By Chris Emma–
(670 The Score) When it comes to Brian Urlacher, the latest in a remarkable legacy of Bears linebackers, how does one quantify the greatness he personified?
That answer may arrive at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium on Saturday night, when Urlacher likely will be named a first-ballot inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It’s a distinguished honor those close to Urlacher not only hope comes to fruition but believe he richly deserves.
Urlacher was the 2000 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and 2005 AP Defensive Player of the Year, an eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker and four-time All-Pro who racked up 1,040 tackles in 182 career games, intercepted 22 passes and broke up 85, forced 11 fumbles and found the end zone four times on defense.
But the accolades don’t do justice to what really made Urlacher a Hall of Fame-caliber player. There was much more to the kid from Lovington, New Mexico, who became an icon for Chicago’s fabled football franchise.
Within the 6-foot-4, 258-pound frame was a player possessed to be great.
“His competitiveness was unrivaled,” said Lance Briggs, who lined up next to Urlacher for 10 years.
Added Tommie Harris, Urlacher’s teammate for seven years: “I’ve never seen anyone play harder on Sundays than Brian Urlacher.”
Urlacher was the beating heart to a memorable time for the Bears organization, a stretch of seasons in which their dominance on defense was restored. There will be debate to his Hall of Fame candidacy come Saturday in Minneapolis, but those who played with Urlacher in Chicago feel there should be no deliberation to his case.
Some of the most prominent teammates of Urlacher’s time in Chicago watched a tremendous career unfold before their eyes, leaving no doubt of his greatness.
Former Bears long snapper Patrick Mannelly, who was Urlacher’s teammate for all 13 seasons, still recalls a moment during a game with the Packers back in 2000. Quarterback Brett Favre rolled out and patted the ball, not realizing who was behind him. Favre was sacked for a six-yard loss by the rookie Urlacher and couldn’t believe what hit him. A monstrous linebacker introduced himself to a division rival and the rest of football.
From there, it became clear the Bears were forging a new defensive identity. Urlacher began his rookie season as a strong-side “Sam” linebacker, playing over the tight end, but moved to the “Mike” spot when Barry Minter was hurt.
When Lovie Smith was hired as the Bears’ head coach in 2004, Urlacher was positioned to an imperative role of the “Tampa 2” defense. A safety at University of New Mexico, Urlacher manned the middle of Smith’s schemes. As Briggs explained, Urlacher was vital in that his massive presence forced quarterbacks into mistakes over the top while allowing the Bears to cheat toward the sidelines in coverage and have a man roaming the flats.
“I’ve never seen a linebacker that can do so many things,” Harris said. “He can catch, he can jump, he can run. Complete package.”
Added Olin Kreutz, teammates with Urlacher for 11 years: “He changed the way the game was played. … He made everybody around him better.”
Kreutz, Briggs and Mannelly all wore the “C” on their chest as captain for the Bears alongside Urlacher and watched the man set a tone for the team.
Teammates saw Urlacher take pride in his place as a leader. Harris recalls running through an offensive tackle his rookie season and laughing in his face: “Urlacher jumped in my face and was like, ‘When are you going to grow your ass up, man? When will you grow up?'”
“The thing about Urlacher was he was consistent all the time, which kept everybody relaxed in the locker room,” Kreutz said. “There was never a sense of panic. He was going to show up, work hard and do his job every single day.”
Urlacher kept his defense loose on the sidelines while they waited to get back on the field. He was loose in the locker room — a constant in their games like dodgeball and wiffle ball — but a workhorse on the practice field. The Bears knew Urlacher’s voice well, but he didn’t need to raise it.
What made Urlacher a leader was typically unspoken.
“Having a guy like him on your team, a superstar that’s humble and unassuming as him, it makes it hard for new guys to come in and be bigger than the team because Brian is the guy,” Mannelly said. “Everybody’s looking at Brian. The way Brian held himself in that locker room, nobody’s ego could be bigger, because Brian had the smallest (ego) and he was our superstar.
“He just didn’t have the ego and worked as hard as everybody. Every teammate, no matter if you were a practice squad lineman to his best buddy Lance Briggs, he treated everybody the same.
“Everybody wants to play with him and work as hard as he does. He was such a great teammate. There wasn’t anybody like him.”
Many games and countless plays make up a career worthy of the Hall of Fame. Perhaps the most impactful performance by Urlacher came during that miracle victory in Arizona in October 2006, when he led the Bears and their dominant defense back from 23-3 to win 24-23 over the Cardinals. The final line for Urlacher: 25 tackles, two quarterback hurries, two passes broken up and a forced fumble that was recovered and returned by Charles Tillman for a score.
Urlacher was the most important player on the Bears’ second and last Super Bowl appearance back in February 2007. He was the anchor of the defense from the days of Dick Jauron through the end of Smith’s tenure as head coach — the captain to an era of greatness for a proud franchise.
For a generation of football fans in Chicago, the Bears are Brian Urlacher — like they were Dick Butkus, Walter Payton or Mike Singletary before him.
“He’s going to continue to lament the storied franchise and all the great players that have come here — and all the great linebackers,” Briggs said.
Come Saturday in Minneapolis, a group of 48 will meet for most of the day and visit the candidacy of 15 modern-era finalists. It’s a distinguished group of men including Super Bowl champions like Ray Lewis, Ty Law and John Lynch, elite talents such as Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Edgerrin James and stalwarts like Isaac Bruce, Steve Hutchinson and Kevin Mawae.
There’s no clear-cut qualification to Canton, part of what makes this process unique. The list of 15 is cut to 10 and ultimately five, and that group must receive 80 percent of the yes-or-no vote to be elected.
Urlacher will certainly be elected at some point in time if not Saturday, though his chances as a first-ballot Hall of Famer are complicated by Lewis, another star at middle linebacker. Often times, voters can be swayed from electing two players at the same position — despite clear qualifications for that class.
“He’s another guy that should be going into the Hall of Fame,” Briggs said of Lewis. “They both exhibit the qualities that you look for in an elite Hall of Famer, a guy should be what you call a lifelong all-star.”
Added Mannelly: “They both need to go in. They’re both great players. They just played the position differently.”
Urlacher began his career at the turn of the century a physical specimen without a true position and over the course of 13 seasons became one of the greatest middle linebackers in NFL history. He could bombard a quarterback, stuff a running back and pick off a pass all in the same series.
For every accolade to list, there are many more stories and examples of what made Urlacher great. Chicago and its heritage franchise were changed by the time with Urlacher.
So many would be proud to call Urlacher a first-ballot Hall of Famer.