- Melissa Isaacson, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- There was not a lot of room for interpretation. To anyone with sweat glands on a recent afternoon at Olivet Nazarene University, it was another chokingly muggy day in August. To Bears players, it was the backdrop of another training camp, traditionally the least pleasant aspect of the football season.
So what was Lance Briggs doing with a contented smile, strolling through campus like a recent retiree on the back nine at Pebble Beach?
Entering his eighth NFL season and staring at 29, it appears the realization that he is closer to the end than the beginning is suddenly upon him. And Briggs has simply chosen to soak it all in.
"I didn't like it earlier on but I actually love camp now," he said. And you actually believed him. "I'm just at the point now that every year, to me, is special and I want to hold onto every memory that I can. Even the boring meetings we have to go to; the defense we've been playing the last seven years; the contact, the lockerroom camaraderie. I've heard enough stories from guys who have played, and they all said the one thing they miss most is the lockerroom. Even guys who just played college ball. The only thing I know is that this team this year won't be the same as next year, no matter what. I just want to hold onto it."
This burst of nostalgia, he said, is not inspired by anything other than that.
"I've met and created some great friendships along the way," he said. "And some of these guys played for different teams and some of them are still playing here and, to me, I just want to cherish it."
Briggs looked around the tiny campus, where the Bears moved from Platteville, Wis., the year before he was drafted in the third round out of Arizona, and the memories rush back.
"It has just flown by," he said, shaking his head. "Just yesterday I was just trying to prove I was worthy of making the team."
In 2003, Briggs was a member of a draft class that included the illustrious first-round pick, Michael Haynes, out of Penn State; Rex Grossman; and Charles Tillman, all picked ahead of Briggs. There was also Todd Johnson, Ian Scott, Bobby Wade, Justin Gage, Tron LaFavor, Joe Odom, Brock Forsey and Bryan Anderson after him.
"I remember that first camp well," Briggs said. "I was exhausted. I was so tired. I was on all the special teams, playing all the linebacker positions and just running around hitting people. And every time we were not in practice, I was in that bed passed out. I made sure my alarm clock was on and I was out.
"I just remember wanting to earn my way. I was a quiet guy and I just wanted to prove I deserved to be on that field, one way or another."
He became a starter at strong-side linebacker in the fourth game of his rookie season. Now, with six 100-tackle seasons and five straight Pro Bowls along the way, he is arguably the elite weak-side linebacker in the league.
"The outside linebackers in the league who go to the Pro Bowl every year tend to be the 3-4 guys that get a bunch of sacks," said fellow linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer. "Really, Lance is one of the few guys who has earned the respect of his peers across the league for being a great open-field tackler and a great big-play guy.
"He is one of, if not the most instinctive football player I've ever been around. He obviously has the physical abilities and all of that, but some of the things he does I think even the coaches are shaking their heads like, 'How did he know that was coming?' "
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli shakes his head over the simplicity of what Briggs does.
"He's becoming a good blitzer, he's really excellent in coverage and a tremendous run player," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "But the thing I really love about him is how well he tackles. He's a really good tackling linebacker in this league, and that's a skill and an art. It's a beautiful thing to see."
For so long, it seemed, Briggs played in the shadow of Brian Urlacher. Then he played in the shadow of his own reputation. But declarations that he would never suit up for the Bears again during his '07 contract dispute seems a very long time ago, the signing of a six-year, $36 million deal in March of 2008 never conflicting with his passion as a player in the two seasons since.
He calls football his joy. And no doubt the effort and performance he has consistently displayed has offset the negative publicity he has received for such questionable actions off the field as the ditching of his Lamborghini, which he initially reported stolen after abandoning it.
He is loved by his teammates and respected throughout the league, his big-play ability cemented when he became the first linebacker in NFL history to return an interception for a touchdown in each of his first three seasons. Over the past seven seasons, he holds the league lead with three touchdowns among all linebackers. He added another touchdown off a fumble return in '08.
Without the injured Urlacher last season, said coaches and teammates, Briggs picked up the slack as he always has. But more than that, said then-defensive coordinator and now linebackers coach Bob Babich, he pushed himself in another direction.
"I'll tell you what he did do, which was great for his maturation, he became more of a vocal leader than he has been in the past, and I think that really helped him out," Babich said.
Briggs said he always felt he was a leader.
"I just think we all lead in different ways," he said. "You have your vocal leaders, your leaders that are more front-line leaders and your leaders a little more behind the scenes. That is just kind of the role I've been put in."
It suits him, it always has. But don't let that fool you, said Hillenmeyer.
"In practice, Lance has a reputation for being a little bit of a goof-off. But a guy like him, who's going into his eighth year, who has been to the Pro Bowl however many years in a row, he doesn't miss practices, he's always out there, he's always trying to get better and he's always trying to make the people around him better. And that's exactly what you want out of a leader," Hillenmeyer said.
After seven seasons, Briggs isn't overly moved by the latest slogan on the training camp T-shirts.
"To me, show up on Sunday and we'll see what you got," he said with a grin.
Even with pressure to win seemingly as intense as it has been in years, it's all gravy for Briggs.
"The cafeteria food, the uncomfortable dorm beds, I just love it now," he said.
Even with an embarrassingly small TV that won't hook up to his Playstation.
"It's the oldest model, so it won't connect," he shrugs.
Even when the longest of longshot rookies have a TV far bigger than his?
"He's probably compensating," Briggs laughed.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
10hDoug Clawson, ESPN Stats & Information