Why did it take so long for Brian Urlacher to leave the game?
It could have been the pride a world-class athlete needs to become truly great at what he does. It could have been merely mercenary, the desire for another big payday.
The end for Urlacher — in limbo for months until he announced his retirement Wednesday — wasn't graceful, but then, life doesn't end gracefully either, except in fantasy.
He was broken, physically. He was worn out after playing 13 years in the NFL as one of the greatest linebackers the Chicago Bears ever had. They'd let him go, and no other teams wanted him at his asking price.
He'd been bickering with fans, with sportscasters; he seemed bitter and spent. He hadn't been Brian Urlacher for years. Lance Briggs was the superior player, though Urlacher's No. 54 jersey kept outselling all others, even though his body was breaking down.
And when it ended, when he was no longer in the Bears' plans, Urlacher persisted, surly, refusing to retire. I liked that. I think some of you did, too. The stubbornness in the man was so old-school Chicago.
Who wants to retire and play golf, wait for the early bird special and the complimentary Jell-O and then die?
If you're lucky, you keep doing what you love, that thing you were made to do, fighting to do it for as long as you can. And you live.
Sports fans have seen it happen before. And when the awkward drama finally ended, I found myself wondering what happens to champion athletes.
Their bodies might not be the same, but what's inside them is what made them. And on the Internet, in a dissertation by Scott P. Tinley, I found this, a scrap from Robert Hamblin's poem "On the Death of the Evansville Basketball Team in a Plane Crash, December 13, 1977."
"... the orphaned heart knows
that every contest is do or die,
that all opponents are Death
masquerading in school colors ...."
I knew I had to call Tinley, author of "Racing the Sunset: An Athlete's Quest for Life After Sport." He writes and lectures at San Diego State University.
But he's not some chinless academic devoid of practical knowledge. Tinley was a world-class triathlete, inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame and retired in 1999.
"Nobody really wants to leave," he told me over the phone. "Who would? One of the stories I like to tell when I was in a truly dark place after my retirement, somebody told me to see Jerry Sherk."
Sherk, a former All-Pro defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns, sat down with Tinley.
"He said, 'The sooner you can realize the best part of your life is over, the sooner you can realize you can build a pretty good second half.' I've never forgotten it."
Some fans are intrigued about what happens next to the retired champion. They've been primed to expect pathos and sometimes it's delivered to them in sports reports, a homeless all-star now living in a car, under a bridge, and Bryant Gumbel shakes his head. And other fans think: Who cares?