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Urlacher stayed true to small-town roots

The journey to Canton began ironically in a city that couldn’t offer him organized football when he arrived.

Years later, by the time he was in a graduation cap and gown, Brian Urlacher had long since established himself as a beloved and bona fide Lovington legend.

“He is by far the biggest thing to ever come out of Lovington,” said Brandon Ridenour, a lifelong friend and former Lovington High teammate. “Brian is literally the guy who put a town of nine, 10 thousand people on the map.”

On Saturday, Urlacher achieves a career zenith as the former Lovington Wildcat, New Mexico Lobo and Chicago Bear goes into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

“I can’t believe it,” said Urlacher’s Lovington head coach, Speedy Faith. “I never ever had any kind of inkling that I would have coached an NFL Hall of Fame player. It’s surreal.”

A considerable number of current and native Lovingtonians are making the trip to Ohio to share in the occasion. Urlacher receives his yellow HOF blazer Friday night. His bust, to reside forever inside a special room in Canton, with all the previous inductees — probably the most popular attraction at the Hall of Fame — will be unveiled Saturday night.

Sources have told the Journal that Urlacher is due to be the fourth inductee to speak Saturday, putting him at the microphone sometime around 6-6:30 p.m. Mountain time.

He already has had his No. 11 jersey in Lovington retired, and a street that runs in front of the Wildcats’ football stadium is named for him. On campus, there is the Brian Urlacher Training Center. Someday, Faith said, there may be a statue erected of the city’s most famous Wildcat.

“His contribution to Lovington is in the millions (of dollars),” Faith said.

For Urlacher, it surely must have seemed like a long, desolate New Mexico desert road that separated this upcoming weekend from his humble origins in southeastern New Mexico.

An admiring Ridenour said Urlacher hailed from a blue-collar family and once was a kid who owned just one pair of jeans and pair of tennis shoes and wore them both every day.

“Surreal is the term to describe all of this,” he said. “For a guy with that work ethic who didn’t come from a whole lot, it’s amazing to me what he was able to turn himself into and the athlete he became.”

Introductions

Urlacher moved in the fourth grade from Washington state to Lovington, a city with a current population of around 11,000, and where his mother had family. But he didn’t really get started with football until high school.

He played on the freshman team, then primarily the JV as a sophomore with a few varsity snaps, then the final two seasons on the varsity.

And it wasn’t until his junior year, Ridenour said, that Urlacher really began to showcase himself.

“He was starting to show glimpses,” said Ridenour, who quarterbacked Lovington to the Class 3A state title in 1995, which was Urlacher’s senior season. That was an undefeated season. “He was starting to mature physically.”

Faith retells an oft-told tale about Urlacher — then about 6-foot-1 — breaking his wrist late in his junior season while covering a kickoff, and the visit to a doctor in Lubbock that followed a couple of days later.

“The most interesting thing,” Faith said, “was that the (doctor) looked at his wrist, looked at his growth plates, and said he’s gonna be 6-4, 6-5. That’s when I knew he’d be different, that we’d have something really special.”

Urlacher was a special teams fiend as a junior, and he was also feature in the offense. His senior year, Urlacher was an unguardable receiver, a ferocious strong safety and an outstanding kick returner.

“He really did have an extra two or three gears that other kids our age just didn’t have,” Ridenour said. “He was bigger, faster, stronger and he had this mentality that he wasn’t gonna lose.”

In the state final his senior year, Urlacher caught two touchdown passes from Ridenour, and also made a spectacular leaping interception (one of two picks that day) in Lovington’s 24-7 victory over Silver.

“Turned that game around,” Faith said. “That one play sticks out more than any other.”

A rival coach observed that Urlacher proved to be somewhat of a late bloomer.

“I’ll be honest, he was a very talented player, but what he developed into as a college player? I’ve never seen someone (blossom that fast),” said former longtime Artesia coach Cooper Henderson, who coached against the Wildcats during Urlacher’s prep years. “It was unreal the difference in him when he got to college.”

Urlacher was a stellar three-sport athlete at Lovington. Ridenour said Dave Bliss once approached Urlacher about joining the UNM men’s basketball team as a walk-on; he had averaged 25 points and 15 games his senior season, and was an All-State player (with a 34-inch vertical leap) in that sport. He also was a stupendously gifted state track and field athlete, qualifying for state in multiple events.

“He was just an absolute physical specimen,” Ridenour said.

Reflections

But through all of this success, former teammates say, Urlacher always remained grounded.

“He was always pretty humble and one of the guys,” said another former Lovington football teammate, Daniel Reynolds, who now lives near Houston. “He never thought he was better than any of us.”

To wit: During his playing years in Chicago, his endorsement contract with Nike provided football athletes at Lovington High with a pair of cleats. He also provided jerseys, pants and socks. Later, Nike provided athletes at the school — in every sport — with $22,000 in shoes. He also donated $40,000 in weights to Lovington’s fieldhouse.

His philanthropic nature came as no surprise.

“He was super down to earth, he just liked to be with his friends,” said Cleveland High head football coach Heath Ridenour, Brandon’s younger brother and himself a former quarterback for the Wildcats. Urlacher lived only a block away. “Brian wasn’t ever a guy who talked about his accolades.”

Urlacher was very close to the Ridenour family in Lovington.

“He grew up in our house,” said Heath Ridenour. “He referred to my parents as mom and dad growing up. We consider him more family than friend.”

On Saturday, the city is throwing a Hall of Fame viewing party, the “54ever Tailgate and Watch Party” at the Lea County Museum, from 4-7:30 p.m. The 54 references the number he wore with the Bears.

“The community loves him,” said Faith.

Urlacher even managed to forgive Faith — for not making him into a quarterback. Faith remembered one year at an Urlacher youth camp in Albuquerque in the mid-2000s, just before Chicago’s Super Bowl season. At the end of the day, Urlacher stepped in to play quarterback for both teams and rifled touchdown passes all over the field.

“It was unreal,” Faith said.

Later, the two men had dinner.

“He said, ‘Coach, I think I’m mad at you,’ and I looked at him and said, ‘Brian, you’re mad at me? You’re an NFL superstar,’ ” Faith was quoted as telling the Chicago Sun-Times story in 2013. “He said, ‘But, yeah, if you had played me at quarterback in high school, I might have been a quarterback in the NFL and been making Peyton Manning money.’ ”

It was a playful jab at his coach, of course. Certainly in the end, Urlacher did all right for himself. And his hometown.

“People like that just don’t make it out of Lovington,” Brandon Ridenour said. “They have nice careers, support their families out in the oil fields. Few people who leave make a name for themselves. You name it, he’s reached the pinnacle.”

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