When Brian Urlacher came to the Bears, he was electric. Whatever they asked, the athletic freak could do it and more. He made the field small. Even at 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds, he covered sideline to sideline and dared anyone to try the middle. If Ray Lewis wasn't the best at that, Urlacher was. For 13 seasons, he belonged in a sentence with the great old Bears who had made Middle Linebacker a hallowed spot, first Bill George, then Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and finally Urlacher. (My colleague Mike Tanier took a stab at ranking them earlier this week.)
It's a mean game, football. As much as it gives, it takes. And what it takes, it never gives back. Urlacher came in made of steel and even then he knew it wouldn't last forever. He knew that. Yes, he knew. Yet he denied it the way every player denies it because the only way to play the meanest game is to deny what it's taking from you. It gave him the electricity of life but it drew down on the charge until, one day, he asked for more and there was no more.
That day was Dec. 2, 2012. In an overtime period with the Seattle Seahawks, on third-and-two at their own 47-yard line, the Bears needed a stop. They failed, as the play-by-play chart reported: "(Shotgun) R. Wilson left end to CHI 42 for 5 yards (B. Urlacher)." The quarterback Russell Wilson, young and electric, had sprinted for a first down. Seven plays later, he threw a touchdown pass. Seattle, 23-17.
That third-down tackle that came too late was Urlacher's last. He couldn't have known that. The Bears had four regular-season games remaining and hopes for the playoffs. The only suggestion that Urlacher's career might be over came in his hometown newspaper, the Tribune, which deep in its game story noted the Bears' continuing problems on defense and reported, "Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher left in overtime with a hamstring issue … " When you're 34 years old and it's your 182nd game, every "issue" suggests the end coming.
A broken wrist kept Urlacher out all of 2009. Inevitably came the knees and a bad back and, last, a hamstring. The NFL isn't flag football, it's a car wreck every 40 seconds. No one gets out of the game whole. A 1970s Bears linebacker, Doug Buffone, campaigning for increased benefits to retired players, once said, "There's bodies laying all over the damn road so the NFL could be successful."
Buffone is now a Chicago businessman and media commentator on the Bears. He came from the University of Louisville in time to stand alongside the colossus who was Butkus. He has said, "I always say to play professional football you have to have a Neanderthal gene. Dick had two." Butkus played only eight seasons, 119 games, finally crippled by knee injuries so severe that Sports Illustrated's Bill Nack wrote of the linebacker's final appearances, "Butkus was like a wounded water buffalo on the Serengeti, with a flock of hyenas circling him, picking off flesh."
It was then, when Butkus was wounded, that the Bears agreed to a five-year contract worth $575,000 -- only to release him before he could earn a penny of the promised money. Butkus filed suit against the Bears essentially claiming his injuries were as much the team's fault as his; they settled for $600,000.
This winter, when Urlacher was wounded, the Bears offered him a one-year contract worth $2 million -- far short of Urlacher's proposed two-year deal for $11.5 million. Urlacher called the Bears' offer "a slap in the face." He saw the offer as a public embarrassment. He thought a player of his accomplishments -- a perennial Pro Bowl selection, a certain Hall of Famer -- deserved better.
It was a slap in the face, but not so much an insult as a wake-up call meant to rouse Urlacher to reality. It's a mean game in many ways. We may think these are football teams. But first they are bloodless corporations dedicated to profit. "There's no loyalty in football," Buffone said on the Chicago radio station, WSCR, during the Urlacher negotiations. "Not from the players' side, not from the owners' side." It's not what you did for me yesterday, it's what you can do for me tomorrow. And once it's clear that tomorrow promises less than today, it's time to say good-bye.
Urlacher sought other offers. The Vikings raised a hand without enthusiasm, perhaps thinking they could get a half-season of half-good work from a half-broken down linebacker likely to spend half of every week in a whirlpool tub hoping to get upright for another Sunday of car wrecks. The no-offers message was clear. Everyone agreed: Urlacher was used up. For him to go to another team, Buffone said, would be to risk the embarrassment no great athlete wants.
"The odds are against him," Buffone said in March. "What's going to happen now is he's going to have in the back of his mind that he's going to prove the Bears wrong. 'I'm going to prove everybody wrong. Everybody says I'm finished. Everybody says I'm done.' I've seen that routine with ball players. If he wants to try, go ahead and go, but I gotta tell you …"
Buffone played against Joe Namath when Namath was with the Rams and against Johnny Unitas when Unitas was with the Chargers. Namath a Ram? Unitas a Charger? Urlacher in the purple of Minnesota?
"I've seen it happen," Buffone said. "It's not a nice sign."
In the 1950s, Bill George was a nose guard on the Bears' five-man front. By instinct, he knew when to back off the line into pass coverage. Soon enough, he stayed back there and created a new position, middle linebacker. He was there from 1952 until 1965 and might have stayed longer except he woke one day to a slap in the face: the Bears had drafted a kid out of the University of Illinois -- Dick Butkus. Seeing that the future had arrived, George retired.
This spring, the Bears added two young middle linebackers, free agent D.J. Williams and draft pick Jon Bostic. Maybe Urlacher knew Bill George's story, or maybe he knew middle linebacker history. Sam Huff, Willie Lanier, Jack Lambert and Singletary lasted 11 seasons, Joe Schmdit and Chuck Bednarik 13, Ray Nitschke 14. Only Ray Lewis stretched time past good sense, 17 seasons. After 13 seasons, Urlacher knew it was over.
"After spending a lot of time this spring thinking about my NFL future," he wrote in a statement, "I have made a decision to retire. Although I could continue playing, I'm not sure I would bring a level of performance or passion that's up to my standards."
In those words there is a touch of the defiance that drives great athletes: "...I could continue playing..." And there is a reminder of the fire in Urlacher's work: "...performance ... passion."
Yes, the mean game demands that a man give up his body.
Now comes Brian Urlacher to show us a man can keep his soul.