For the better part of a 13-year Hall of Fame career, Brian Urlacher was the face of the Chicago Bears and a fixture at the middle linebacker position that traced its roots to the Bears. As he prepares for induction into the NFL’s Ring of Honor, Urlacher looks back over the years – and people – with NBC Sports Chicago reporter John “Moon” Mullin, who covered the Bears over the entire course of Urlacher’s legendary career.
NBC Sports Chicago: Not to focus on the negative, but how ironic to think about a Hall of Fame career starting with a demotion. Coaches installed you at strong-side linebacker on draft day, displacing Rosevelt Colvin, but it didn’t work, at all. What was the main problem?
BU: “People somehow think that ‘SAM’ is the easiest position, easiest to learn, and where, if you screw up, coaches think it’s not going to hurt our defense too bad. But for us, most linebackers, we’re used to playing in space, so it’s like all of a sudden you feel confined. You feel like, in an ‘under’ front, you’re basically eliminated from the play unless you’re spilling or making a play. In an ‘over’ front you can run a little bit, get around and move.
“But I didn’t like it. I didn’t like being over the tight end. The funny thing was, later in my career, I’d ask the coaches if I could be head-up on the tight end. I wanted to do that stuff.”
NBC Sports Chicago: Coaches privately admitted later that it was a mistake to force you in there.
BU: “They were just trying to get me on the field, but I was so bad. Coach [Dale] Lindsey was so patient with me and I think he saw how frustrated I was and not getting the technique down.”
NBC Sports Chicago: Was that the first time in your sports life that you’d been benched? And how hard was it on you, and on Rosie, who was an excellent pass rusher?
BU: “First time [benched], 100 percent. I’d started my last two years in college, then just a few weeks in with the Bears, I’m ridin’ the pines. I started one [2000 preseason] game but I just made so many mistakes that it was inevitable.
“Plus, Rosie was good, man, really good. He was technically sound, didn’t make mistakes, and he made plays. No way I should’ve started over him. Then Barry [Minter] got hurt, hurt his back, I think, against Tampa and Greg [Blache, defensive coordinator] says, ‘OK, get in there.’ And I was, ‘Oh, s**t.’ I was calling signals, calling the plays, and thank God Warrick was helping me. I was lost.”
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NBC Sports Chicago: It’s been said, by both teammates and coaches, that beyond being a great player and tremendously welcoming and inclusive teammate, that you really understood the minds of those coaches and teammates.
BU: “I like people [laughs], so I really enjoyed spending time with my teammates. Obviously the longer you played together, the more you understand about someone, what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable. And I think I had a pretty good read on what I could or couldn’t do, or could or couldn’t say.
“And we were coached so well, not because I or anybody else was so smart. Coach Babich, coach Smith, coach Marinelli, they made sure we knew exactly what to do on every play, and also how to adapt on the fly.”
NBC Sports Chicago: You anguished a little over your presenter, among Lovie, Greg and Bob Babich. You finally decided on Bob.
BU: “Yeah, I spent nine years of my career with him, and he’s the closest guy for me football-wise. He’s the guy I’m closest to, a good dude.”
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NBC Sports Chicago: You obviously were a chapter in the Bears-Packers history. But it was different with you, not so much a blood feud. The difference seemed to be your relationship with Brett Favre.
BU: Those were fun games, really fun. Brett was so awesome because he enjoyed playing football and I was a lot like that as well. He loved being out there, he was a gunslinger, took chances, talking to me all the time – ‘Nice hit,’ ‘Nice tackle,’ that kind of stuff – and he was one of the best of all time, too.
“I had watched him as a kid, so finally getting to play against him was pretty damn cool.”
NBC Sports Chicago: And you and Lovie’s defense really fared well against him after so many bad years against him in the Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron tenures.
BU: “We started out slowly against him because we weren’t very good. When Lovie got there, it put the hammer down to Brett. Then Aaron put the hammer down on us.”
NBC Sports Chicago: What did you do differently against him with Lovie?
BU: “All we ran against him was Cover-2. It didn’t matter if it was third-and-1, fourth-and-1, whatever, we weren’t going to put our defense in a position where he could be as good. Throwing the ball, there was no one better.
“I think in the second half of the first ’07 game against him [27-20 Bears win], they had 27 snaps and 26 of them, we ran Cover-2. They had 17 points in the first half, 3 in the second. We hunkered down ran the same defense again, and again, and again. There was nothing they could do against it.”
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NBC Sports Chicago: Things ended unpleasantly with the Bears and you after the 2012 season. Lovie was fired and your contract conversations with GM Phil Emery were scratchy, to say the least, ending in the Bears withdrawing. How hard was it to get past the way things ended between Emery and the Bears and you?
BU: “None of that really mattered in the end to me. I think I’m a pretty forgiving person. I think the thing I was most bitter about was that I didn’t get to say good-bye to anyone in that building – to any of the trainers, the equipment guys, the media people, the lunch people, the maintenance crew – I didn’t get to say good-bye to anybody.
“Looking back, that was thing that hurt. I didn’t go back in the building for two, three years, so I didn’t get to see those people. That was tough.”
NBC Sports Chicago: Coming from a small town and the Southwest, how tough was Chicago for your personal life?
BU: “It was adjustment, that was for damn sure. A big adjustment. I had to learn the hard way sometimes what I could and couldn’t do. I’m just happy Twitter, the video cameras in phones, that stuff came along toward the end of my career[laughs]. It’s so stupid what these guys have to put up with. But in the locker room, as players, we pretty much knew what was really going on with each other.”
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NBC Sports Chicago: So what’s up now? You were starting to look like a golfer; what’s your handicap down to?
BU: “I don’t play that much anymore. I kind of lost the bug. Now I get a good workout in the morning and then chill out.
NBC Sports Chicago: At the end, did you think you still had more left? Was it it somehow disappointing not to get all the way to the end on your own terms?
BU: “I think I could’ve played a little more. My knee was feeling better, and the longer the ’13 offseason had gone on, the better it felt.
“But looking back, I honestly didn’t have any desire at the end – I wasn’t going to be playing for Lovie, it was going to be a new scheme and coaches, and I just didn’t want to go through that. So it wasn’t that hard a decision. And from what I hear from the guys who were there, I did the right thing. It was not fun.
“But it all was fun. My rookie year still feels like yesterday. It all does.”