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Few men get to say they were the face of a franchise. But from the moment Brian Urlacher pulled on a blue jersey, curled his lips into a scowl and stared with dead eyes into the camera, he became Chicago Bears football.
This is not a simple thing because the Bears have a vast Rushmore of men who were in their time the busts of Chicago football: George Halas, Red Grange, Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, Gale Sayers and Walter Payton to name a few. Men who defined a style, a culture, a way of life – something as sturdy and cold as the team's stadium on the banks of Lake Michigan.
The Bear of this young century?
Urlacher. There's nobody else.
On Wednesday, Urlacher walked away from football. It was time, of course. He probably should have left at season's end when the Bears showed little interest in bringing him back. Knee and leg injuries had stolen his speed and his power, rendering him less than average. He chased another year and another free-agent contract but thankfully interest was minimal. It would have been bad enough to see him in an Arizona Cardinals helmet. To watch him hobble around like another player who didn't know when to go would have been agonizing.
Some men belong in one place. The free-agent market told Urlacher what his body should have screamed: If he couldn't be a Bear, he couldn't be anything else.
A few months ago, Ray Lewis retired in a blare of chest-clutching, growling, shouting bravado. He stomped through the playoffs shouting scripture, lathering his face with war paint. And he ended his career in one of those movie script moments on a final stand at the Super Bowl, with confetti spilling down from the Superdome ceiling. It was the perfect Lewis ending. It defined Lewis who left as he arrived – the face of the Baltimore Ravens.
Urlacher departs in much more subdued Urlacher way. He never seemed like a shouting, chest-pounding guy. He never screamed to the cameras or appeared to desire a career finish that included a blizzard of shiny little paper. When he retired, the announcement came in a statement. Fittingly, the statement was just a paragraph long.
"I'm not sure I would bring a level of performance of passion that is up to my standards," the statement read. "When considering this, along with the fact I could retire after a 13-year career wearing only one jersey for such a storied franchise, my decision became pretty clear."
He finished it with a line that summed up a decade of stoic dominance.
"I will miss this great game, but I leave it with no regrets."
For much of this century he anchored the middle of the Bears' defense like few men have for any team. You could almost imagine him at all 11 defensive positions. He could play the run like a defensive tackle. He rushed the passer with the ferocity of a defensive end or outside linebacker. And he backpedaled well enough on pass protection that seeing him as a safety – which he did a little in college – wasn't a reach. But he was best at middle linebacker – the smart position, the one that requires a player to read the offense's intentions and get the other defenders in the right spots.
And until the left knee weakened in 2009, beginning a slow, depressing deterioration, he was the Bears' most essential player. The rock. The glare. The bald, glaring visage of tough upper Midwestern football.
If I have a favorite Urlacher moment it came toward the end, in the moments after the Bears lost the 2011 NFC championship game to the Green Bay Packers. It was the day Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler was unable to keep playing because of a knee injury. Throughout the second half of a game the Bears lost, Twitter buzzed with comments from other NFL players who accused Cutler of quitting. At game's end, Urlacher left the locker room, stalked into an interview room, climbed onto a stage and gave a stare so furious it looked as if it could burn a hole in the wall.
"Jay was hurt," he said, his words frigid. "I don't question his toughness. He's tough as hell. He's one of the toughest guys on our football team. He doesn't bitch. He doesn't complain when he gets hit. He goes out there and plays his ass off every Sunday. He practices every single day. So, no, we don't question his toughness."
His lip twisted into a sneer. The air in the room grew heavy. If Brian Urlacher said you were tough then you were tough. You don't challenge the face of Chicago football.
On Wednesday his football mortality realized, Brian Urlacher walked away.
Left behind were tens of thousands of his jerseys in Illinois closets, his No. 54 in orange and blue.
Just as it was.
Just as it should be.
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