A farewell that's tough to bear

It's a surprise when it ends amicably in the NFL, when the Hall of Fame-bound superstar finishes his career with the same team he led for a dozen or so years. Professional sports, all of them, are big and often nasty business. But this is what the NFL does more ruthlessly, more callously than the others: discard great players, show them the door with barely a handshake, much less a hug.

At least Brian Urlacher is in great company, with Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and, well, the great Ed Reed. It would have been a surprise if it ended happily, though that's what Urlacher hoped for right to the end. Just a week ago, he was hopeful he would end his career in a Bears uniform but not particularly optimistic. His fears became reality Wednesday; the divorce was made final. Sentimentality is something with which the NFL is utterly unfamiliar.

It would have been easier to stomach the way the Bears waved goodbye to Urlacher if they had done right by him in the 13 seasons he played there, but they didn't. For most of his time as the latest, great Bears linebacker, Urlacher guaranteed the defense would be good enough to contend for a championship.

He was as beloved by his teammates as Dick Butkus or Mike Singletary. Julius Peppers made that clear to me last summer when I suggested the Bears would be better served if Urlacher missed the start of the season and tried to play the last 12 games. Peppers, Lance Briggs and Peanut Tillman said, "You're crazy." It was Urlacher who got them lined up properly, Urlacher who stayed in touch with everybody during the week. He didn't need to dance, point to the sky or even praise the Lord. He simply devoted himself to his coach, his team and his job, always without controversy or silliness.

For all the talk about what Urlacher couldn't do -- and no, he couldn't cover ground like he did as a young buck -- he still forced fumbles and recovered them and ran interceptions back for touchdowns. He still led and inspired, maybe with less drama and self-absorption than Ray Lewis, but effectively nonetheless. Urlacher was the perfect Chicago Bear, a Grabowski not a Smith, long on toughness and short on diva.

Until about, oh, 2005, you'd still see more Walter Payton No. 34 jerseys at a Bears game than anything. Payton, by then, had been retired 18 years. Urlacher's week after week greatness finally gave Bears fans someone from a new era to adore. Not to suggest anyone could equal Sweetness, but Urlacher had enormous appeal. No doubt his sheer toughness in a city that prides itself on toughness was a big part of it.

Last week on a golf course in North Scottsdale, Ariz., we were a couple of hundred yards from an area where a mountain lion or two are known to roam when Urlacher suggested it would be such fun to have a wrestling match with one of them. I laughed, though he surely wasn't joking.

I'd take Urlacher against a lion any day. He played with that toughness, that ferocity, even as injuries reduced him, as they do even the greatest athletes. The sadness isn't what's happening now as much as what the Bears didn't do enough of in Urlacher's first 10 years to put a complete team around him.

Just as with Butkus, Bears management didn't value modern-day NFL offense -- not enough anyway. Either the staff didn't value it or was too incompetent to get it right. Either way, Urlacher never got the chance that, say, Michael Strahan of the Giants did to seriously pursue a championship year in and year out. Urlacher didn't gripe about it publicly, although it had to frustrate him the same way it did Butkus. But there's no question the Bears failed Urlacher and the defense last season -- failed them in 2011, too. And that stinks even more than what some of us think could be a premature goodbye.

Could it be that Bears management is making the right football decision? Yes, it could be -- if they draft a young stud to put out there to follow Urlacher the way he did Singletary the way he did Butkus, who followed Bill George who followed George Connor. The Bears seem to have the magic touch when it comes to linebackers and running backs. Even if Urlacher goes on to play a couple of seasons with, say, the Minnesota Vikings, he'll be known as a Bear the way Peyton Manning will be remembered as a Colt, the way Ronnie Lott was a 49er, and the way Reed is a Raven.

Still, it's the one thing the NFL just can't seem to get right often enough. In part it's a salary cap that discourages rewarding great veteran players. In part it's the nature of a sport where management, not the union (MLB, NBA) holds all the power. Just this week, Bob Kraft, considered one of the true good guys among NFL owners, felt the need to pronounce, "I don't answer to Tom Brady." What's the point in that declaration beyond needing to remind anybody listening how ruthless and dismissive NFL owners are, overwhelmingly?

Despite having the most successful entertainment/sports entity in America by a wide margin, they just have to flex sometimes. They have to tell a great player like Urlacher, the face of the franchise for a dozen years, "We don't have to negotiate; we dictate."

A lot of the time, though, the ends don't justify the means. The decisions may work from a football standpoint, but many times they don't. If the Bears draft a middle linebacker they can put on the field for the next dozen years and he leads them to a Super Bowl or plays at a Hall of Fame level while representing the club in an exemplary way, then it will all have worked out, other than the immediate dismay.

But what's going to happen in the likely scenario that the Bears don't immediately find that player? Why not find a middle ground to get Urlacher back to lead the transition to what was to what's about to be? Are the Bears going to jettison Peppers, Briggs and Tillman too? Is this new regime going to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction and obsess over offense to the point that it ignores defense?

About 10 years ago, right after I vented about NFL owners and their unparalleled arrogance, Urlacher asked me if I was too hard on them. He was just beginning his run of greatness and probably couldn't fathom a time when someone would dare show him the door. I told him we'd talk in a decade or so and I hoped to be wrong, that he would fall outside the pattern of so many NFL greats.

Urlacher reminded me of that conversation and the words I would have been more than happy to eat -- but won't.