In honor of Brian Urlacher heading into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, we’re sharing some of our past Urlacher articles to our front page for you guys to reminisce on.
A thin outside linebacker when drafted in 2000, he became everything the Bears needed in a franchise player. He became an icon, someone who defined a generation of football in a city and filled a gap not many originally expected him to. He did it by being himself. Not because he wanted to, because he had to. He became a Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, because he was the best at what he did, without question. Not because he won a popularity contest. He lead the Bears to their first conference championship in over 20 years in 2006 because he was the foundational piece of a long-awaited wave. Not because he rode along the coattails of a talented team. He instead, lead the charge.
For all of that, you can definitively say it now. No, shout it at the top of your lungs.
Brian Urlacher. Bears great. First-ballot Hall of Famer.
They say only the most transcendent of players make the Hall of Fame on their initial eligible attempt. Those men who helped define professional football and the era they played in. Who simultaneously produced at an elite level and leaped into the forefront as a symbol the game will never forget. The voting process is regarded as rigid, but it understands who deserves to be canonized above the rest.
Somehow, some way: those sentiments understate Urlacher's Bears career. He wasn't merely one of the best linebackers to put on pads. He was a game-changing face of adaptability. A freak in both physical ability and instinct who stands the test of time.
And, remarkably, he stood out from the shadows of the NFL organization in the Bears that essentially trademarked the linebacker position. To be at the top of the Bears' linebacking class, means you need your own spotlight. It's no coincidence that the light for Urlacher should be all-encompassing.
Bill George was the first of his kind in that he invented playing middle linebacker as it's understood now. He was the pioneer of the famed 4-3 defense that predicated playing more pass coverage responsibility on his position in the most rudimentary sense. For all of his athletic limitations in retrospect to the future, George doesn't receive enough credit for the trails he blazed with the Bears.
Regarded as the most intimidating presence to ever step foot on a football field, Dick Butkus is ingrained into the minds of opposing players that unfortunately had the pleasure of getting in his way. Butkus legitimately filled grown men with abject fear. For all of his athletic limitations, Butkus was a throwback in the most sincere form of the term, as his greatest skill was getting into the head of an opponent because of a deserved reputation.
"Samurai Mike", otherwise known as Mike Singletary, became the face of football's quintessential defense. Of perhaps football's most complete team in the 1985 Bears. Remembered for his beaming wide and focused eyes at the line of scrimmage, Singletary relished setting the tone for a defense that was relentless and dripping with swagger in the kindest of descriptions. For all of his athletic limitations, he deserves to be revered as the representative player of the archetypal Bears' team.
Each of these men, these true Bears, were exceptional in their own right. They possessed their own individual signifiers that will have them live on long in football fans' memories forever. But they weren't complete. They weren't built to play this sport. They weren't capable of adapting to any scenario presented to them on a platter. They weren't the embodiment of what the Bears had always sought in a linebacker, but could only see that vision in dreams.
Urlacher helped realize those dreams. He was everything these deservedly recognized Chicago football legends weren't. He encapsulated their quirks and talents, all in one singular football player, leader, and man.
George helped bring about the evolution of the 4-3 defense. Urlacher perfected it as the linebacker who defined the revolutionary "Tampa 2" defense. Butkus was a physically intimidating marvel. Urlacher took being a physically imposing specimen to another level, elevating that harrowing man-in-the-middle figure the Bears are renown for. Singletary was celebrated for his lightning quick anticipation to diagnose plays, continually setting the tone for the last Chicago team before Urlacher to enjoy sustained contention. Urlacher, to that end, understood some offenses better than they understood themselves.
Urlacher was the best Bears linebacker ever, because he was every Bears linebacker.
When the football gods decided to create the ideal linebacker, they held a blank mold in their hands. They figured what a player of his ilk would need to succeed in ways no one of his kind considered.
"Let's make him 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, and incredibly long" they said. "This way, he'll be able to stride into any passing lane, and stand up to the punishment of a pounding ground game."
"Add freakish speed to his frame" they surmised. "He'll be able to stick with tight ends, running backs, and even some wide receivers in coverage with this length and quickness" they knew. "Any traditional runners don't stand a chance with his sideline to sideline ability now."
"He'll have to understand the concepts of an NFL offense in the vein of a brilliant offensive coordinator," they discussed of what the mind this linebacker had would look like. "He'll have to be football-intelligent beyond his years, seeing plays before they happen with regularity."
