The bar was set high for Brian Urlacher when he joined the Chicago Bears as a first-round middle linebacker back in 2000.
Few teams are as closely identified with one position as the Bears are at middle linebacker with players like Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary personifying the Monsters of the Midway on the way to Hall of Fame careers.
Urlacher lived up to that lofty standard and will join that talented trio in Canton when he is inducted into the hall Saturday.
“It wasn’t even on my mind when I played,” Urlacher said after getting voted into the hall on his first try in February. “I didn’t think this would ever be a possibility. So many things have to go right. You have to stay healthy, you have to play well, you’ve got to win some games, do some things. This is the summit of playing football right here.”
Urlacher did not make himself available for interviews leading up to inductions.
Urlacher was a different type of middle linebacker than his predecessors in Chicago, the perfect piece in the NFL of the 2000s with the speed and coverage skills that allowed him to play safety in college. That helped him match up against running backs and tight ends and roam sideline to sideline.
He also had the ability to drop deep into coverage, making him the perfect middle linebacker on coach Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 defense that Urlacher helped make so stout in Chicago on the way to a Super Bowl appearance following the 2006 season.
“I’ve had an opportunity to be around so many great linebackers, but some of them are just made for the position,” Smith said. “Derrick Brooks is made to be a Will linebacker, an outside guy in our system.
“Brian Urlacher, you can’t draw it up any better. Everybody knew that he looked the part and he played the part.”
Smith knew about Urlacher’s physical talents when he arrived as the new coach in Chicago in 2004 after Urlacher had made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons, and was a two-time All-Pro. An early team meeting taught him about Urlacher’s mentality when he told the defense he expected the unit to lead the league in turnovers. Urlacher stayed after and set the tone for those dominant Bears defenses.
“He said: ‘Coach, let me get this right. In order for us to lead the league we have to wait for the offense to turn the ball over?’” Smith recalled. “That was the first time I’d looked at it that way. Brian called it a takeaway on the defensive side of the ball. The offense turns the ball over. Defensively, your job is to take the ball away every time. No one bought into us taking the ball away as much as Brian did.”
No defense took the ball away more than the Bears in the nine seasons Smith and Urlacher were together, with 292 takeaways. No linebacker other than fellow 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Ray Lewis took the ball away more than Urlacher during his 13-year career: 22 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries.
Urlacher also had 41.5 sacks and finished his career as the Bears’ all-time leading tackler. He won awards as the top defensive rookie in 2000, Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, earned five All-Pro selections, eight Pro Bowl bids and helped the Bears win four division titles.
“Brian was the best,” said Packers quarterback and longtime NFC North rival Aaron Rodgers. “He was probably one of the smartest players I ever played against. Just a great feel for the scheme, the game, reading his keys. Just incredibly instinctual player. Great hands. Average elusiveness, I can say that, because I tackled him one time.”
Urlacher was not always destined for greatness. He was lightly recruited out of high school and ended up at New Mexico after Texas Tech didn’t offer him a scholarship. But he thrived with the Lobos and made himself a first-round pick.
“I’ve had some great freshmen, but from the minute he arrived, every coach stood up and took notice,” former New Mexico coach Dennis Franchione said. “I remember sometime in the first 10 days of two-a-days, six of the nine assistant coaches came in — although independently, I didn’t think they talked about it — they said, ‘Coach, when are you going to play Urlacher.’ And I said, ‘I’m not sure yet.’ They said, ‘I’ll take him at my position.’ I think that was everybody except the quarterback coach, the line coach and the receivers coach. That’s how versatile he was. …
“He was a heat-seeking missile from the time he arrived on campus. Not only that, he was a really coachable, bright young man. Made other people better. You can just go on and on about him.”
Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Pro Football Hall of Fame, Canton, Ohio
TV: NFL Network
Inductees: Robert Brazile, Bobby Beathard, Brian Dawkins, Jerry Kramer, Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Brian Urlacher
Hall of Fame game: 8 p.m. Thursday, Ravens vs. Bears, Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium (NBC)