Brian Urlacher ready for re-entry
Painful year away from field gave Bears LB motivation to return better than ever
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Trepidation didn't get Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher to six Pro Bowls, 1,410 career tackles and 2005 Defensive Player of the Year.
Yet a slight hint of it -- at least initially -- coupled with the desire to "show everyone that I'm still here" could take Urlacher's game and career to new heights in a quest to rebound from the dislocated wrist that wiped out his 2009 season.
"I want to show everyone I'm back," Urlacher told ESPNChicago.com. "I think people kind of forget about you when you're gone. Out of sight, out of mind; that's just the way it goes. But more importantly, I'm ready to be back with my teammates. Man, last year was tough. I hadn't missed a season ever in my whole life, you know -- eighth, ninth grade -- since then, I hadn't taken any time off. So it was weird, but at the same time, my body feels great right now."
Initial apprehension about subjecting the newly-healed wrist to the rigors of contact contributed to heightened concentration on refining the technical aspects of Urlacher's game, namely hand placement when taking on blockers. The club's medical staff explained to Urlacher that the injury was healed, but pain could reside in the wrist for up to two years.
So understandably, Urlacher worried at first.
"I knew it would hold up because they told me it was healed. There's still pain. It still hurts sometimes. I'm thinking about putting it on there," Urlacher said, raising his hands to simulate how he'd take on an offensive lineman. "I'm like, 'Is this gonna hurt?' And it hasn't hurt yet. So it's been good. It hasn't hurt me on the field yet, which is really surprising. It makes me think about using my hands more, actually. This is the best I've used my hands since I've been with [Bears coach Lovie Smith] -- like getting off blocks and moving and getting to the football. They're big on that."
The extra attention to detail could pay dividends, believe it or not. Urlacher admitted to a tendency in the past to overuse his shoulders in taking on blocks, which at times, contributed to difficulty in getting off them.
"There were times where I would just throw my [shoulder into a blocker]. I'm still learning how to play linebacker. [I've] been [playing] a while, but I'm still [learning] to use my hands," Urlacher explained. "That's an ongoing process for me. I think [it's that way with] all linebackers; using your hands and getting off blocks, and shedding guys. That's just always a battle.
"You try to lean into them [with a shoulder] and they're just gonna grab you. They grab you. There are certain times you've got to use your shoulders, and certain times you've got to use your hands. You've just got to pick out, which time [to use] which. But this is the best I've done at using my hands, getting off blocks, being conscious about it."
It didn't take long for Smith and the rest of the staff to recognize the refinements, which haven't taken away from the physicality of Urlacher's game.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli raved about Urlacher's supreme confidence.
"One thing about [Urlacher], the first thing he brings is a presence into the huddle and a confidence. He's strong in the huddle, and he is a physical player, now," Marinelli said. "He is very physical, knows exactly what to do, all those things."
I want to show everyone I'm back. I think people kind of forget about you when you're gone. ... But more importantly, I'm ready to be back with my teammates.” -- Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher
Smith thinks Urlacher is having the best training camp of his career.
"It's just how physical he's been, taking on blocks, using his hands, his quickness," Smith said. "He's had some special plays at camp using that speed that only Brian Urlacher has as a [middle] linebacker. So getting him back, watching him at camp it's all those things we're happy to see."
Asked whether the Bears harbored any apprehension about subjecting Urlacher's once-dislocated wrist to contact too early, Smith cracked a dry joke.
"It's a non-issue. I just thought about it now," Smith said laughing. "You're right. He had a wrist injury, right?"
For Urlacher, though, the injury -- once considered career threatening -- forced the linebacker to deal with unfamiliar emotions last year as he naturally withdrew from teammates and the organization. That uneasiness, undoubtedly, has served as motivation for Urlacher, who recalled the awkward experience as something he never wants to go through again.
With his wrist in a cast for 12 weeks, Urlacher intentionally avoided the Bears' facilities. When teammates hit the film room for meetings, Urlacher did what he could in the weight room, only to disappear before the meetings concluded.
"I went to the home games, didn't go to any of the road games. I traveled quite a bit, hung out with my family; just tried to pass the time," Urlacher said. "You kind of feel like -- I never had felt this before -- but when you're hurt, you kind of feel like you're kind of like a distraction. You don't want to be around. It's just a different feeling, you know. You feel like a burden to people. So you kind of want to be away from them. That's the way I felt. Most people maybe don't feel that way, but I felt like since I wasn't playing, I didn't want to be around that much."
Now that he's back, Urlacher can't wait to fully test the injured wrist. Sure, he's making contact with blockers and ball carriers at camp. But he's not taking them to the ground or actually performing in the adrenaline-filled pressure cooker of live competition.
With Urlacher back in the mix, in addition to the presence of Julius Peppers, a former NFL player surveying the defense last week from the sidelines said the unit could be "scary good". Urlacher pondered that assessment for a few seconds before nodding in agreement.
"It's true," he said. "If you look athletically, just where we're at, every position we match up well. At linebacker we're really deep. Up front we're good. On the back end we're good. Yeah, I think it's true. If you look at how we're gonna get after the quarterback -- Tommie [Harris] healthy, Double A's [Anthony Adams] playing well, Mark [Anderson] doing well and obviously Peppers -- he's the best defensive player I've ever seen. That guy is unbelievable. On the back end I think we're gonna do really good, too. So I think it's true. [It's] just we've got to do it. You can talk about it all you want to. You've just got to go out there and prove it to people."
As for Urlacher, there's plenty to prove, too. But after 10 years in the league, he's learned to prioritize things. Urlacher isn't worried about his legacy, his standing among the NFL's elite or where he fits among the franchise's defensive greats.
"I don't think about that stuff. It'll be what it's gonna be. People are gonna say what they're gonna say. You can't control that, and that's fine. I've learned that the few years I've been here," Urlacher said. "Most importantly for me, I just want to play football again. I'm just happy to be back with my teammates, running around and having fun again."
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com.