Dick Butkus

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.

Will Brian Urlacher be a first ballot NFL Hall-of-Famer?

Will Brian Urlacher be a first ballot NFL Hall-of-Famer?

On Tuesday night Brian Urlacher was among the 108 players nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2018. Joining the Bears legend as first-time nominees were names such as Randy Moss, Ray Lewis, Steve Hutchinson and Ronde Barber.

Urlacher eventually will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame, that's without a doubt. But whether Urlacher gets in on his first try is another story.

Looking at the raw numbers, in 13 seasons Urlacher amassed 1,353 tackles, 41.5 sacks and 22 interceptions. He was named a Pro Bowler eight times, earned First Team All-Pro honors four times, won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 and NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. In 2010 he was named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, and he led the Bears to Super Bowl XLI, where they were defeated by Peyton Manning and the Colts.

A maximum of five modern day players can be enshrined each season, and it's safe to say Lewis and Moss will be among those players. That leaves three slots for players such as Urlacher, Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber, as well as the players who missed out last season such as John Lynch, Terrell Owens, Brian Dawkins and Hines Ward.

Here's a list of linebackers who gained entry on their first try:

2015: Junior Seau
2014: Derrick Brooks
1999: Lawrence Taylor
1998: Mike Singletary
1990: Jack Lambert
1988: Jack Ham
1979: Dick Butkus
1978: Ray Nitschke

Along with Singletary and Butkus, first ballot Bears included Gale Sayers, Walter Payton and George Blanda.

Will Urlacher be next?

The nominees will be reduced to 25 semifinalists in November and to 15 finalists in December.

Bears Classics: Dick Butkus profiles the standard for MLB greatness

Bears Classics: Dick Butkus profiles the standard for MLB greatness

The history of pro football is replete with seminal influences, individuals who changed the game with their play, coaching or other means. Appropriately for a series headlined "Bears Classics," on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 9:30 p.m. CSN will chronicle the life and career of Butkus — the man who did not create the position of middle linebacker, but effectively defined it after taking the job away from Bill George, who in fact had created the position in 1954 when, as a middle guard in a traditional 5-2 front, he stood upright and changed an area of football forever.

But when Butkus ran onto the field for his first practice after being drafted third overall in the 1965 draft, former Bears teammate and wide receiver Johnny Morris told a friend, “You could almost feel a chill come over the field. Bill [George] knew his time was done.”

The “story” of Butkus is almost anecdotal. As the saying goes in theater, “action is character,” and nowhere would that resonate truer than Butkus, after whom Sylvester Stallone fittingly named his 140-pound bullmastiff in “Rocky.”

In the course of compiling and writing “Tales from the Chicago Bears Sidelines” some years back, I was fortunate enough to come across some of those “actions” that went into the Butkus “character:”

The Bears had a lobby display of their Hall of Fame players, with stories. To wit: Minnesota Vikings running back Dave Osborne had once been annihilated by Butkus on an ill-fated attempted sweep. Osborne was asked after the game what had happened to his blocker on the play. “I don’t know,” Osborne said. “Maybe Butkus ate him.”

[SHOP: Buy a Dick Butkus retro jersey]

Gale Sayers, drafted by the Bears with the No. 4 pick, right after Butkus, was asked by a teammate who the toughest guy Sayers had ever played against. Sayers didn’t answer, just pointed out toward the field: No. 51.

Butkus fury was not reserved for players only. Longtime NFL official Norm Schacter made a call that incensed Butkus, who began raging and finger-pointing in Schacter’s face. Finally Schacter’d had enough.

“Butkus,” Schacter warned, “if you don’t get your finger out of my face, I am going to bite your damn head off!”

Butkus stormed off but not before snarling back, “If you do, you’ll have more brains in your stomach than you do in your head!”

Pittsburgh Steelers center Ray Mansfield recalled Butkus destroying the Steelers’ special teams: “He knocked out L.C. Greenwood on a punt, and he knocked out Warren Bankston, who was a fullback and very good special-teams player,” Mansfield said. “I remember Warren coming over and crying, ‘I don’t know who I am!”

He was not alone.

“Dick was an animal,” said Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones. “I called him a maniac. A stone maniac. He was a well-conditioned animal, and every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.”