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Bears great Brian Urlacher elected to Hall of Fame on first ballot

Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Football

MINNEAPOLIS -- The greatest Bears player since their iconic Super Bowl XX team more than three decades ago received the highest honor Saturday: Brian Urlacher was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Urlacher and Baltimore's Ray Lewis were the players in the conversation for the best middle linebacker of their era and it is fitting both were voted in on their first ballot and will be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, together on Aug. 4 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. It's the first time two middle linebackers will be inducted in the same class.

Wide receivers Randy Moss and Terrell Owens and safety Brian Dawkins were the other three modern-era players voted in. Senior committee players Jerry Kramer and Robert Brazile and contributor Bobby Beathard, a longtime Redskins and Chargers general manager, were voted in.

Urlacher, 39, becomes the 28th Hall of Famer to represent the Bears for all or the primary portion of their career, the most in the NFL and the first since defensive end Richard Dent was inducted in 2011. Urlacher and Lewis bring to 28 the number of modern-era linebackers in the Hall. Five of those 28 were Bears, a nod to the history of the position for the franchise from George Connor to Bill George, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and now Urlacher.

Selected ninth in the first round of the 2000 draft, Urlacher becomes the first Hall of Fame player produced from the University of New Mexico. He was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and was an established star before coach Lovie Smith arrived in 2004 with a scheme that accentuated Urlacher's freakish athletic ability for a player with such a large frame – 6-foot-4, 258 pounds. The next year he was named the league's defensive player of the year, becoming the fifth player in history to win both awards. The next season, in 2006, Urlacher helped lead the Bears to Super Bowl XLI.

Named to the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 2000s, Urlacher was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times and was first team All-Pro five times. In 13 seasons, he amassed 1,358 tackles, 411/2 sacks, 22 interceptions, two touchdowns, 90 passes defensed, 12 forced fumbles and 16 fumble recoveries.

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Personnel boss Mark Hatley made the decision to draft Urlacher, who had played safety in college. The Bears knew they were getting a player who could transform their defense but initially weren't sure how to deploy him.

"We knew we would like to play him at the Mike (middle) linebacker, but the problem was he had been a safety, and we didn't want to stick him there right away and beat him up and lose him and ruin an excellent prospect," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "We started him off at the Sam (strong-side) linebacker position, where everything is coming at you from one direction in the traffic, and we played him at the Mike in the nickel situation, where 95 percent of it was passing. So he was getting a feel for it but he wasn't getting in the heavy traffic with the guards coming on him and combination blocks ... because it's a whole different beast when you're playing 12 to 15 yards deep as a safety and you move up to 5 yards from the line of scrimmage with the 300-pounders.

"We knew we had something special and we knew that he would be a guy that would be a hell of a player for a long, long time if we had some patience and were just judicious in how we approached it. Having (linebackers coach) Dale Lindsey there was a huge help because Dale had developed so many linebackers and he was a great voice in saying things that he had seen that were rush jobs and where guys were put in situations where they weren't quite ready to handle. It ended up working out really well just because we got him eased into it to the point where he was comfortable seeing it all happen and getting some playing time on this level."

It happened faster than anyone would have imagined, which in retrospect isn't surprising to anyone who was involved. Lindsey marveled at the amount of information Urlacher could process and then apply on the field. A lot of players, even really good ones, can lose the fine details when they move from the meeting room to the practice field and then into games, but Urlacher absorbed it all.

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