In the early summer evening of his first day on the Lobo football practice field, Brian Urlacher did not stand out.
Not at first.
He was a good-looking kid – long and lean – and you figured he’d grow into that frame.
We’d heard plenty of his high school prowess at Lovington, where he seemingly was capable of playing any position on the field. Still, what was he doing here? Why hadn’t bigger, more prestigious football factories come calling?
He was polite enough, answering, “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” to just about any question posed him. He was shy and almost lost in the gathering of newcomers to the 1996 UNM program.
Then the drills began.
And he was everywhere. The kid could fly. They were not in pads, but it was obvious that this ‘Cat from Lovington had instincts the others did not.
A couple of years ago, his status as a Chicago legend complete, Urlacher visited an Albuquerque elementary school. As he interacted with the kids, he seemed almost shy, far from the menacing Bear he had become.
One of the kids wanted to know about his use of eye black.
“It makes me look tougher,” he said. “At least, I’d like to think it makes me look tougher. I don’t know if it works.”
Like so many other New Mexicans, I enjoyed watching Brian Urlacher play in dozens of football games over the years. Oddly enough, watching him play basketball may have impressed me most.
I never saw Urlacher play hoops during his prep career, but I was on hand for a celebrity/charity basketball game he put on at Lovington High School in May of 2004. Playing on a team that included then-NFL starters Jerry Azumah, Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor, Urlacher looked every bit like NBA material in front of an adoring hometown crowd.
You want stats? Urlacher scored 56 points in the defense-optional game, but his total included eight 3-pointers and nine showtime dunks.
“He’s a great basketball player,” Thomas said afterward. “I had no idea he was so good. I think I was a little out of my league.”
Oh, the Urlacher All-Stars beat an overmatched group of local coaches and players 161-130, but that was hardly the point. More than 2,000 fans (roughly a quarter of Lovington’s then-population) gladly paid $10 apiece to attend. Most undoubtedly felt they got their money’s worth, and I left feeling glad I’d made the drive from Albuquerque.
Urlacher and his celebrity teammates remained to sign a slew of autographs afterward, and all proceeds were donated to Lovington schools.
The last time I saw Urlacher in person was actually at Ladera Golf Course about a decade ago. He and Lovington native and former Lobo golfer Ryan Murphy had just played a round. He was polite, unassuming and just one of the guys that day.
He was quite different on the field. I covered Urlacher a handful of times during his prep days, and his talent was jaw-dropping. He was a complete beast, a total man-child on the field. He is, maybe, the greatest combination of power and athleticism I’ve ever seen at the high school level.
He was an unstoppable receiver who simply overpowered defenders. Just throw a ball in his direction, and he would come up with it – even if he had to pound a defender first. That’s what he did in the 1996 North-South high school All-Star game, which the South romped 47-7. He made no apologies.
On defense, he could chase down any opponent, then punish him. He simply stood out on the field. You were always aware of where he was – which was usually around the ball.
I interviewed him once or twice, and he wasn’t leery of the media. He answered questions without clichés or attitude.
All I could think after an Urlacher game was: “How on earth is this guy hardly being recruited?”
“He can’t bring it.”
That was Brigham Young University linebacker Rob Morris’ assessment of New Mexico senior “lobo” safety Brian Urlacher at the Mountain West Conference’s media day in July 1999.
So, who brought it?
That December, Morris was a first-team all-conference choice – but Urlacher was the Mountain West Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.
Morris went on to a fine career with the Indianapolis Colts, playing eight years and making 471 tackles. But he never made All-Pro and never played in a Pro Bowl.
The former Lovington Wildcat, New Mexico Lobo and Chicago Bear announced his retirement from the NFL on Wednesday after 13 years, 1,779 tackles, eight trips to the Pro Bowl and five All-Pro selections. Urlacher was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000, the Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 and is a member of the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team.
No offense intended, Rob; you were a fine player and by all accounts a good guy. Your off-the-cuff comment back in 1999 shouldn’t be held against you some 14 years later.
But I guess we know who really, truly brought it.