scholarship offer, from New Mexico, and that scholarship wasn’t bestowed on him like a crown is upon a king.
‘‘I went on a visit — the only visit I took — and coach [Dennis Franchione], we had our meeting on Sunday,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘He said: ‘We want to offer you a scholarship. If you don’t take it now, we’ll give it to somebody else.’ I said: ‘I’ll take it!’ ’’
If football hadn’t been an option, if New Mexico hadn’t come calling, if Urlacher had hesitated, there would have been another path.
‘‘Yeah, I’ve thought about that,’’ he said. ‘‘I’d be in the oil field, working in Lovington, New Mexico. I firmly believe that. That’s what people did down there if you didn’t get out. You stayed there and worked in the oil field.’’
A tough life?
‘‘If you don’t know different? No,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s hard work, but that’s what you do.’’
Would he have been happy?
‘‘Knowing what I know now, no,’’ he said, laughing.
What he knows now is a Defensive Rookie of the Year award after the Bears drafted him ninth overall in 2000; eight Pro Bowl selections; $80.1 million in earnings; a Hall of Fame career; and a wife and three children. Pretty good.
We don’t know where we’re going until we get there. We think we do, but we don’t. Urlacher didn’t know he would end up being a great football player, as odd as that might seem for someone as physically blessed as he was. One different turn, and he might have been someone else.
‘‘Luckily, I was given some advice early on: ‘Know the distance between right and wrong. Do what’s right,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘Most of the time, I did that. There were some times I didn’t, but I got away with it most of the time. I was very fortunate. So many things have to go right to get this far.’’
He worked hard. If he wasn’t working at football, he was working. Sometimes it could get confusing. As a sophomore in high school, he missed a practice he didn’t know was mandatory to cut a neighbor’s lawn.
‘‘They sent someone to my house to come get me,’’ he said. ‘‘Jumped the fence, came over to my house to get me. . . . So I was out mowing the yard when I should have been at practice. I made seven bucks, though.’’
Will that story show up in the speech? Who knows? Hall speeches are limited to 15 minutes, which isn’t much time, though Urlacher talks almost as fast as he runs. He certainly will talk about his mom, Lavoyda, who died in 2011 at 51.
‘‘Without her, there’s no chance I’m sitting here,’’ he said. ‘‘My work ethic, my drive to succeed was instilled by her at a very young age. She worked her tail off for us three kids. She was a single mother. I think about her more and more. My brother and my sister, she’s always on our minds.’’
She got to see him get drafted and was able to see him play in Chicago, where he belonged.
‘‘I feel like with my style of play and the way my mother raised me, my work ethic and the way people in Chicago appreciate defense and hard work, no doubt I was born to play there,’’ he said.
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