For 13 years, Brian Urlacher was the face of the Chicago Bears. He was the best player on the field and the most respected voice in the locker room. If he talked, his teammates listened.
At his best, Urlacher could unify a locker room. At his worst, his voice was powerful enough to contribute to a divide with quarterback Jay Cutler that never seemed to close, even after Urlacher retired.
Perhaps the ultimate sign of respect for Urlacher came the night he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On a snowy night at the University of Minnesota, I flagged down Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the red carpet of the NFL Honors and asked him why Urlacher was so tough to face.
“I think he’s the smartest player that I’ve ever played against,” Rodgers said. “No one has played the position like he did, with the freedom to check in-and-out of coverages. And obviously the talent is second to none — a guy that big, that fast, that athletic, and with those instincts.”
Current Seattle Seahawks tight end Greg Olsen, who played with Urlacher in Chicago, also provided some genuinely heartfelt words on Urlacher.
“I think the best thing I can say about Brian is that he treated everybody in that organization — from the star quarterback all the way down to the ticket guy — the exact same. He made everybody feel important, he made everybody feel special. He was the ultimate leader. I can’t say enough about what he did for me personally and so many other guys,” Olsen said.
Later that night, after Urlacher was informed he was going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I told him what Rodgers said. He responded with a “wow” and needed a second to gather a response.
“It’s a huge compliment coming from him. We had some good, good battles. We went back and forth. Most of our battles happened at the line of scrimmage before the ball was even snapped. So to have him say that means a lot to me,” Urlacher said.
A lot has changed since February 2018 when those comments were exchanged. Players didn’t talk much about politics publicly. If you did take a stand – well, you know what happened to Colin Kaepernick.
But that’s how it used to be in the NFL. Urlacher was known as the football player and teammate – highly respected as both.
Over the past few months, the narrative around Urlacher has been different. In the wake of protests responding to the murder of George Floyd, Urlacher randomly jumped into the comments section of former NBA player Grant Hill’s Instagram post to defend President Donald Trump. In March, he took his entire family to the White House to visit Trump. Of course, Urlacher has the right to support the President, but perhaps both occurrences served as warning signs for what was to come Thursday.
The meme, of course, misses the point of why NBA players are sitting out playoff games and somehow connecting Brett Favre’s memorable Monday Night Football performance to the NBA boycott is as erroneous as it is ignorant. More troubling, Urlacher also “liked” an Instagram post that said: “FREE KYLE RITTENHOUSE!!!! Patriot Lives Matter!!!”
Rittenhouse is the Antioch teen charged with murder in the shootings of multiple protesters in Kenosha this week.
Suddenly, the public respect for Urlacher changed. Among the most notable figures to chime in was Matt Forte, a respected teammate of Urlacher’s in Chicago:
Sherrick McManis is the only current Bear to have played with Urlacher and he tweeted this on Thursday:
By Thursday evening, the Bears organization appeared to be distancing itself from Urlacher, providing NBC Sports Chicago with a statement that said: “The social media posts in no way reflect the values or opinions of the Chicago Bears organization.”
Earlier in the day, the Bears canceled their scheduled padded practice and instead held a team meeting. Thursday afternoon, Bears linebacker Josh Woods was asked on Twitter if the team discussed Urlacher’s social media posts and he responded, “No, but we’re going to,” while tagging Urlacher.
So what can these team meetings accomplish? Well, look no further than Urlacher’s ignorance.
Would he still have the same feelings if he had heard directly about the struggles of his Black teammates when he played? These social issues weren’t completely ignored with Lovie Smith as his head coach, but there’s also no doubt the social and political climate of the NFL is different this year. The murder of George Floyd served as a pivotal moment as NFL players took a stand and refused to be quiet. A significant statement from commissioner Roger Goodell followed, even if it was a blurry video and came across as nothing more than a permission slip from the boss to speak freely.
Regardless, players aren’t staying silent any more and perhaps it will prevent future Brian Urlachers.
A scene in the first episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks provided some hope as it showed a small group of Los Angeles Chargers players and coaches discussing National Anthem protests. Chargers long snapper Cole Mazza points out that he has family members in the Marines and Air Force that are “super against” kneeling before the flag.
“I feel like there’s definitely a different way to protest,” Mazza said. “I’m all for (the cause), I just don’t know how much I agree with that.”
What follows is a healthy and respectful conversation with other members on the call explaining that the kneeling was only about police brutality and never about the military. Mazza leaves the call with a better understanding of the subject, with running back Justin Jackson telling him, “I’m really glad you’re here. Because now if you’re asked about that, you have a platform to speak about it (and) you know what to say.”
It would be naïve to think every conversation within an NFL locker room is as clean or as convincing. There are always going to be outliers. But if Thursday’s team meeting at Halas Hall resulted in just one player listening, learning and re-thinking a previously held misconception, then it was productive.
Perhaps it would have helped Urlacher.