Two Christmas’ ago, I was in the market for a new go-to Bears jersey.
My old Matt Forte jersey had served me moderately well, but I had outgrown number 22 both in practicality and perception. No longer was he the upstart halfback out of little Tulane; he had become another established commodity on his way to the Pro Bowl. And frankly, that wasn’t how I rolled. A trendsetter in outdated attire, my self-appointed role in the jersey industry was to represent the undiscovered and unappreciated. My Lamar Odom Lakers jersey still stands out as one of my favorites from grade school. I would seriously challenge the world to find another fifth grader who could say the same, much less one who had lived his entire life in Illinois.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Brian Urlacher was no exception. Lach was a standard of his own. And so my choice for a new Bears jersey was never really a choice at all.
My first football jersey, my first real football jersey, had “54” proudly ironed over the mesh. Since then, I had lost my way by giving into the hype of worshiping mere mortals on the field; guys who complained about contracts or got into trouble with the law or set a negative example on the field or flat out couldn’t play football. Thankfully, I had seen the light once again. The choice that was not a choice led me to ask for another Brian Urlacher jersey. My family witnessed me wearing the blue and orange for the entirety of Christmas morning and for many Sundays to come.
A week later and the 2011 season came to an abrupt and heart wrenching end, a feeling all too familiar for Bear fans of late. By that time Brian Urlacher had snagged 21 interceptions and taken down 886 offensive players, 41.5 of which were devoted to quarterback sacks. Chicago had seen Urlacher post his highest sack totals in his rookie season out of New Mexico and his highest number of tackles shortly after in 2002. It had seen Lach pry the ball out of Edgerrin James’ hands like the jaws of death and anchor the Super Bowl runner-up that almost took down the mighty Peyton Manning. No Bear remained as untarnished on or off the field as Urlacher during the last decade. Lance Briggs left the scene of a car crash and was content to leave Chicago in search of greener pastures. Charles Tillman was inconsistent in coverage for much of his early career. Matt Forte rushed for less than 1,000 yards twice in three years. Jay Cutler was and continues to be out of the question. Injuries aside, Brian Urlacher was the rock to which Chicago held dearly during the most turbulent of storms.
But at the end of that last game, in garbage time of a garbage game in a garbage season, Lach quietly wrenched his knee in the back of the end zone. The play was an unspoken turning point in Urlacher’s career, and the most negative one to date. I watched from my living room, deeply saddened by the daunting notion of six months without football. My struggles, the struggles of all nostalgic and hopeful Bear fans, were far from over.
2012 brought fresh beacons of hope; if Phil Emery and Brandon Marshall hadn’t filled Chicago’s appetite for optimism, I have no doubt that something else would have. But there they stood, the legitimate General Manager and the legitimate Wide Receiver that weren’t supposed to reside in the City of Big Shoulders. “Super Bowl” was a term used far too often for the months of June, July and August, but there they sat in the humid city air, daring nay sayers to strike them down.
The start of 2012 was as much excitement as Chicago could handle on the gridiron after a 7-1 start. The problems may have been buried far beneath the surface, but they could still be found with a bit of practical rummaging. Brian Urlacher’s problems were two-fold: His performance on the field and his response in the locker room didn’t match that of an All-American Field General. Complaining about the fans and missing tackles wasn’t Brian Urlacher. These were supposed to be inadequacies reserved for other players, the mortals. They weren’t for number 54. Unfortunately, the sentiment was delusional.
The rest of this last season isn’t worth rehashing in great detail. I’m having a good day and I intend to keep things that way, but suffice to say that collapsing down the stretch was becoming a pattern in the Windy City. Brian Urlacher never quite returned to form. Now the talk shifted to the offseason, and the impending contractual standoff between Urlacher and Emery.
With the dispute so fresh in everyone’s minds, going into great detail would once again be an exercise in futility. Both parties agreed to go their separate ways, old could not coexist with new. But Brian Urlacher, always a thoughtful and respected figure in the world of sports, decided to proceed with a stunningly uncharacteristic rash of complaints. The worst strike among them came when Urlacher claimed he was willing to play for 2 million dollars per year somewhere else. The Bears had, not coincidentally, offered Urlacher the same amount of pay not a week earlier.
The damage was done; Lach wanted out of Chicago, and Bears fans wanted out from under the shadow of his legacy. The split couldn’t have been more painful, the parting of ways more awkward.
And so I recently start most mornings by looking at the Brian Urlacher jersey hanging in my closet with mixed emotions. The good, of which there is so much, will never be forgotten. The bad, of which there is so little, burns brighter because it is more recent and far more unexpected. I wonder if the name Urlacher will ever be as commonplace at Soldier Field as it was the last twelve years. Brian Urlacher was his own standard to my rule; now he may just be another notable exception.