CHICAGO – 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.
“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.
The next city awaiting Urlacher is Canton, Ohio. The year 2018 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.