During a 13-year career with the Chicago Bears that ran from 2000-2012, Brian Urlacher never flew under the radar.
Whereas it took time for him to develop into a force during his days at Lovington High and then the University of New Mexico, there was little doubt from Day One he was going to be a dynamo in the National Football League.
That first season, he was the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and in 2005 he earned Defensive Player of the Year honors. The next season, he led the Bears to a Super Bowl berth opposite Indianapolis.
The crowning achievement to Urlacher’s career, though, will occur Saturday in Canton, Ohio, when the eight-time Pro Bowler who made No. 54 famous in Chicago is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys’ vice president of player personnel from 1960-1988 and current senior analyst for NFL.com, was on Urlacher’s bandwagon early on.
“I knew him real well,” Brandt said in a recent phone interview with the Journal. “He had unbelievable speed, but only New Mexico State and New Mexico recruited him. And it’s a great story about his mother raising him. Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico can be very proud.”
Brandt said that in the weeks preceding the 2000 NFL Draft some teams were uncertain whether Urlacher, listed at 6-foot-4, 258 pounds by the Bears, was best suited to step in as a full-time linebacker after competing his final two years at UNM as Lobo-Back, a hybrid safety/linebacker.
“There was no skepticism in my mind,” Brandt said of Urlacher, who was taken by Chicago with the ninth pick of the first round. “He went to the right team, too, one that had a history of great middle linebackers (Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus, Bill George).
“Some guys can run fast and jump high, but not all of them have great recognition. He knew when it was going to be a play-action pass and when it wasn’t. I think he would be among the top six linebackers in NFL history.”
Urlacher went on to have 41½ sacks, 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in his career to go with well over 1,000 tackles.
Another former Lobo, Preston Dennard, who carved out an eight-year pro career (1978-1985) primarily with the LA Rams, remembers being impressed with Urlacher even before he became a prep star.
“I did a lot of motivational speaking when I was done playing and it was in (the early ’90s) that I remember meeting him in Lovington,” Dennard said. “He was a young pup but he was the most talented thing out there. If you had any sense, you could tell.”
Dennard knows all about standout pro linebackers, having faced the Steelers’ Steel Curtain in Super Bowl XIV, a unit that featured ex-UNM standout Robin Cole and mega-mean future Hall of Famer Jack Lambert.
“Brian was a cross between an outside backer and an inside backer. He roamed from sideline to sideline, and he could cover,” Dennard said. “Jack (Lambert) was a different kind of middle backer. Roles were different then. His job was to control the middle. Brian went from sideline to sideline.”
Dennard said that receivers who faced the Bears and Urlacher had to keep their heads on a swivel when in his area.
“If you were crossing his path, you had to know where he was. If you were coming across his face, and if he had a chance to take you out, he would rock your world.
“The best thing I could say about Brian is that’s he’s a guy with speed to play today’s game and with yesterday’s football mentality, and that’s dangerous to have.”
Former Cowboys All-Pro safety Cliff Harris, who played in the NFL from 1970-79, didn’t shy away from KO’ing receivers, twice winning Super Bowls. But he said Urlacher’s attacking style set him apart.
“I tried to maximize the psychological aspect of the game and make strategic hits,” Harris said. “I didn’t do it all the time, but when I could make an impact. Sometimes I would just run by receivers to let them know I was around.
“Urlacher didn’t play any psychological games. I think he tried to crush people all the time.”
Another former Lobo, wide receiver Terance Mathis, was a consensus All-American at UNM in 1989 before embarking on a 13-year pro career. He got an early look at how Urlacher had progressed as a pro in an early-season 2001 game between Mathis’ Atlanta Falcons and the Bears.
“He had the ability to chase down running backs and receivers and be physical on contact,” Mathis said. “That could be crucial on a third-down play when a player wouldn’t go for the extra yard to maybe get that first down.”
In that meeting 17 years ago, Urlacher had the longest touchdown of his pro career when he ran 90 yards with a fumble by Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick.
“On those early teams he had veteran guys to help pull him along,” Mathis said. “It was later in his career that he became ‘that guy.’ ”
Yet another ex-Lobo, current Detroit Lions safety Glover Quin, who was second-team All-Pro in 2014 when he led the NFL in interceptions, went up against “That Guy” and the Bears once, when he was a member of the Houston Texans at Soldier Field in 2012, Urlacher’s final year.
“I remember that game,” Quin said of a 13-6 Texans victory despite totaling only 215 yards of total offense. “It was a Sunday night, rainy, a hard-fought game in Chicago. I remember actually speaking and saying something to Brian on the field during the game.
“I don’t remember him making any ‘Hall of Fame’ plays that game, but just watching him over the course of his career, he’s definitely made tons of ‘Hall of Fame’ plays and he definitely deserves to be in.”
Quin said he was not surprised Urlacher was able to smoothly transition from his Lobo-Back days at UNM to manning the middle for Chicago.
“He was playing safety (at New Mexico) but he was running around like a linebacker,” Quin said. “And so, his athletic ability to play safety in college allowed him to move to linebacker in the (NFL) but still have the same coverage ability, same tackling ability, same athletic ability. … The scheme that they were playing — Cover 2 in Chicago, running the middle, reading coverage and making plays — that was something that he did in college and it transferred right over to the (NFL) for him and he definitely excelled at it.”
Bill Bergey, an All-American at Arkansas State and a five-time All-Pro for Philadelphia in the 1970s, in some aspects had an eerily similar recruiting background to Urlacher’s.
At least Urlacher generated interest from in-state schools coming out of high school. Bergey, who grew up in South Dayton, N.Y., about 50 miles south of Buffalo, said he had to send letters to universities to get a sniff.
“I got only two responses,” he said. “One was from Arkansas State. The other was from New Mexico.
“But some of the ASU coaches were in New York City at the time for a convention and came right over. I met them at a hotel and had a couple of scrapbooks with me. I had to peddle myself.”
So much for a career at UNM.
Also like Urlacher, Bergey relied on mobility to excel.
“My thing was lateral speed,” Bergey said. “And I saw that in him. And if you hit them harder than they hit you, you won’t get hurt.”
Perhaps that’s why Urlacher didn’t miss a game in 10 of his 13 seasons.