Upwardly Mobile Unheralded Brian Urlacher of New Mexico shot up in size and on the draft boards--and now he's in the middle of the Bears' defensive plans

May 07, 2000

Whenever Brian Urlacher asked, he received the same advice: Don't
run the 40, the other players would tell him. It's not worth the
risk.

Urlacher was in Indianapolis in late February, one of 300 or so
college prospects who had been invited to the NFL scouting
combine for a few days of inspection by coaches, scouts, general
managers and pro personnel directors. Most players in his
position, those projected as top 10 draft picks, weren't running
at the RCA Dome. They would showcase their speed at a later
date, in a personal workout.

Urlacher, however, had a different attitude about this test. He
had arrived at the combine a chiseled 6'3 3/4", 258 pounds,
nearly 20 pounds more than he weighed for his last college game.
He thought the extra muscle would impress the talent evaluators.
Instead, all he heard were questions about his speed, as if he
had suddenly become Gilbert Brown.

"Everyone asked me all week if I was going to run, and I kept
telling them it was up in the air," says Urlacher. "Then teams
would look at my weight and say, 'You're 258, can you still
run?' I told them I thought I could. I made my decision the
night before running. I had nothing to hide."

Urlacher needed only one 40-yard dash to prove that he hadn't
lost a step. His 4.59 clocking put an end to all the questions.
"You respect that about Brian," says Chicago Bears defensive
coordinator Greg Blache. "He'll compete any time, any place.
That showed me a lot."

Long before the combine, Chicago knew plenty about Urlacher's
ability. He was an All-America free safety at New Mexico who
also played a little wide receiver and returned kicks and punts.
His combination of size and athleticism made him an attractive
prospect as an NFL linebacker, so much so that the Bears made
him the ninth pick in the draft and immediately penciled him in
as their starter on the strong side.

"I look for the kid to be a franchise-type player," says Kansas
City Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham, who coached Urlacher in
the Senior Bowl. "He's going to carry a team on his back some
day. Why do I say that? Because of his skills and the type of
person he is."

As Chicago went through a minicamp last week in Lake Forest,
Ill., Urlacher looked very much like a rookie trying to find his
way. "He looked a little off at times," said Bears coach Dick
Jauron. "But he's athletic, and that's what we drafted."

"For the most part, I'm lost," Urlacher admitted. "I'm still
looking at one thing instead of the whole picture. I just roamed
in college. Here everything is much faster, especially being
closer to the line of scrimmage. You don't have as much time to
react because the linemen are on you so quick."

"He has to learn how to play his position," says Mark Hatley, the
Bears' vice president of player personnel. "But he has natural
football instincts. The more you watched him play [in college],
the more you realized there was nothing he was bad at. Heck, they
threw it to him nine times, and he scored six touchdowns. It's a
great story: a kid from a little town who can do all these
things, but nobody knows about him."

Lovington, N.Mex. (pop. 9,322), is nestled in the southeast
corner of the state, in an area that is populated with oil
fields. It is where Urlacher grew to become the person he is.

His mother, Lavoyda, moved Brian, his older sister, Sheri, and
his younger brother, Casey, to Lovington from Pasco, Wash., in
1986, shortly after divorcing Brian's father, Brad. Lavoyda, who
picked Lovington because her parents lived there, was 25 and
scared, but she was also a survivor. Brian vividly remembers his
mom racing home between shifts at a laundry, a grocery store and
a convenience store, changing uniforms while she counseled the
kids on behaving for the babysitter.

When Lavoyda married Troy Lenard in 1992, Brian got an
unassuming father figure and another role model who believed
that hard work conquers all. "Brian didn't have much as a kid,"
says Brandon Ridenour, his best friend, "and his family lived
paycheck to paycheck. Every role model he has ever had has been
a hardworking type who puts family first, and he knows he's
fortunate to have everything he gets."

As a sophomore at Lovington High, Urlacher didn't appear to have
much of a future in football. He was a 5'9", 160-pound wide
receiver with good speed and soft hands, but not much else.
That's when assistant coach Jamie Quinones introduced Urlacher
to the weight room. Over the next two years, while Brian enjoyed
a growth spurt to almost 6'4", he bulked up to 214 and became an
all-state receiver and defensive back, and led Lovington to the
3A state championship.

Pursued on the Division I-A level only by New Mexico and New
Mexico State, Urlacher accepted a scholarship from the Lobos and
then had an uneventful first two seasons as a backup linebacker.
But when coach Rocky Long came on board in 1998, he implemented
a system in which Urlacher could showcase his talents. As the
defensive coordinator at Oregon State and UCLA, Long had
employed an attacking style. The scheme, in which one player
would roam the field and fly to the ball, called for the unit's
best athlete to play that position. Long had coached current NFL
safeties Reggie Tongue (Kansas City) and Shaun Williams (New
York Giants), and he believed Urlacher was of that caliber.

Urlacher didn't disappoint Long. He racked up 178 tackles as a
junior, then added 154 as a senior while also catching the six
touchdown passes and averaging 15.8 yards per punt return for a
team that finished 4-7. Though clearly the star, Urlacher did
his best to downplay his role. He even flew back to Albuquerque
during Senior Bowl week to attend the team's banquet.

"It was important to Brian these last couple of years for the
focus to be on the New Mexico football team," says TCU assistant
coach Mark Parks, Urlacher's position coach at New Mexico in
1996 and '97. "He fought hard for it not to become the Brian
Urlacher Show."

In many ways Urlacher is still not eager to be in the limelight,
and those close to him wonder if he will ever be at ease as an
NFL star, should he reach that status. They say he won't forget
where he came from and will always view himself as the underdog.
Says Speedy Faith, Urlacher's high school coach, "Brian could
have a Hall of Fame career and still wonder what he could've
done better."

"I guess I haven't realized what's happening to me," Urlacher
says. "If I play well on the next level, maybe I'll realize it
then. But I really don't think I've done much. Getting drafted
where I did was great, and I know I've come a long way from
Lovington, but I also feel like I have a long way to go."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER FAST FORWARDConverted safety Urlacher (center) felt lost at his first minicamp, where the play moved much quicker than in college.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)