For Urlacher, the truth hurts

For a big, tough linebacker, Brian Urlacher sure is sensitive.

Gale Sayers speaks nothing but the truth in answering questions at a banquet two weeks ago in Omaha, Neb., and next thing he knows, he is being torn apart by a guy who needs to stop getting annoyed by comments he thinks are mean and unfair and concentrate on making his team respectable.

Sayers told the Chicago Tribune he was just being honest. Good grief, the guy wasn't even being controversial.

"[Jay] Cutler hasn't done the job," Sayers said.

Um, that would be true.

"Urlacher, I don't know how good he's going to be coming back [from surgery]," Sayers continued. "He's [32] years old [this Tuesday]. They need a couple wide receivers, a couple defensive backs. They haven't done a good job."

For these factual observations, Urlacher found it necessary to rip one of the most revered players in Bears history.

"Let me ask you a question: 'How many championships did Gale Sayers win?'" Urlacher told the Tribune in one of the least classy retorts in memory.

"How many playoff games did he win when he played? None. None. None.

"Does it bother me? There are enough people throwing daggers at us right now. Why does one of our ex-players have to jump in? There are enough experts talking [expletive] about us, so why does a Bear, an all-time great, have to jump in? I just don't like that."

Boo-hoo. Now Urlacher is bragging about making it to the Super Bowl and being embarrassed. Sorry, doesn't work that way around here.

"If Lovie [Smith] doesn't do it this year, I think he's gone," Sayers said in answering another question and giving his opinion, which is basically acknowledged as fact.

"He had a good team the Super Bowl year. Nothing came together for him the last couple years."

Stop the presses.

Hall of Famer Dan Hampton joined Hall of Famer Dick Butkus in talking about Hall of Famer Sayers and telling Urlacher to grow up.

"This is the overarching point," Hampton said. "You can't have thin skin if you can't win. That's just the way it is. Buddy Ryan used to say, 'We're not in the business of playing football, we're in the business of winning games.

"Ultimately, [the Bears] haven't been successful in three years. However you want to cut it, those are the facts. Gale Sayers just had the audacity to point it out."

Sayers was not just admired, he was beloved. And after just six seasons, he was a legend, a player whose legacy has never dimmed, even in the shadow of Walter Payton's greatness.

You want tough? Try playing on Sayers' knees in the days before advances such as arthroscopy and the sort of therapy taken for granted by players like Urlacher, whose career could have been over after his neck injury, and again last year, if he had been playing in the '60s.

Sayers has earned the right to make whatever observations he wants to make about his former team for as long as he lives, the least of which benign comments that happen to be true.

"You're part of building a huge company, you're ultra-successful, you retire and the thing goes into crapper," Hampton said. "You're offended; you resent it. If you didn't care, you wouldn't say a word.

"The doublespeak part of the whole thing is since Gale and Dick Butkus didn't win a Super Bowl, maybe they don't have the right to say anything. Well, I beg to differ. Their rings say 'Hall of Famer,' and last time I checked, that was a pretty select group."

Clearly Urlacher is touchy because neither he nor his team has played close to anyone's expectations the last three years. Maybe because he smells the end of a career that, while impressive overall, individually speaking, still doesn't feel fulfilled. Or maybe because the Bears gave him $6 million guaranteed in a signing bonus last summer, he'll get more than $22 million the next three years and he feels guilty.

Or maybe not.

But Sayers' pointing out that Urlacher will be 32 this season, and that there is a question of how good he is going to be after missing practically all of last season with a serious wrist injury, was apparently too much to bear.

Hampton is not sure why.

"Last time I checked, most guys turn 32 and walk off a cliff," he said. "Myself, I turned 33, it was over. Just saying. There a reason why the league is filled with young guys."

That would be true. All of it.

And if Urlacher doesn't like it?

"If you don't like it," Hampton said, "go 14-2."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.