NEXT ATHLETE: BRIAN URLACHER
Behold Bear Brian Urlacher the man in the middle-of a team's resurgence, a sports town's revival and a rethinking of how football is being played
By Curry Kirkpatrick
There's next, and there's Next. Lower case next is about adjustment. To the weather, to the traffic. It's about transforming the flow of familiarity, or the people, if that's what it takes. It's about dealing with change. Of place. Of circumstance. It's about the cat, for goodness sakes. The cat? Yeah, Norman-23 pounds of the greatest feline in the history of New Mexico. That's where the guy and his cat came from, Lovington, N.M. What was next was Chicago, but not before he met the waitress in the biker bar. Laurie. The one he went bowling with, spent the next 30 days and nights with, got those cute matching heart-and-infinity tattoos above each other's breast with. (If it didn't work out? "What the hell, I could always get 'Mom' tattooed in there somewhere.") And not before he married her, and hauled her-pregnant with their daughter, Pamela-and her two basset hounds, not to mention his college-age brother, Casey, up north, a Two Guys and a Girl (Plus Two Dogs, a Baby and a Cat) caravan trekking from the oil fields around Lovington. What was next, lower case, was a new job, and with it the chaos and stress and challenges that go with a most-storied position on a most-storied team in a most-storied sports town. It was all too much for Norman; he had to be put to sleep. But for the guy, it was just more answers to that question, What's next? What's Next, upper case? Brian Urlacher, that's what. One moment he's an unknown defensive back who looks great in shoulder pads. The Next, he's an undefinable fury redefining a position. One moment he's an obscure New Mexico Lobo, all down-home, laid-back and charmingly naive-"amazing" being his adjective for everything from suburban architecture to the steaks at Gibson's downtown. The Next, he's single-handedly restoring the fortunes of a failing franchise. One moment you can't pronounce his name. The Next, you can't stop talking about his astonishing speed and carefree charisma and how he has reenergized no less than Da Bears themselves. Da playoff-bound Bears. So, though we could have focused our Next-Is-Now laser on, say, Expo ace Javier Vazquez or prep wonderballer LeBron James or tennis heartthrob Juan Carlos Ferraro or even short-track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno (see the gallery beginning on page 76), we've tabbed-Ohyes-Brian Urlacher. This old-school, New-Age ghostrider from the desert plains; this instant icon, Monster Middle Backer of the Midway; this 6'4" 245-pound cover boy of countless NFL Preview issues to come is The Magazine's NEXT Athlete 2002.
"I know what being a star athlete means," says Urlacher (pronounce it Ur-Lak, B-Lak or just plain Lak), who's always been one, albeit a huge wolf in a small pack. "But this is different. I can't say I wasn't warned, that Chicago would take to me. It's the blue-collar thing. But it's amazing that it's all happened so fast." Not really. Devoid of such a transcending figure since Mr. Jordan went to Washington, this nation-feeding metropolis almost had to gobble up Urlacher, whose number 54 is easily the quickest of Chicago's athletes' armor to disappear from local sporting goods stores. And, of course, Lak is a Bear. It took all six Bulls championships before talk radio even began to join the debate of whether Chicago was The Bulls' or Da Bears' town. In truth, the place was more an MJ joint. Urlacher arrived in Chi-Town as the antithesis of a high-profiled media megalomaniac, which made him not only a perfect fit for the navy and orange, but, in less than two seasons, the biggest shoulders in the City of Big Shoulders, Da Chicago Bear. Well, that, and the reincarnation of Dick Butkus, which is the same thing. "People are going crazy for this kid," says Bob Williams, president of Chicago's Burns Sports, which matches athletes to advertisers. "He's got the best of Butkus-quick and hard-hitting-and the best of Mike Singletary-respectful of his teammates, the fans and the other team." Is it mere coincidence that Urlacher may be the most appropriately named middle backer in all the history of pro football-except for, maybe, Butkus? Bears defensive end Bryan Robinson pushes the name game further, calling him Grrr-Lacker, "because the kid is about as fierce and scary a mother as has ever come along." How fierce? In two of the Bears' biggest wins this year, the two most dangerous receivers in the game-Terrell Owens and Randy Moss-seemed so frightened of Urlacher that they just gave up on balls. And yet, sitting in a meeting room at team headquarters-just a few minutes from his new home in Lake Bluff-Urlacher in repose is a veritable huggy Bear, naturally modest and sweetly gullible. His massive right arm shows one of those tattoos of barbed wire, but he wears his ballcap-stop the presses-frontward. And when he made the Pro Bowl last season, he rewarded his defensive frontmen with Rolexes because Robinson insisted it was traditional to do so. "What did Brian know?" laughs safety Mike Brown. His college-boy enthusiasm is delivered in a peculiar kind of rapid-speak-"Not exactly valley-guy but maybe cactus-guy," says one local beat writer-that's almost as hard to follow as the path of pain he spreads on the way to another poor ballcarrier. Conversations race by as if Urlacher is back in Albuquerque trying to catch a cab-or Lovington, trying to catch a jackrabbit. "The brothers are always asking me if I took my Ritalin or if I had my gallon of chocolate milk," Urlacher says. "I'm hyper, goofy. I always have to be moving, doing something." What he did last season was sneak up on