54 Will Be Missed, But Never Forgotten
It was April 15, 2000. I had recently turned 11-years-old and, as always, my entire life revolved around sports. I loved the Bulls, but Michael Jordan had already been retired for almost two years. They were truly atrocious, having combined for 45 wins in three seasons. Quite frankly, they were unwatchable.
I loved the Cubs, but they only won 67 games the previous season and would go on to win 65 the next. Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood were the only two players an 11-year-old could actually look up to.
I loved the Blackhawks, but they hadn’t made the playoffs in four years. Hockey may have been my favorite sport at the time, but any Blackhawks fan could tell you that Tony Almonte was the only Blackhawk even worth talking about during those dark days.
That left me with the Bears, a team that had made the playoffs once in seven years and gave young kids no good reason to believe in them. The two Bears jerseys I had growing up: Chris Zorich and Rashaan Salaam. The former was out of the league after 5.5 seasons, and the latter is considered one of the biggest busts in Bears history. That’s how terrible it was. No one, not even my own father or uncle, could convince me to like them. The Bears weren’t cool to talk about during lunch and recess, because when you’re just a kid, all you really want to do is root for the good teams.
The Denver Broncos were my team back then, and Terrell Davis was my favorite football player in the world. I swore I’d never forget watching Super Bowl XXXII with my dad in 1998, when Davis came out of the locker room at half time after puking from excruciating migraine headaches, just to score the game-winning 1-yard touchdown with only 1:45 remaining. Even at such a young age, these were the moments that I lived for, that taught me what it was like to be a fighter, to never back down, and to appreciate sports.
When the Chicago Bears took some converted safety-turned-linebacker named Brian Urlacher on that gloomy April day, I didn’t really think anything of it. They were coming off a typical 6-10 season under first-year head coach Dick Jauron, and I knew nothing about the All-American out of New Mexico. As the end of training camp neared, I remember hearing about how big and fast Urlacher was – how he wasn’t your prototypical NFL linebacker because of his unique size and athletic ability. He knew how to lead, and he was apparently always in the right place on the field at the right time. Maybe, just maybe, this kid would actually live up to the hype, something that nearly every former first-round pick of the Bears over the past decade (Cade McNown, Curtis Enis, Rashaan Salaam, John Thierry, and Alonzo Spellman) had failed to do.
And live up to hype he did. After losing his starting job after Week 1 of his rookie season, then re-gaining it back Week 4 after a Barry Minter injury, Urlacher led the team in both tackles (123) and sacks (8.0). He was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and was Chicago’s lone representative in the Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, the Bears finished that season 5-11. Urlacher certainly had my attention, but the Bears still sucked. I needed something, anything, to convince me that being a Bears fan would be cool again.
Then the 2001 season rolled around, and the tide began to turn. Urlacher catapulted their defense from 20th in the league to first overall. Like every single Bears team that we can remember, the offense was mediocre at best, led by Jim Miller, Anthony “A-Train” Thomas, and Marty Booker; it was the defense that got everyone talking. In Week 3, Urlacher held some highly touted rookie quarterback named Michael Vick to 18 rushing yards in the second half and returned one of Vick’s fumbles 90 yards to the house. Three weeks later, the Bears completed one of the most memorable come-from-behind wins in franchise history, when San Francisco receiver Terrell Owens dropped the ball in overtime on a slant in an attempt to elude Urlacher. The ball fell into the hands of Mike Brown, who ran it back 33 yards for a touchdown to give the Bears a 37-31 win.
The Bears ended that season with a 13-3 record, clinching themselves the division for the first time since 1990, as well as a first-round bye. Because of their relatively weak offense, they weren’t expected to make much noise in the playoffs, especially with the St. Louis Rams and their “Greatest Show On Turf” lingering in the NFC field. Chicago eventually lost to Philadelphia in the second round, but that magical 2001 season was much bigger than a disappointing playoff appearance – it marked my first season as a true Chicago Bears fan, and Brian Urlacher was the sole reason why. He made his first of five All-Pro teams, his second of eight Pro Bowls and, along with Marshall Faulk, he led the entire league in pro-football-reference.com‘s Approximate Value statistic, which puts a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position. He was becoming an unstoppable force at the linebacker position, and kids of all ages began to look up to him as the savior of Chicago Bears football.
Of course, the Bears didn’t make the playoffs for another four years, but as a fan, I never looked back. They had finally become my team, my Denver Broncos, and Brian Urlacher had become my favorite football player ever. It’s impossible to pinpoint one moment in Urlacher’s career as his greatest, as the list is never-ending, but his most memorable season in the NFL does happen to coincide with one of the greatest years in my life: 2006-07, the year the Bears made an unfathomable run to the Super Bowl – the year I graduated high school.
It wasn’t necessarily because I was graduating that made that year so great for me; it was because, as a senior, I knew it may be my last chance to spend countless hours with the guys I grew up with talking sports on a daily basis. So every Sunday (or Monday), we took extra advantage, watching as many Bears games together as possible, cherishing every moment that we could. The night the Bears went into Arizona, trailed 23-3 late in the third quarter and won 24-23 remains, to this day, my most memorable Bears moment. Sure, everyone remembers Rex Grossman’s six turnovers, the Mike Brown fumble recovery, the Charles Tillman fumble recovery, the Devin Hester punt return and infamous Dennis Green “crown their ass” post-game tirade. But, to me, as my friends and I huddled around the TV with our arms around each other, it was Urlacher’s second half performance on that crazy, miracle night that will always stick out. As Peter King explained it, in the last 16 minutes, “Urlacher choreographed the Bears D into a scheme that led to one touchdown, had 10 tackles and two passes defensed and a forced fumble. He had five tackles of [Edgerrin] James after a one-yard gain or less.” He single-handedly took over that game, imploring as much will and as much determination as he could to carry us to an impossible comeback victory. That game, above all else, epitomized Brian Urlacher as a football player.
Urlacher may not have accomplished his one main goal of bringing a championship to Chicago, but his impact on football fans all over can never be understated. A likely first-ballot Hall of Famer, he will go down as one of the greatest linebackers to ever live. He set a Bears single season-record with 151 tackles in 2002, won AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, won the Ed Block Courage Award in 2011, holds the crown for most tackles in Bears history (1,358 combined tackles) and made the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. Urlacher was an extremely rare breed of a football player and will always be known by Bears fans for the fear he instilled in opposing quarterbacks, the leadership he displayed on and off the field, his unteachable work ethic, and his utmost loyalty to his teammates, coaches and fans.
The fairytale 2006 season was one of the greatest times in my life, but had Brian Urlacher never been drafted by Chicago, or had he spurned the city at any point in his career for a better chance to win, who knows where my allegiance would stand. I owe my Bears fanhood to him, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Next season will be strange without no. 54 roaming the middle and calling the plays, knowing he will never put on the blue and orange again. Like everyone in that locker room, we will miss him. But we will never forget him.