To many fans who have bought his jerseys and loved his game, it hurt like a helmet to the gut.
Urlacher announced his retirement via Twitter, ending a Hall of Fame career on his terms in his own understated way.
He could have hung around and waited for an NFL team to conclude after summer OTAs that they needed his leadership in the locker room. He likely could have latched onto a roster, went to training camp, worn another No. 54 jersey that always would have looked odd on him. But retiring as a Chicago Bear, as a guy who played his entire career for the same organization, mattered to Urlacher. Respect that.
Go ahead and point out how this confirms no other NFL team wanted Urlacher, how this proved the Bears were right in offering no more than the one-year, $2 million contract Urlacher called “an ultimatum.’’ But nobody ever will say with certainty whether Urlacher could have played in the NFL next season. We always will know Urlacher chose to take the honorable way out of the league.
“Although I could have continued playing, I’m not sure I would bring the performance or passion that is up to my standards,’’ Urlacher said in a statement.
You can snicker or dwell on the failed negotiations that created this option for Urlacher. You can remain upset at the way Urlacher ripped fans or disappointed at his level of play during his last few seasons in decline. Or, on a day of reflection on 13 years of excellence, you can appreciate a player who was a Hall of Famer on the field who brought it every Sunday.
Debate where Urlacher fits on the list of Bears all-time great linebackers starting with Dick Butkus and including Mike Singletary, Bill George and George Connor. History will remember Urlacher as the best Bears player in the post-1985 era, a linebacker whose speed and athleticism changed the middle linebacker position. Bears coaches and players will remember Urlacher as a consummate teammate and competitor who was just one of the guys despite being an NFL superstar. No defensive player in Bears history started more games than Urlacher (180). No teammate ever has been more revered at Halas Hall.
They appreciated the way he stood up for them publicly and held them accountable privately with his strong but unassuming style. Urlacher was hardly elegant but he was authentic, and that went a long way in the locker room and in a city that appreciates genuine people. They fell for the narrative of the small-town kid from New Mexico who matured as first-round draft pick to take a big city by storm due to his work ethic and freakishly athletic skill set. No athlete since Jordan was a bigger symbol of Chicago.
The next city awaiting Urlacher is Canton, Ohio. As ESPN pointed out, Urlacher is one of seven players in NFL history to win the defensive rookie of the year and player of the year during his career -- and three of the six are in the Hall with two still active. He will be eligible for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in five years, ironically the same time as retired Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. The NFL lost more than two legendary middle linebackers this season. They lost two uncommon leaders who developed a following despite well-documented flaws. The only people celebrating that are offensive coordinators.
The Bears quickly have moved on without Urlacher, signing two free-agent linebackers and drafting two more. Somebody else will start in the middle. Lance Briggs will call the signals for a defense that essentially will look the same without Urlacher.
But never will be.