LOVINGTON – He is their favorite son. He is their most famous son.
And Saturday, even 1,500 miles from central Ohio, the people who populate this southeastern New Mexico city almost felt as though they were walking together into the Pro Football Hall of Fame hand in hand with Brian Urlacher.
“He is like a hero to us,” said Lovington High senior football player Julius Self. “Someone who inspires us to do great things.”
Urlacher was part of an eight-man class inducted Saturday night in Canton, Ohio. As he approached the microphone after being introduced, his bust was unveiled from underneath a towel. Urlacher rubbed its head.
“I love everything about football,” he said at the start of a heartfelt and emotional speech. He donned the yellow Hall of Fame blazer given to all the inductees on Friday.
One of the highlights came very early, as he spoke about his arrival in Lovington as a young boy and his modest, even hardscrabble upbringing. He spoke lovingly about his late mother, Lavoyda Lenard, who worked two or three jobs to provide for her three children. She died in 2011 at age 51. One of Urlacher’s childhood friends said earlier this week that Urlacher at one time owned just one pair of jeans and one pair of shoes, and he wore them both every day.
“When we moved to Lovington,” Urlacher said, “we had nothing. … That’s not true. We had each other.”
Urlacher’s path to Canton started among the oil fields near Lovington, where he once worked. He later became a superstar at the University of New Mexico, and his playing career culminated in Chicago, where he fashioned a brilliant 13-year career with the Bears.
“Very emotional to hear him talk about Lovington,” said a former teammate, Mario Garcia, who like Urlacher graduated in 1996.
Earlier this year, Urlacher was voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, an eight-time Pro Bowler and part of the league’s all-defensive team of the 2000s.
Much of his speech was centered on teammates, coaches and family, with very little of it directed toward himself.
“It was awesome,” said Robert Arreola, himself once a star football player at Lovington and who wore the No. 11 Wildcats jersey years before Urlacher in the mid-1990s. He is now Lovington High’s athletic director. “That tells you a lot about Brian, putting others first.”
Lovington Mayor David Trujillo proclaimed Saturday Brian Urlacher Day.
“Today,” Trujillo said, “puts Lovington on the map.”
Men, women and children around the city gathered in front of TVs, and at various watch parties, to celebrate Urlacher’s enshrinement.
The Lea Theater just off Main Street opened its doors Saturday and showed the induction ceremony on their movie screen. At the Drylands Brewing Company in Lovington, an Urlager beer was on tap.
“He’s always been a great member of our community,” said lifelong Lovington resident Mara Salcido.
While Urlacher’s football got him into the Hall of Fame, Lovingtonians talked about that almost in secondary terms Saturday. It was Urlacher’s unselfishness, his continued civic commitment to Lovington, his generosity in helping the community, that resonated most deeply with people.
“He’s given back a lot,” said another permanent Lovington resident, Star McKee. “So this is something we can all be proud of together.”
Urlacher’s name is prominent around the high school. A street named for him runs in front of the stadium, plus the massive Brian Urlacher Training Center near the field.
Garcia played defense alongside Urlacher on the 1995 team that beat Silver 24-7 for the Class 3A state championship. He was thrilled to see his friend reach this football summit.
“Me and him were both lifeguards here at the City of Lovington pool,” Garcia said. “We just had great times.”
At the Lea County Courthouse, which runs along Main Street and is across the street from the Lea Theater, Garcia said he and Urlacher threw the football around on the grass next to the building.
Urlacher was then and remains now a role model for athletes who have attended Lovington High.
“That’s who you looked up to when you were younger,” said Jacob Jameson, who played quarterback for Lovington, graduated in 2011 and who is an assistant coach for the Wildcats. “He came around once when I was a senior, and it was just really cool to experience meeting the guy.”
While Urlacher was a stellar three-sport athlete at Lovington – he was also a standout in basketball and track and field – football was his meal ticket to stardom.
He became an All-American at UNM before Chicago drafted him No. 9 overall in the 2000 draft.
“They are unbelievably excited here,” said current Lovington High head football coach Anthony Gonzales. “We’re out here in the middle of nowhere. They love Brian Urlacher here, and they’re exceptionally proud of the things he accomplished.”
There is quite probably no one in Lovington who doesn’t know of Urlacher or who doesn’t know him personally.
“This means a lot to Lovington,” said Willie Jackson, a father and grandfather who has always lived here and who was in the stands watching Urlacher during his playing days with the Wildcats. “Brian gave a lot to Lovington. He didn’t forget where he came from. He was an awesome athlete.”
Jackson said it was easy, even then, to glean that Urlacher was destined for great things after he left Lovington.
“He had that image. He had that sense of urgency, and you knew when he’d take over,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s daughter, Latoya Jackson-Hooks, used to run hurdles with Urlacher at Lovington High. And even though he was several grades ahead of her, she glowed as she talked about how Urlacher always took time to work with her on the track.
“We were hurdles buddies,” she said, smiling. “He was always willing to help you. He’s just a one-of-a-kind type of person.”
Urlacher’s No. 11 Lovington jersey has already been retired, and he is also a member of the college football Hall of Fame. A large number of family and friends were with him in Canton this week.
But if you couldn’t be in Canton, Lovington was probably the next best place to be on Saturday night.
“Lovington is just a speck on the map,” said Lovington High 2008 graduate Edward Medellin. “We’re super proud of him.”