Urlacher deserving of 54-gun salute

Angelo on likely Hall of Famer: 'If you drew up the perfect player … there wasn't anything he couldn't do'

When Brian Urlacher held up that navy blue jersey for the first time on that April day in 2000, his face a little pimply and his scalp covered with closely cropped blond hair, no one had any idea what 54 would come to represent.

After 13 seasons, it's hard to imagine anyone else ever wearing a Bears 54 jersey. Urlacher announced his retirement Wednesday and will have spent his entire career in Chicago.

At one point those 54s were everywhere at Soldier Field, like flags at a Fourth of July parade.

According to NFLShop.com, 54 jerseys finished first in all NFL jersey sales three times over the last dozen seasons, and in the top 10 five times. The only other non-quarterback jersey with as many top 10 finishes was that of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, whose jersey was in the top 10 six times.

Even last year, when seemingly everyone in creation already had a 54, and when his level of play was the worst of his career, more 54 jerseys were sold than those of any other Bears player.

Those 54s will be worn en masse again one day, the day when he will be wearing a yellow jacket, standing beside a bronze bust and explaining his journey from Lovington, N.M., to Canton, Ohio.

Why did we buy 54? How could we not?

In many ways, he was one of us. He grew up the son of a single mother who worked three jobs to feed the family. Before playing in the NFL he worked in oil fields and lumber yards.

But in many other ways, he was one of a kind.

"If you drew up the perfect player, I don't know that you could have a better one," former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "There wasn't anything he couldn't do. Physically, he could have started at three or four positions, and he could have returned kicks too."

He played safety at the University of New Mexico, and his first NFL coach, Dick Jauron, remains convinced 54 could have been an NFL safety.

Jauron, who has been part of the league for 36 years as a player and coach, said 54 is "more gifted than anybody I've ever been around."

Jauron remembers veteran quarterback Chris Chandler warning young passers on the team not to test 54 on the seam route. With his long arms and his quick feet, you can't get the ball past him, Chandler warned.

"You can spend all your life coaching certain people, and they still can't make certain plays," Jauron said. "Then a guy like Brian, he may go underneath the block, over the block, through the block. A play that would go for plus eight, or plus 70 against other players, he might run it down for minus four — and he might do it four different ways."

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said 54 "revolutionized" the middle linebacker position.

"He was so good at running that Tampa-2 scheme," Rodgers said. "They had him play both the deep middle and then react to the short middle. He changed that position with his height and long levers and athleticism."

At 6 feet 4, 258 pounds, he ran a 4.5 40-yard dash. It was a rare combination of size, speed and athleticism with which he was blessed.

Quarterback Michael Vick was winless in five starts against 54. He considers 54 the second greatest nemesis of his career, behind only Julius Peppers, with whom he mostly tangled when both were in the NFC South.

"I remember playing him in 2001," Vick said. "I came in as one of the fastest guys in the league. But he ran me down. I'll never forget being so beat up and tired from running from Brian."

Against the Falcons back then, 54 played like a science fiction avatar from Pandora — bigger, faster and stronger than any human could be.



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