After a storied NFL career in which he became the face of the franchise for the Chicago Bears, it was time for Brian Urlacher to go.
In March, the Bears and Urlacher broke after 13 years when they disagreed on his value for the coming season. And without much demand for his services from other NFL teams, the eight-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker agreed the end had come and announced his retirement Wednesday morning.
Urlacher didn't quite go out at the top of his game, as he clearly had lost a step last season from the pinnacle of his career, and he missed the final four games with a pulled hamstring. Nevertheless, after recovering from a nagging knee injury in the 2011 season finale, Urlacher managed to be a vital contributor of one of the NFL's top defenses last seasons. He was fourth on the team with 88 tackles, and returned his only interception 46 yards for a touchdown.
"After spending a lot of time this spring thinking about my NFL future, I have made a decision to retire," Urlacher wrote in his retirement statement. "Although I could continue playing, I'm not sure I would bring a level of performance or passion that's up to my standards. When considering this, along with the fact that I could retire after a 13-year career wearing only one jersey for such a storied franchise, my decision became pretty clear."
Urlacher became the face of the Bears franchise and the leader of a perennially powerful defense for more than a decade, almost from the day he was selected in the first round of the 2000 draft (ninth overall) out of New Mexico.
Urlacher was a superstar almost immediately, but he never acted like one, preferring to be just one of the guys in the locker room and reluctant to talk about his own stellar play early in his career, especially when the team was doing poorly or he felt others weren't getting the recognition he thought they deserved.
The 6-foot-4, 258-pounder led the Bears in tackles for each of his first four seasons, but the Bears finished above .500 just once.
When Urlacher was asked what it meant to become the leading tackler in franchise history, he was as direct as a head-on tackle: "It means that Lance (Briggs) will be breaking my record in a couple years."
Briggs, a seven-time Pro Bowler, said of playing with Urlacher, who made the defensive calls and got his teammates lined up properly: "I've been spoiled for the past 10 years."
Briggs has taken over the duties that Urlacher performed for so long.
Former Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer tweeted: "@Burlacher54 was the most coachable superstar, best locker room leader I ever played with. Proud to call him a teammate for 8 seasons."
Wide receiver Earl Bennett tweeted: "Great player … Great teammate … Awesome person!!!"
Former Bears fullback Jason McKie tweeted: "Sad to see one of the best teammates and mentors I've had retire today. Was an honor to go to war with!!! Hall of Famer!!!"
Urlacher, who turns 35 on Friday, held numerous Bears records and ranked in the top 10 in seasons (13), games (182), starts (180), tackles (1,779), sacks (41 ½), forced fumbles (11) and Pro Bowls (8).
But statistics and records were never as important to him as wins and his relationships with teammates, staff and fans.
"I want to thank all of the people in my life that have helped me along the way," he wrote. "I will miss my teammates, my coaches and the great Bears fans. I'm proud to say that I gave all of you everything I had every time I took the field. I will miss this great game, but I leave it with no regrets."
Urlacher's impact on the Bears was immediate and long lasting. He was the defensive rookie of the year in 2000 and the NFL's defensive player of the year in 2001, according to the Football Digest. He was named The Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. In the 10 years before they drafted Urlacher, the Bears were tied for 17th in points allowed. In his 13 years, they were No. 5. The Bears were 101-81 when Urlacher played and 9-17 when he was out with injuries. He will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2018, the same year as the Ravens' Ray Lewis.
After the Bears announced in March that a contract could not be worked out for Urlacher, general manager Phil Emery was careful not to give the impression that he and the new coaching staff were disrespectful and said the team would not "slight" Urlacher. Urlacher, however, said the club's offer to him was more of an ultimatum than a negotiation.
It was a tough split for Bears chairman George McCaskey.
"Over the last 13 years Brian Urlacher has been an outstanding player, teammate, leader and face of our franchise," McCaskey said after negotiations with Urlacher broke down. "As Bears fans, we have been lucky to have such a humble superstar represent our city. He embodies the same characteristics displayed by the Bears all-time greats who played before him, and he will eventually join many of them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"We thank Brian for all he has given our team and our city. He will always be a part of the Bears family. We wish him the very best."
It was not an amicable split, considering the important role Urlacher had played as the centerpiece of the defense. His unique blend of size, speed, athleticism and instincts made him the focal point in the Bears' Cover-2 system. Not only did Urlacher possess sideline-to-sideline range as a run defender, he was adept at patrolling the deep middle in passing situations, freeing teammates to cover the border areas.
Former NFL safety and Glenbard West High School graduate Matt Bowen tweeted: "(The) Bears built a defense and scheme around his talent. In his prime was the best I've ever seen playing deep middle in Tampa-2. Next stop #HOF."