Whenever Brian Urlacher does something to confirm he hates attention as much as he loves football — grunt through a news conference, breeze by adoring fans, retire via Twitter — my mind goes back to 2003 in a corner of the Bears locker room.
Urlacher had summoned me to uncomfortably separate fact from fiction regarding a highly publicized relationship with Paris Hilton. Here was this giant man sounding like a naive kid asking rhetorically why his life was anybody's business.
After a 13-year Bears career that officially ended Wednesday with Urlacher's retirement, no answer ever fully satisfied Chicago's reluctant superstar.
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Halas Hall, Washington Road, Lake Forest, IL 60045, USA
Soldier FIELD, 1410 Museum Campus Drive, Chicago, IL 60605, USA
"This is bull,'' Urlacher said that day. "All I care about is playing football.''
Since the 1985 Bears era in a passionate football city, nobody played it better.
For a guy who came from tiny Lovington, N.M., Urlacher ideally fit an image immediately embraced by our big, blue-collar town. The face of the Bears franchise should feature a square jaw. Urlacher looked like a meat packer and worked as if he signed a time card instead of autographs. From his first day as a Bear to his last, Urlacher never considered himself special, which perhaps was why he became that way.
No athlete since Michael Jordan symbolized Chicago more than Urlacher.
Like he did so many NFL running backs, Urlacher hit Bears fans hard around 10 a.m. Wednesday by announcing his retirement in a tweet. To the millions who have bought his jerseys and loved his game, it hurt like a helmet to the gut.
Some sports greats never learn to say goodbye, and Urlacher could have hung around and waited for an NFL team to conclude after summer OTAs that they needed his veteran presence in the huddle. He likely could have latched onto a 53-man roster, gone to training camp and worn another No. 54 jersey, looking as odd as Mike Ditka without a mustache. But retiring as a Chicago Bear, as a guy who played his entire career for the same organization, mattered to Urlacher. Applaud that. Respect that.
No, I haven't forgotten Urlacher dissing fans and mocking media members, present company included. But the good Urlacher did representing the Bears since the 2000 NFL draft heavily outweighs the bad and, on this day of reflection on Urlacher's sustained excellence, nitpicking over his personality quirks seems petty.
Cynics will point out how this showed no other NFL team wanted Urlacher, how this proved the Bears were right in offering no more than the one-year, $2 million contract Urlacher called "an ultimatum.'' But nobody ever will know whether Urlacher could have played in the NFL next season. We always will know Urlacher chose to take the honorable way out of the league.
Debate where Urlacher fits on the list of Bears all-time great linebackers starting with Dick Butkus and including Mike Singletary, Bill George and George Connor — I would put him second, behind Butkus and in front of Singletary. History will remember Urlacher as an eight-time Pro Bowl player whose speed and athleticism changed the middle linebacker position with a rare combination of speed, power and instincts. Bears coaches and players will remember Urlacher as a consummate teammate and competitor who was just one of the guys despite being an NFL superstar.
No Bears defensive player ever started more games than Urlacher (180). No teammate ever has been more revered at Halas Hall because, beneath all the muscle, Urlacher had a heart that could impress people even more.
After the Bears blew a game Oct. 12, 2008, to the Falcons in the final 11 seconds, for example, I approached Urlacher before he left a dejected locker room with news unrelated to the loss. The younger brother of a mutual friend had died suddenly. The sincerity evident in Urlacher's reaction couldn't be faked. On the team bus from Atlanta, Urlacher reached out to that person back in Chicago with condolences and an offer to do anything he could.
From Bears low-round draft picks to Lance Briggs, teammates shared similar stories of grand gestures by Urlacher upon learning of his retirement. They appreciated the way he stood up for them publicly and held them accountable privately with his strong but unassuming style. Urlacher was hardly elegant but he was authentic, which went a long way in the locker room and in a city that appreciates genuine people.
The next city awaiting Urlacher is Canton, Ohio. Mark the date — August 2018 — on your Bears calendar. That represents Urlacher's first year of eligibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and when he deserves to be enshrined. Expect his acceptance speech to be brief but include details of the desert night Oct. 16, 2006, in Glendale, Ariz., when Urlacher made 25 tackles against the Cardinals in what was the best game of a brilliant career.
Ironically, Urlacher figures to go into the Hall on the same day as retired Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, another uncommon leader who developed a following despite well-documented flaws. Lewis always was more show and Urlacher more business, so the Bears legend likely will get overshadowed on the day he gets immortalized.
Nothing would be more apropos.