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.
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.
When middle linebacker Barry Minter was sidelined with a back injury in just the third week of the 2000 season, the Bears moved Urlacher. They never again discussed where he was best suited to play or what he could handle.
"It was Dick Jauron that said, 'Put him at the middle,' " Lindsey said. "Dick could see the big picture. Luckily for us, Brian was more than willing to spend time to learn the new position, and it's nice when you have rare talent and a guy that wants to do it. That's the difference between the real great players -- they want to do it and they'll do anything to be successful. He was like a sponge. You just kept giving him information and he absorbed it and would want more. The thing about the guys with the rare talent: They can do any damn thing you ask them. You can ask them the impossible and they can get it done. And Brian did it for us as a great middle linebacker."
When the Bears signed massive defensive tackles Ted Washington and Keith Traylor in 2001, Urlacher raised his game to a new level as the duo kept offensive linemen off of him and allowed him to make plays with his remarkable speed.
"There are a lot of guys that can run fast in a straight line, but the athleticism he showed for a guy that size, off the charts," Blache said.
The Bears stormed through the NFC Central to win the division with a 13-3 record and qualify for the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.
When Smith arrived in 2004 with the Cover-2 defense that he had learned with the Buccaneers, Urlacher was a unique piece in a defense that traditionally had highlighted the skills of the weak-side linebacker. He had the ability to take on running backs but also could turn and sprint downfield, an imposing figure with great length that made it difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
He spearheaded the "Monday Night Miracle" at Arizona in 2006 with 25 tackles and a forced fumble that resulted in a touchdown. Urlacher had five interceptions and five sacks in 2007, a testament to his ability to do anything needed.
Urlacher was never very comfortable in the spotlight but always at ease around his teammates, which made him immensely popular. He treated the newest rookie the same way he did the most tenured veterans. When former teammate Todd Johnson became a high school coach in Sarasota, Fla., he didn't have enough uniforms to dress all of his players. Urlacher provided new Nike jerseys -- home and away -- for the entire roster and did so without seeking any attention, one of countless anecdotes of how he helped friends.
Needless to say, a large contingent of Urlacher supporters will be on hand seven months from now when he receives his gold jacket.
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