What made Brian Urlacher special? You have to start, of course, with the way a 6-foot-4, 258-pound man could run, hit and organize a defense on the field. But even an occasional in-person observer of the Chicago Bears over the past decade could notice the reverential stature Urlacher held with his teammates.
If he had enemies, they never surfaced. Urlacher mixed equal doses of dry humor, man's-man competitiveness and two-way respect to keep the Bears' locker room humming smoothly and largely conflict-free during his tenure. So in the moments after Urlacher announced his retirement, I caught up with former Bears defensive lineman Dusty Dvoracek -- who now hosts a sports radio talk show on The Sports Talk Network in Norman, Okla. -- to get a better sense for how Urlacher managed to cast such a popular web.
"Once you became a teammate of Brian Urlacher, you would get the best teammate you could ever ask for," Dvoracek said. "He was one of the biggest superstars in the NFL, but he acted like an average Joe, even to people coming in as a rookie. That matters to people and they don't forget it.
"The first week I was there, he opened up his house and invited me over. It wasn't just me. It was everybody. Not just me. Everybody. He tried to make it as easy and as comfortable for everyone. He was very accepting if you were on his team. He wanted you to do well so the team would do well."
In big media settings, of course, Urlacher could be as grumpy as any player I've covered. His answers could be short, snippy and designed to end the questioning altogether. I told Dvoracek that it was always fascinating to me that a player who seemed as cranky as Urlacher could be so universally hailed and beloved as a leader.
"He is about as opposite of that as you can be in personal life," Dvoracek said. "He really is as nice and as kind-hearted a guy as you're going to find in the NFL. A lot of guys put on a show for [the] camera, and behind it they're a jerk. I don't want to say that Brian was the reverse because I don't think he was a jerk to the cameras, but what we saw behind the scenes was genuine and real.
"I mean, he really is a happy guy. He loves to compete at everything he does. He's good at everything. It ticks you off. Whether you're playing pingpong, shuffleboard, basketball or golf, he's really good at everything he does. He's super competitive but really just likes to have a good time with the guys."
Even competitors recognized and appreciated that approach. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers told the Chicago Tribune earlier this spring that "I always appreciated his ability to enjoy the game while being competitive. He plays the game with a lot of class and professionalism. He does it the right way."
Rodgers added that when playing the Bears, "you never had to worry about cheap shots around the pile or after the whistle. They played the right way and it was led by Brian."
Emotions always run high when a superstar retires, and those who spent time around him tend to wax nostalgic. They are already beginning the work toward cementing a legend. Based on what we've heard about Urlacher over the years, that work shouldn't be hard.