everybody, much the way his team has ambushed the Black-and-Blue and Urlach-shellacked NFC Central this fall. He played the "Lobo" position at New Mexico, a rover who created havoc everywhere-when he wasn't returning kicks, catching 6 TD passes, doing everything but selling discounted turquoise in Santa Fe. That versatility made him the ninth pick of the 2000 draft, but it took a couple of games before coach Dick Jauron and his crew figured out that B-Lak didn't lack much (see box on page 72) and moved him from the strong side to the middle. Immediately, the new kid exploited that stunning closing speed to create fumbles, cause interceptions and sack everybody from the ridiculous (knocking Charlie Batch out of a game in which Urlacher made 14 tackles) to the sublime: In an early game against the Packers, he outran, actually overran, a startled Brett Favre, who had to slide out of harm's way. "I got credit for the sack, but it would have been a lot worse for him if he hadn't seen me," laughs Urlacher. "I'm sure he's probably had that happen before." Probably not. "Quarterbacks have no idea how fast this guy can close," says Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache. "They think, 'I'm fine, I got time. I'll just set and ... ' Wham! Brett couldn't believe someone could be bearing down on him. He was wild-eyed. He screamed, 'What the hell was that?'" Last year, Urlacher led a 5-11 team with a team rookie-record 165 tackles and won Defensive Rookie of the Year; he was the Bears' first position player in seven seasons to make the Pro Bowl. Such talent was not lost on then-personnel boss Mark Hatley. Neither was the fact that the top two run Ds met in Super Bowl XXXV, while seven of the top 10 made the playoffs. Hatley spent the off-season wooing free agents Ted Washington and Keith Traylor, 700 pounds of beef on the hoof, trying to mirror the champion Ravens D. So now, instead of Ray Lewis running wild while his interior linemen occupy blockers, it's U-Lak. "You try to treat Chicago the same as Baltimore," says Favre. "Block the up-front guys first, deal with Lewis second. Urlacher is playing as well as Lewis. Maybe better." Fact is, double teams have cut into Urlacher's sacks and tackles this year, but after four seasons of misery (19 wins in 64 games), the team's success (an NFC-leading run defense) is his defining stat. Fact is, some of his most effective hits never happen. Just before Halloween, trailing 28-16 in the fourth quarter, the Bears tied the Niners, then scored the quickest OT victory ever when Brown returned a deflected pass to end the game. Brown got the SportsCenter time, but it was Urlacher, looming just beyond intended receiver Owens, who was arguably responsible for the play. Brown himself makes the argument: "It was gonna be a big smack," he says. "Owens took a peek at Brian rather than keeping his eye on the ball. That's why he bobbled it. I'm just in awe of Brian. Wherever the ball is, he's nearby." Seconds Bear offensive tackle Big Cat Williams, "You never see him coming. Then he flies out of nowhere and crumbles some poor fool. The problem is, every five plays he's expected to blow up somebody and get the ball back for us. When he doesn't do that, something's wrong." The normal yard stick for speed, the 40 time, means little in Urlacher's case. His quick-strike ability depends on an explosive and unclockable finishing burst, the kind of close on the ball that leaves even football people shaking their heads. "He's a freak," says Bucs pro personnel coordinator Mark Dominik. But it's not just the suits who are impressed. "We were playing the Bucs," recalls Bears running back Leon Johnson. "Warrick Dunn went out for a screen. Brian was going after Brad Johnson, who lobbed the ball to Dunn. Just as Dunn caught it, Brian stopped on a dime, turned around and ran him down. Smooth." While the best middle backers-think Lewis and Junior Seau-have been sideline-to-sideline menaces for a while, their pursuit gets them there in time to make tackles. Urlacher's extra something gets him there in time to make hits. "Speed sets him above the bar," says Dominik. "He's the new level of what people are looking for in the middle." Which is only fitting. If it seems as though the Bears invented the middle linebacker, it's because they did. As the pro passing game evolved in mid-century, offenses exploited the middle zone left open in the standard 5-2 defense. So it was that in 1954 Bill George, a Bears middle guard, stood straight up, dropped back and established a brand-new position (and the 4-3). Soon, a famous TV special, The Violent World of Sam Huff, glamorized the Giant and his position forevermore. Today, of the 13 linebackers in the Hall of Fame, nine occupied the middle. Among that group are three Bears, a fairy tale of mayhem. George was a local legend and a starter for 14 years until the day in 1965 when he lost his job to a roughhewn Chicago homeboy whose name sounded an awful lot like what he kicked passels of on every down. Nobody-not Jim Brown, not Lawrence Taylor, not Dennis Miller-nobody has terrorized the NFL the way Dick Butkus did, nor was anybody as popular in Chicago. After him came Mike Singletary, whose dangerous glare and vicious hits were matched only by his studious attention in the film room. Maybe the Bears have always known how to judge middle-defense talent, maybe they coach the position better than anyone else. But is that how you explain centerfield for the Yankees or guard for the Lakers? No, the secret behind the Bears middle mystique is the mystique itself, and the knowledge that playing middle linebacker is about being a middle linebacker. Says Singletary, "You have to play the position like you own it: 'This is what I play. This is who I am.'"