Once they were finished, they made a player that would become the face of an NFL movement. That would define the game of football to this day with your Luke Kuechly's and Bobby Wagner's of the world. This linebacker paved the way in the "Tampa 2" that places a majority brunt of the defense's work in the lap of it's signal caller. This linebacker would alter what we knew about linebackers and would soon be seen as the standard: 18 years after his pro debut.
These gods, little did they know, created Urlacher: a defensive weapon offenses would grow to respect and game-plan around for 13 years in the modern era. Each season unique in it's own right. Each a redefining example. This responsibility fell to Urlacher because of the gifts he was endowed with.
A responsibility he didn't waste.
You know him now for his male-patterned baldness hair-restoring billboards around Chicagoland, but before that, Urlacher re-energized a city's football generation. After Walter Payton's retirement in 1987, the Bears meandered around without a guiding light. Every successful period of the team's history had a charismatic and transcendent player in one, after all. Urlacher was the figure who capped that long 13 year gap between Payton and himself. He was the catalyst the Bears needed to be loved by Chicago again.
This wasn't a task he actively took upon himself either. Urlacher's magnetic presence and performance spoke for itself. To say he glowed in front of a microphone the way some of his comparable counterparts elected to, would be mistaken. All he needed to do to enthrall Chicago into it's primary sporting love was exist, and in a Bears jersey at that. The bald magician's game and presence did the talking, and emphatically so.
Urlacher helped capture the hearts of old and more importantly, young Bears fans alike. He showed them how thrilling football can be. How it can break your heart. How it can leave you filled with unbridled pride. How much effort it takes to succeed even with natural talent. Hard work and average talent beats mediocre effort with great talent. Urlacher was instead hard work and great talent to boot, leaving nothing to doubt.
Revitalizing football in Chicago isn't an easy task in consideration with how cynical fans can be as a whole due to the doldrums the Bears have been mired in for a majority of the past three decades. To win a Bears fan's heart over, means earning the benefit of the doubt to the utmost extent. Urlacher earned that benefit in spades. With how consistent the Bears were during his career and due to his own play, Urlacher was the respite from the Bears' failure in recent memory. He offered an escape from irrelevance in a manner not many with the charter NFL organization could.
That is what separates Urlacher from the rest of the "Hall of Very Good" pack. Some of which includes recent Bears. That is what will have him live on in Chicagoans' memories for a lifetime. He helped a city waiting for an opportunity to do so: love football again.
There's no doubt that if Urlacher was to have an honest regret from his playing career, it'd be not winning a Super Bowl. He'd replay that game in Miami in February 2007 against the Colts over and over, considering what he had done wrong. What he could do differently to change the outcome with what he knows now. We all know what it feels like to want a moment in time back. A man of Urlacher's stature in football could then have his peak in constant rewind whenever a spark of memory comes to mind.
The amusing thing is, that failure on American sports' grandest stage didn't define Urlacher's career. At least he didn't allow it to. You let your experiences shape you in life, not consume your essence. That was the strongest part of Urlacher's persona. Of who he was as a human being. He derived what he could from what happened to him in the NFL, but didn't let it become an unnecessary caricature because of what little he didn't accomplish.
When he officially retired in May 2013, Urlacher wrote that he was "proud to say I gave of all you (coaches, teammates, fans) everything I had every time I took the field. I will miss this great game, but I leave it with no regrets."
Approximately five years later, you can't help but feel Urlacher was completely transparent in the summation of who he was as "Brian Urlacher, Bears linebacker." He had nothing to prove. He didn't give football an "old college try." He gave it everything, as said. He didn't need a ring to validate his achievements. How well he's spoken of by anyone whose ever touched his life years later, from teammates, opponents, coaches, and fans is all he needs to visualize his sizable imprint in football.
Yes, Urlacher never won a title. Yes, he didn't go out in a blaze of glory the way a select few such as Peyton Manning, Jerome Bettis, or John Elway did in the manner of winning a championship in their final NFL game. But he didn't have to. For as much as a Super Bowl was snatched out of his grasp, it didn't matter. For as much as he didn't have a Cinderella ending, it wasn't necessary to distinguish himself. There's more to his career than any of us will be able to properly appreciate.
Brian Urlacher: a Chicago Bear. A first-ballot Hall of Famer. And no one can ever take that away from him.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridirion, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.