ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Maybe age, indeed, is only a number.
A number, however, can be for the ages.
Such is now the case with No. 44 and the University of New Mexico football program – which became forever linked on Friday night at University Stadium.
“I feel very honored,” said Brian Urlacher, whose No. 44 was retired during halftime of the Lobos’ 45-37 victory against Air Force. “It was a good turnout tonight, and the fans have been great. … It was cool to be down here again (on the field).”
Urlacher was presented a framed No. 44 Lobo jersey at halftime and got quite an ovation from the announced crowd of 21,833.
And for good reason.
His legendary Lobo career – from 1996-99 – provided the springboard for NFL fame. The 1996 Lovington High graduate played 13 seasons at middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears, making the Pro Bowl eight times. He is widely regarded as a lock to be inducted to the NFL Hall of Fame.
In high school, Urlacher was a standout on offense, defense and special teams while leading the Wildcats to a state championship and an unbeaten season. He led the nation in tackles as a junior at UNM in 1998 and was Mountain West Conference player of the year and an All-American as a senior.
The 35-year-old retired from the NFL last summer and says he hasn’t looked back.
“I’m just trying to find more things to do with my time,” said Urlacher, who is a TV analyst for Fox. “I’ve got a lot of free time, which is good: more golf, more fishing, more family time. I don’t miss the game at all. I’ve said that this whole time (since retirement). I just miss my teammates.”
Urlacher flew into Albuquerque on a private plane Friday and hit the ground running. He had a meet-and-greet with the Lobos basketball team in the afternoon and spoke to the UNM football team prior to its game.
“They were all on the floor (practicing) when I called them up to the locker room, so they knew something was up,” UNM basketball coach Craig Neal said of his players. “They were like, ‘I hope it’s Urlacher.’ It was a great privilege for our guys.”
Urlacher watched the first half of the football game from the End Zone Club at the south end of the stadium before coming to the field for the halftime festivities.
Former Lobo great Robin Cole was on the sidelines, during the ceremony. Cole lives in Pittsburgh, where he was a linebacker for 11 seasons for the Steelers – including four Super Bowl championships.
“It’s a tremendous honor for Brian,” Cole told the Journal. “Brian will probably be the first from our university to be in the (NFL) Hall of Fame. He had a lot of Pro Bowl years and was in the right place at the right time. It has a lot to do with timing. But he’s done a tremendous job as a Chicago Bear and did a tremendous job here as a Lobo. For him to be recognized is very, very special.”
Urlacher and running backs Mike Williams, Bobby Santiago and Don Perkins are the only players in Lobo football history to have their numbers retired.
But as special as the occasion was, Urlacher took it all in stride.
When asked if there were any emotions going through him that surprised him, he said, “No, I don’t think there was,” then sincerely asked, “Did it look like there was?
“Like I said, I was happy to have my family here. I have a big family, so I was psyched to have everyone together.”