- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

Brian Urlacher was never supposed to be the NFL's coolest linebacker.
As a high school wide receiver and safety in far-from-cool Lovington, N.M., Urlacher cruised the tiny town's streets guzzling chocolate milk. Spurned by the major college powers, Urlacher wound up at New Mexico, a place the national TV cameras deemed irrelevant.
"I came a long way from a small town," said the 6-foot-4 Urlacher, who was primarily a safety in college but added 40 pounds to reach his present 248. "I felt I was overlooked coming out of high school. Luckily, New Mexico gave me a chance. I hit the weight room for a couple of years and look what happened."
What happened is that Urlacher was selected ninth overall by Chicago in the 2000 draft the first Lobo to be chosen in the first round in 23 years and became NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year as he led the Bears with 165 tackles and eight sacks. And with a team-high 121 tackles, five interceptions and three sacks this year, Urlacher has been instrumental in pushing the 10-3 Bears to their first playoff berth since 1994. Only Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have allowed fewer points than Chicago's 13.5 per game.
"He's a difference-maker," Arizona coach Dave McGinnis said. "When he sees the ball, he's going to get there. Usually something happens, and it's bad for the offense."
San Francisco's Pro Bowl receiver, Terrell Owens, saw Urlacher heading for him and bobbled a pass that safety Mike Brown intercepted and returned for the overtime touchdown which completed a miraculous 37-31 comeback victory over the formidable 49ers on Oct.28. A month later, Minnesota's Pro Bowl receiver, Randy Moss, developed a sudden case of "alligator arms" with Urlacher in the house. The Bears won 13-6.
"Brian was born with certain physical tools, which you certainly can't teach, but his attitude is really what makes him special," said Bears coach Dick Jauron, himself once transformed from Yale halfback into NFL safety. "He works every day. He understands that he doesn't know it all. Every game, he's getting a little more comfortable. Brian can run people down, but the thing that I like the most about him is his willingness to learn and his desire to improve. He's just starting at the position, but he has done an outstanding job."
The linebacker proved this week he's not hesitant to back up his play with his words when he exchanged barbs with Redskins quarterback Tony Banks.
Urlacher, who prefers quiet evenings at home with his wife and their toddler daughter more than partying in the saloons off Michigan Avenue, is still so new to the publicity machine that his reaction to being on the cover of ESPN the Magazine was "cool."
That's not exactly the word that Urlacher's fire-breathing Hall of Fame predecessors, Bill George (1954-1965), Dick Butkus (1965-1973) and Mike Singletary (1981-1992), would have chosen. But then Urlacher's game is more about speed, blitzing and pass coverage than those of your typical run-stopping, less-than-blazing middle linebacker. And with massive defensive tackles Ted Washington and Keith Traylor free agent signees last offseason in front of him, Urlacher is free to roam and seek out the ballcarrier.
"Playing safety gave me a wider vision [than most middle backers]," Urlacher said. "I see what the receivers and the tight end are doing. The hardest part has been trying to get off blockers. I never had to deal with them in college. I had to start using my hands better, trying to be more physical. I'm pretty fast. I'm able to cover guys pretty well."
Urlacher's 90-yard touchdown on a fumble return against Atlanta on Oct.7 was the longest such play in Chicago history since team founder George Halas went 96 yards against the Oorang Indians 78 years ago. And Urlacher's 41-yard interception return against Green Bay on Dec.9 was the Bears' second-longest such play this season.
Urlacher has 13 sacks and five interceptions in 29 career games. Singletary had 19 sacks and seven interceptions in 12 seasons. Sacks weren't kept when Butkus and George played, but the former had 22 interceptions in nine years and the latter 18 in 15 years. Even Baltimore's virtual tackling machine, Ray Lewis last season's Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP has just 10 interceptions and 191/2 sacks in his six seasons. Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who played with George and Butkus and coached Singletary, told the Sporting News that he has never seen a better athlete at middle linebacker.
"They've had some great ones here Butkus, Singletary and Bill George but I'm not trying to be like them," Urlacher said. "I'm just trying to be me."
Cool.

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