Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
If someone set out to design the perfect physical specimen for a football player, that player would look a lot like Brian Urlacher.
But it was not Urlacher’s rare combination of size and speed that led to his success, says his former coach at the University of New Mexico. It also was his tireless work ethic and unquenchable love for the game that made him such a remarkable player.
“If you get a guy that’s got special abilities and he’ll work at it and he loves to play,” says Rocky Long, now the head football coach at San Diego State, “unbelievable things happen.”
No, says Urlacher’s coach at Lovington High School, add to that combination. Speedy Faith remembers Urlacher as a star without a star’s attitude, and says that never changed.
“That’s what everybody’s gonna miss about Brian, is being a great teammate,” Faith said. “He’s unparalleled there.”
On Wednesday, Urlacher, a former Lobo All-American and a multi-sport star for the Lovington Wildcats, announced his retirement from the National Football League after 13 memorable years as a middle linebacker with the Chicago Bears.
During that time, Urlacher became one of the most popular and most decorated players in the league.
Long said he’ll miss seeing Urlacher playing on Sundays, but believes there’s no bad time for a player to retire after such a successful career.
“Anytime he retires, it’s a sad day for those of us who watched him play,” Long said. “But I think, for him, it’s a good deal.”
After 2012, in which the aging (he’ll turn 35 on Saturday) linebacker had one of his least productive seasons, he and the Bears could not come to terms on a new contract. Talks with other teams proved fruitless, and Urlacher – perhaps reluctantly, though he did not say so Wednesday – decided to retire.
Former UNM strength and conditioning coach Mark Paulsen, who helped put some 35 pounds on Urlacher’s frame between 1996 and 1999, said he thinks the timing is good.
A baker’s dozen years in a collision sport, Paulsen said, is a long time and takes an inevitable toll.
“That’s an awful lot of hits to take from that position,” Paulsen said. “I’m just happy for him (to have) the ability to walk away from the game and be reasonably healthy.”
Paulsen said he’s not at all surprised by what Urlacher has accomplished.
“When you’re as physical as he was,” Paulsen said, “and when you knew how he could run and you knew his personal drive, no, I’m not surprised at all.”
Albuquerque’s Roger Holien, a devout Bears fan before he formed a friendship with Urlacher as the Lobos’ team chaplain, agrees.
“I think it’s a great decision, because he retires as a Bear,” Holien said. “… He’s one of those athletes that you come across once every 20 years. (And) he’s a very easy person to root for; I think that’s why he’s been so popular.”
As successful as Urlacher has been throughout his career, there has been no shortage of doubters.
After a superb career at Lovington, where he played wide receiver and safety, Texas Tech and New Mexico State expressed mild interest. But Faith says only UNM and then-coach Dennis Franchione made a solid offer.
Yet, Faith said, here was an athlete who could have succeeded at almost any position on a football field, and who ran track and was all-district in basketball.
Faith recalls a light-hearted conversation he had with his former player during Urlacher’s summer camp at UNM, well into his career with the Bears.
“Brian said, ‘Coach, I’m kind of mad at you. … If you’d have played me at quarterback, I might have made Peyton Manning money.’
“Who’s to say the guy couldn’t have played quarterback? I’ve seen him (throw), and he’s pretty talented. … Nothing that Brian does has ever surprised me, be it on the football field or just being a good person.”
After his sterling career at UNM, the Bears drafted Urlacher in the first round with the ninth overall pick. But skeptics wondered how valid his honors and statistics at UNM – far from a college football powerhouse – really were, and skepticism grew when Urlacher struggled at first as an outside linebacker.
Then the Bears moved him to middle linebacker where, ranging from sideline to sideline, he was an immediate success.
The rest is history.
“You never know someone’s gonna be an All-Pro like he was,” Long said, “and you never know someone’s gonna be a Hall of Famer like he probably will be. But I knew if they put him in the middle of the formation he’d be a very productive player.
“Now, I think he’s exceeded everybody’s expectations, except maybe for (his own).”
Paulsen remembers a 6-foot-3, 205-pound freshman who first walked into his training room in the summer of 1996, wearing University of North Carolina shirt and shorts and a “big, old smile on his face. Obviously very impressionable and just a good, happy-go-lucky kid.
“He’s a wonderful story for a young person because of his lack of recruitability,” Paulsen said. “Yet, he had confidence in himself, and he was a steady-growth kid. He just kept getting better every single month that he was at the university.”
Long, a former UNM quarterback (1969-71), returned to his alma mater as head coach in 1998. He quickly moved Urlacher to the crucial “lobo back” position in Long’s defensive scheme.
“I think it took us the first week to realize he was the best player on the team,” Long said, “and since he was the best player on the team we’d better do something to take advantage of his abilities.”
Whether as a 5-9, 160-pound sophomore at Lovington or as a 6-4, 258-pound All-Pro in Chicago, friends and former coaches say, Urlacher never really changed – and never played or practiced at half-speed.
“He excelled and never forgot where he game from,” said professional golfer Sean Murphy, a former Lovington classmate and longtime friend, via email.
“I’m looking forward to giving Brian extensive golf lessons to prepare him for the Champions (senior golf) Tour.”