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Brian Urlacher launched his Hall of Fame career as a Lobo

Dennis Franchione remembers the exact date: Dec. 15, 1995.

That’s when the greatest football player in University of New Mexico history was discovered.

Charlie Hall, a UNM assistant, found Urlacher, Franchione said.

The state of New Mexico provided funding for recruiting back then, and Franchione made it a point to look at all possible prospects at each high school in New Mexico, he said, even in Lovington.

“You found no one else in America?” Franchione recalls asking Hall before hearing Hall’s full pitch of Urlacher.

They watched tape on Urlacher’s many high school highlights, coming from different facets and positions. Huge plays. They had to bring him in for a visit. It was Urlacher’s lone visit and turned out to be his only NCAA Division I offer.

“You could just tell he had an orneriness about him that would make him a good football player,” Franchione said of the first impression from that visit. “He was intense. From a good family. It was easy to believe that he would help our football team. Did any of us dream he would be what he became? No.”

Urlacher became a Lobo legend, Chicago Bears defensive icon and first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer. He will be inducted Saturday.

Franchione, who is retired, will be in Canton, Ohio, this weekend as Urlacher’s guest. Urlacher doesn’t forget his roots. He lives in Arizona, but he still refers to New Mexico as “home.”

“This place gave me my start, gave me my opportunity to play football, not only high school, but in college,” Urlacher said last month while at a charity golf event put on by Notah Begay III at Santa Ana Golf Club. “UNM is the only school that offered me a scholarship. I don’t forget that. I love coming home. I love being here. People ask me where I’m from, I proudly say I’m from New Mexico. I’m very happy to say that and let people know that.”

Franchione saw Urlacher build that pride early on. Within the first three days, Urlacher wowed every UNM coach on staff. Franchione could sense something special during Urlacher’s first summer. And that led into his freshman season.

“I still remember his first collegiate play,” Franchione said. “He was playing on the kickoff team. He went down and hit the returner. He knocked him out as cold as a wedge. He was a heck of a player.”

Of course, true Lobo history fans know that Urlacher’s legend grew in his final two years at UNM under coach Rocky Long, who deployed Urlacher as the lobo back, a cross between a linebacker and free safety, and played him all over the field.

However, Franchione had a hand in that as well. Franchione left UNM for Texas Christian after coaching Urlacher for two years.

Urlacher played mostly as a rotational linebacker and excelled on special teams during Franchione’s time with the Lobos. But Urlacher wanted to stay loyal to Franchione when the man affectionately known as, “Coach Fran,” left for TCU.

“(Urlacher) called me and wanted to transfer to go with me,” Franchione said. “I told him to stay there with UNM. That’s where he belonged. I told him, ‘I would love to keep coaching you. But you need to be there. If you’re not happy there, call me back.'”

Franchione never got that call back from Urlacher. Franchione can only dream about what could have been at TCU. This is the second straight year Franchione will be in Canton for a Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Last year it was star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, the former TCU great. Franchione could have had Urlacher and Tomlinson as Horned Frogs during the late ’90s.

“That was one of my more idiot football moments,” Franchione said in a playful tone. “But it was the right and ethical thing to do.”

Franchione said he was about to do what Long did with Urlacher in Url’s junior and senior seasons. Franchione didn’t want to give Urlacher too much to handle as a freshman and sophomore, he said.

Urlacher never complained during those two years with Franchione at UNM, said fellow defensive teammate Danny Gonzales, now the defensive coordinator at Arizona State.

Gonzales, a year ahead of Urlacher, met Urlacher on the younger player’s recruiting visit.

“You could tell he was a country kid from Lovington,” said Gonzales, who also grew up in New Mexico. “He was just fun to be around. He was laid-back and loved the game of football. He was also a great teammate. He was always looking out for you. He would spend a lot of time in the film room.”

By the time Long came to UNM from his work as the defensive coordinator at UCLA Urlacher was ready to take off.

In one of Long’s first actions as head coach at UNM, he asked his coaching staff to rank each player on defense.

“He came up No. 1 on everyone’s list,” Long said. “We went about to change our defense to take full advantage of him. We wanted to take full advantage of the unbelievable abilities he had. He’s the best football player I’ve ever been around.”

Long installed his 3-3-5 defensive scheme, and Urlacher became a beast.

Urlacher sits at No. 1 in the Lobo record book with most tackles in a season with 178 in 1998. He is No. 2 in career fumbles caused with 11.

His 1999 season ranks No. 6 in school annals with 154 tackles, when he was named the Mountain West MVP.

He is No. 4 in career tackles with 442.

Last year, Urlacher was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

In short, Urlacher was the complete package, the perfect player to take on the lobo-back role, Long said.

“He had the size, speed and the agility, and all the physical traits,” Long said of Urlacher. “Very smart football player. He loves playing the game. Played the game at full speed, and always came with an aggressive attitude. He was really coachable. He listened and took advice from everyone.”

Urlacher was respectful toward everyone, especially toward authority during his days as a Lobo, said Roger Holien, UNM’s character coach at the time.

Holien’s son Daniel Torza played with Urlacher, and Holien connected with Urlacher, too.

“He is easy to root for,” Holien said of Urlacher. “The culture was different in those days. I was allowed to lift weights with the team. (Strength coach) Mark Paulsen really developed the players. Sometimes we didn’t have the most talent, but we had a very strong team. Opponents went away black and blue.”

Holien, 57, who lives in Albuquerque and works for the Faith Comes By Hearing ministry and is a commentator for Pro View Sports, is very fond of those days when he was basically the Lobos’ chaplain.

Holien said several coaches, including Bronco Mendenhall, had a huge impact on Urlacher.

Urlacher remained grateful after his days as a Lobo.

In 2005, Holien was asked to conduct a pre-game chapel service for the Chicago Bears when they played host to the Ravens.

“It was really neat,” Holien said. “I got tickets to the game. I had tears in my eyes. All I could think was this guy has come far. He’s just an incredible guy.”

Holien and Paulsen saw Urlacher develop great strength throughout his time at UNM.

Urlacher came as a svelte 6-foot-4, 210-pound athlete.

He added 45 pounds of muscle and increased his speed.

“Not a lot of people were on Brian out of high school,” said Paulsen, a former NFL player now in charge of Wilderness Athlete, a nutrition company. “He was flying under the radar like most small-town kids do. I believe Texas Tech came on him late after he committed to us. Had they come in earlier it might be a different story.”

Urlacher had a willingness to learn and a strong work ethic in training, Paulsen said.

“He maintained a big amount of humility,” Paulsen said of Urlacher. “His teammates loved him. The coaches loved him. It never got to his head.”

Paulsen said Urlacher was extremely competitive and would not let anyone beat him, even if it was a training drill or a pick-up game of basketball.

Urlacher said he never set out to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He just loved football.

“My drive and motivation was just trying to win games,” he said. “I just love football. I just loved going to work everyday. I enjoyed being around my teammates. I enjoyed being around the facility. The Hall of Fame was just a bonus for all the hard work put in and making plays on Sundays.”

Urlacher also made plenty of plays on Saturdays as a Lobo.