Two speeches sit on the tip of Brian Urlacher’s tongue.
One is 17 minutes long, the other eight. One thanks as many people as possible who helped Urlacher along a remarkable football odyssey from tiny Lovington, N.M., through Chicago, to Canton, Ohio. The other compresses those thank-yous more concisely and gets Urlacher off the stage as quickly as possible, as the former Bears linebacker typically prefers.
Which speech Urlacher decides to use Saturday when he gets inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame will depend on how he feels at the moment. The schedule calls for Urlacher to speak fourth in a class that includes loquacious speakers such as Ray Lewis, Randy Moss and Brian Dawkins. A week before the occasion, Urlacher still sounded undecided over whether to go longer or shorter with his words.
How fitting that a guy whose instincts made him a football immortal will follow his gut as he puts on the gold jacket.
“It’s hard, man, and I think I’ve worked on my speech about every day for the last month, but I’m so pumped,” said Urlacher, who has worked with a speech coach to mumble less. “The hardest thing is I don’t want to leave anybody out. There are so many people to thank for getting me there.”
Every sentimental journey for Urlacher starts by reminiscing about Lovington, where his divorced mother, Lavoyda, raised three kids by herself in a small working-class town with three stoplights. Lavoyda, who died in 2011, set an example her oldest son followed growing up in a community with little for kids to do but immerse themselves in sports. Urlacher’s idea of mischief as a teenager was cruising in his 1978 Chevy Luv pickup truck or throwing a football across Main Street with buddies who remain his closest friends.
There’s no way Urlacher will have enough time at the microphone to capture just how unlikely his rise was. He was a lean 6-foot-1, 170-pound high school junior getting X-rays on an injured wrist when the orthopedist told his mom growth plates suggested he would sprout three more inches in the next couple of years.
A late bloomer, the two-way player who led Lovington to the 1995 New Mexico state title wanted to play at Texas Tech but received just one scholarship offer – from New Mexico and coach Dennis Franchione. To his dying day, late former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes likely regretted being the guy who gave his final scholarship of the 1996 recruiting class to someone else.
At New Mexico, hardly a college football hotbed, Urlacher became a national curiosity after developing into the country’s leading tackler and first-team All-America selection. He dominated as a hybrid defensive back/linebacker in a 3-3-5 scheme. He once played 100 snaps in a game – 86 on defense, 10 on special teams, four on offense – for coach Rocky Long, who succeeded Franchione. He returned punts.
He never forgot his New Mexico roots as he became one of the state’s most famous exports along with actor Neil Patrick Harris, former Laker Michael Cooper and the racing Unsers. Who knew a son of the Southwest would become the chiseled face of Chicago’s NFL charter franchise? Since Michael Jordan left in 1998, no athlete has epitomized our sports city more than Urlacher.
“Getting ready for all this really has made me realize how lucky I feel,” Urlacher said.
Imagine how fortunate the Bears felt seeing how quickly Urlacher adapted from mid-level college football to the pro game, a transition his transformational athleticism accelerated. The highlights you will see during what constitutes Brian Urlacher Appreciation Week in Chicago all have one thing in common: Explosiveness.
Over 13 seasons with the team that made the position famous, Urlacher redefined what an NFL middle linebacker was. No Bears defensive player ever started more games than Urlacher (180) and perhaps no teammate ever was more revered at Halas Hall than the player who made the 53rd guy on the roster feel like he belonged.
Since the February announcement that the eight-time Pro Bowler made the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, Urlacher most enjoyed encountering two members of his new fraternity with whom he shares much in common.
“I saw Mike Singletary and he shook my hand and couldn’t have been nicer,” Urlacher said. “And Dick Butkus congratulated me, which was pretty cool.”
A good barroom debate revolves around where Urlacher fits among great Bears linebackers – I would put him second, behind Butkus and in front of Singletary and Bill George – but No. 54 wants no part of that discussion. Urlacher also resisted the idea that the Bears should retire his number when they honor him Sept. 17 at Soldier Field during the home opener against the Seahawks.
“No way, the Bears already have retired too many numbers and I wouldn’t say I deserve that,” said Urlacher, well aware the Bears have retired 13 numbers. “I’m not into that. To me, there’s only one jersey worthy of retiring: Walter Payton’s 34. Not mine. Not now.”
Maybe Urlacher can address that with Bears Chairman George McCaskey at the private party Urlacher will host Thursday after the Bears-Ravens Hall of Fame Game. This Bears team intrigues Urlacher, from the potential of quarterback Mitch Trubisky to the punishing defense. He pays attention. He called new coach Matt Nagy “a stud.”
“I can’t tell you how excited I am for this season,” Urlacher said.
First things first: Tell everyone what it means to be a Pro Football Hall of Famer. The right speech is the one from the heart.
ABOUT THE WRITER
David Haugh is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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