Da Bears' Next Big Bear began to learn who he was back in puberty, on the windswept plains of Lovington (think The Last Picture Show with Urlacher as Jeff Bridges and football as Cybill Shepherd). His stepfather "rodeo'd"-rode bulls-but Brian opted for bull rushes at Lovington High School. "I played a lot of offense," he says. "But I liked defense better. Rather hit than get hit. I was always right on the edge of being legal. If you were standing around the pile, I'd crush you." Crush you whenever-before the whistle, during, after. "Late?" says Urlacher, who's nothing if not honest. "Yeah, sometimes. Didn't matter." His mom, Lavoyda, was a bride at 16, mother of three by 19 and divorced from Brad Urlacher by 25. She moved from Washington State back to Lovington, where she juggled three jobs and a new marriage to Troy Lenard, a part-time cowboy and full-time pipeliner in the oil fields. "My mom is my heart," says Brian. "But my [step]dad was my role model, the hardest working man I ever knew." Toughest, too. Lenard-aided by a two-by-four he dubbed "Uncle Henry"-was the family disciplinarian. "Made 'em bend over and touch their ankles," says Lenard, who's now divorced from Lavoyda and set for life (courtesy of Brian) on his own 100-acre ranch in central Texas. "One whack from 'Uncle' and they were quick learners." Fortunately, there wasn't too much call for Uncle Henry. "How could I get in trouble in Lovington?" says Urlacher, who with his best friend, Brandon Ridenour, made a vow not to touch alcohol through high school. "We played Ping Pong in guys' garages all night, we'd cruise the strip drinking chocolate milk. And we'd play sports." Urlacher was all-state as a wide receiver and defensive back, but when he was denied a football scholarship by his beloved Texas Tech-just across the border in Lubbock-he settled for the U. of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. "I thought I was pretty good," he says. "But I wasn't too disappointed. I felt lucky. Not many kids from Lovington went anywhere. If I didn't get that offer, I'd probably be working in the oil fields now." Instead, Urlacher worked the Lobos like his personal rig-bulking up by 40 pounds into prime NFL meat. "I remember the buzz about some big dude from New Mexico but I didn't believe it until he showed up at camp," says Brown, a fellow rookie. Williams, an 11-year vet, wondered why the Bears drafted a safety to play linebacker-when more often than not it's the other way around. "Then we get in the games and he's twice as fast as in practice and nobody can block him," says Big Cat. Still, implicit in the designation of Next is: Not quite there yet. That applies to both Urlacher the player and Urlacher the star. Thus far, for example, Lak's endorsement roster has been limited to a pair, Nike and Cadillac: "I'm uncomfortable doing commercials," he says. "But I eat at McDonald's practically every day. Think they'd be interested?" Likewise-and hold on to your McShake, Bears fans-Urlacher is still a work-in-progress on the field. "He has all the tools," says Singletary, "but 90% of football is the neck up. To be successful for a long time, you need to study, anticipate what the offense is doing, come off your blocks better." Of course, motivating your bad self to spend hours in the film room is easier when you're trying to walk where legends stomped. "You hear Brian talk about wanting to be like Butkus and Singletary," says Johnson. "He's trying to put himself up with them, knowing he has a long way to go." In fact, Urlacher seems not to have any idea of just how good he is. "Everything a player does in this league, 31 other teams see it," he says. "Great or lousy, they see all of it. You can't take a second off. I have to keep proving myself every Sunday." Late in November, in Chicago's signature 13-6 win against the hated Vikings, the bone-crunching, game-plan-busting,cruise-missile-mimicking Urlacher proved it every which way. In typical fashion he scared everybody in the house-Vikes, Metrodome faithful, announcers, maybe even refs. At least twice that night, for example, Randy Moss flinched going for the ball, clearly fearful of a Grrr-Lak smack. And when Daunte Culpepper was wrapped up by two Bears-only to complete the pass-a ref whistled Culpepper "in the grasp" before a heat-seeking Urlacher could hit home. Good thing, too. If the play hadn't been ruled dead, Culpepper might have been. ESPN's Paul Maguire had it right, warning in words to this effect: "That's one of the reasons they have that rule ... so Urlacher doesn't kill anybody." A 22-year-old rule that seems like it was made for a 23-year-old? Sometimes what's Next is a retrofit as well as a break from the past, an aw-shucks boy inheriting the mantle of kill-or-be-killed men. "I'm having a great time out there," says the boy, Brian Urlacher, late of Lovington and now Chicago's newest Papa Bear. "I mean, how great a life is this? To get to knock guys' heads off for 60 minutes and not get thrown in jail?"