Brian Urlacher and what No. 54 meant to the Chicago Bears

Andy Lyons

Brian Urlacher is leaving the Bears and Chicagoans are still coming to grips with the idea of having a different middle linebacker next season.

Professional sports are big business and sentimentality is for the birds, sure, but Brian Urlacher's exit from the Chicago Bears on Wednesday evening still felt alarmingly undistinguished, a bit disingenuous and even a little cold-hearted. Athletes and civic heroes of Urlacher's stature aren't supposed to go out this way. They're supposed to get their victory lap, one final curtain call, the ability to leave on their own terms. Or at least that's how the conventional wisdom goes. Instead, Brian Urlacher was sent out of Chicago with a press release he claims he didn't even know was coming. The Bears made no effort to keep him. They never wanted him.

"It wasn't even an offer, it was an ultimatum," Urlacher told local reporters, and you can feel how difficult and shocking this must have been for him. Urlacher never asked for the Bears' kingdom this offseason; he's made plenty of money in this city and knows the 'face of the franchise' status he held for the Bears was more symbolic than anything. This is set to be an offense-first troupe now, with an innovative new coach, a pouty gunslinger of a quarterback and a beast of a wide receiver hoping to form what seems like an impossible new identity for a franchise that's always been defense-first. Urlacher simply wanted a fair wage, one I suspect he always thought he'd get. But with the Bears in a salary cap bind and an organizational transition in full swing, there wasn't a spot for Urlacher and his old knees.

It hurts for a few different reasons. It hurts because it's a divorce that came over just $1.5 million. The Bears sent Urlacher a one-year, $2 million contract with only a million guaranteed after he sent in a proposal at two years, $11.5 million. When Urlacher's people countered with one year at about $3.5 million, the Bears didn't even take it into consideration. One year, one million promised, take it or leave it. Urlacher wasn't wrong to reject it. His reasoning was sound:

"Don't get me wrong, $2 million is a lot of money. But I'm not going to put my body through what it goes through during the season for that amount of money. Not for anybody. Not at this point of my career. It's not worth it to me."

He's right, and it makes you think playing professional football at 35, which Urlacher will turn in May, should be outlawed. I saw Urlacher up close at training camp last year while he was coming back from a major knee injury and you could see the wear and tear. Where once stood one of the league's great athletes, Urlacher now walked with a limp. He wore a bucket hat at practice instead of helmet. He probably had to be injected with enough cortisone to kill a preschooler just to take the field. The end was near and everyone knew it. It still feels like it didn't have to be this way.

It's curious that the Bears found $18 million guaranteed for Jermon Bushrod this offseason -- rated the No. 44 offensive tackle by Pro Football Focus -- but couldn't find the spare change it would have required to bring Urlacher back. Lord knows the Bears need all the help on the offensive line they can get and Bushrod, even if he isn't great, should still be a sizable upgrade. It's just a little jarring, that's all, that No. 54 won't get his farewell tour due to what amounts to peanuts in the NFL.

To put the offer to Urlacher in perspective, the Bears also lost Nick Roach this offseason to the Raiders. He got $5 million guaranteed on a four-year, $13 million deal. Roach played for the Bears for six seasons and I can't name a single memorable thing he's ever done.

The other issue is that there's simply no one behind him. If Urlacher's exit meant another opportunity for a promising young player, it'd be easier to swallow. Instead, the Bears have only Lance Briggs at linebacker and need to find two starters with seemingly little money left for free agents. There are a few intriguing inside linebacker prospects in the draft, but ideally one would start at the strongside and move into the middle when Urlacher was finished. Now he's finished a year sooner than anyone thought.

And then there's all the mushy stuff we're supposed to forget. Sports are about cold analytical efficiency now; even the idea of having a favorite player makes you weak-minded. But I can say that Brian Urlacher was always my favorite player. I remember him as a prospect out of New Mexico in the 2000 draft. I sat in the back of a grade school bus and told other seventh graders the Bears should take him. I'm sure nobody knew what I was talking about.

It's another reminder that sports can be important mile markers in life. Brian Urlacher defined a generation. He took me from those seventh grade bus rides through high school, through college, into being a person with a job. He was the face of Chicago sports in a post-Jordan world. Perhaps Paul Konerko or even Mark Buehrle would care to differ, but this is a Bears town. Always has been and always will be.

The under-30 generation was too young to witness the greatness of the '85 Bears. We hear stories. Oh, do we hear stories. Chicago will never stop talking about the '85 Bears; I've been resigned to this for years. But we had Urlacher. He was there with Jevon Kearse and Michael Vick as players seemingly sent straight from the future.

Urlacher had the physical attributes of someone created in a video game. He was always the tallest and the fastest player on the team. He was a converted college roverback (future!) and he could absolutely fly. It was scary. Urlacher always said he hated playing in Lovie Smith's signature Cover-2 because it took away his opportunity to make big plays. He probably could have had a lot more sacks in a different scheme. But his real value was in the plays he took away, where his unparalleled speed was truly put into good use. He took away so much. And if you caught a pass in the open field? There was an extended period where Brian Urlacher was going to find you, catch you, claw you down. Good fucking luck outrunning Brian Urlacher. It was not going to happen.

The sight of Urlacher leaving on such unexceptional terms leaves behind waves of Super Bowl regret.

Championships shouldn't define athletes as much as they do in the current sports climate, but the sight of Urlacher leaving on such unexceptional terms leaves behind waves of Super Bowl regret. He should have gotten one here. The Bears were so close for so long. You'd like to think the type of sustained competence the Bears showed for much of Urlacher's career gets rewarded. Usually it does. Look at the 2010 Dallas Mavericks who broke through, finally, after a decade of NBA contention powered by Dirk Nowitzki. Look at this year's Ravens, already with a Super Bowl ring in their pocket, winning another after years of perennially being one of the most formidable teams in the AFC.

Chicago is dying for a Super Bowl. There was an opportunity here with Smith and Urlacher and Briggs and Charles Tillman and Julius Peppers, Mike Brown before them, but it never came to fruition. That's what stings the most.

This happens in sports, happens in the NFL, of course. On the same day the Bears cut ties with Urlacher, Ed Reed signed with the Houston Texans. Again, it's a business of productivity and efficiency and money. LaDainian Tomlinson ended with the Jets. Brett Favre ended with the Vikings. Peyton Manning throws passes now for the Denver Broncos.

Urlacher will be somewhere next year, probably, assuming a different team can find value in his veteran leadership and secure the $3.5 million it might take to convince him to play again. He wants to play again; it just won't be in Chicago. That is weird and I will miss him. I miss him already. It's times like these that remind you how heartless the NFL's 'next man up' mantra really is.

There will be another middle linebacker in Chicago next season, just as there was another middle linebacker in Chicago after Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary departed. But you can be sure there will never be another No. 54. Chicago lost a good one on Wednesday. Don't take his years here for granted.

Ricky O'Donnell is an assignment editor at SB Nation. Email at richardpodonnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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