The rain gushes down with a Biblical vengeance, transforming the grassy field into a quagmire, and the NFL's best young middle linebacker is awash in ecstasy. "I love football in the rain," says 23-year-old Brian Urlacher, the Chicago Bears' sophomore sensation. "This is what it's all about." Seconds later Urlacher gets even more fired up. Standing on the sideline of the field at Lake Forest College, a Division III school on Chicago's tony North Shore, Urlacher watches the home team's middle linebacker start toward the line of scrimmage, diagnose a play fake, then turn with catlike quickness and backpedal toward the tight end. As the ball sails over his head, the linebacker lunges and deflects it, saving a sure touchdown. "Pass broken up by Urlacher," the public-address announcer intones as hundreds of fans shake their umbrellas in tribute.
"Way to read that, son," Brian Urlacher yells to Casey Urlacher, the Lake Forest junior defender who has landed in a puddle the size of a wading pool. Son? "That's what I call my younger brother," Brian says. (It could be worse: Later he affectionately addresses his stepfather, Troy Lenard, as "my dork.") There are more comfortable ways to spend a rainy autumn Saturday, the day before the second home game of the season, but Urlacher, his Air Max sneakers saturated, clearly is getting his kicks. "I hope it rains like this for our game," he says, flashing the broad smile that bedevils the ballcarriers he levels.
Happily butting up against opponents and stereotypes, Urlacher often closes on a runner or receiver with otherworldly haste, slams the player to the turf, then grins as he helps him up. A grinning middle linebacker? If this is the new face of football's most mythologized position, Ray Nitschke must be grimacing in his grave. Along with fellow Hall of Famers Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, Jack Lambert and Willie Lanier, Nitschke, the Green Bay Packers' bald, toothless bonecrusher, brought a nastiness to the middle that chilled opponents and thrilled fans. During the golden age of middle linebackers—from the early 1960s through the late '70s—these enforcers looked and acted the part.
If they didn't chew nails and extinguish cigarettes on their forearms, they did nothing to negate those perceptions. "Most of us weren't going to win any trophies for our looks, and we definitely had an edge to us," says Tommy Nobis, another fearsome middle linebacker of that era who played in five Pro Bowls during an 11-year career with the Atlanta Falcons. "That kick-ass image was no smoke and no s—; those were the facts, and most of us kind of liked it."
No player was more menacing than Bears great Butkus, the quintessential Monster of the Midway, who is widely considered to be the best middle linebacker of all time. He may soon have competition for that title. Last season the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis was the NFL defensive player of the year and the Super Bowl MVP. Lewis, 26, appears to be getting better, and he's part of a renaissance at the position—a rebirth that has changed the modern football landscape. Once known chiefly as a rugged run-stopper, today's middle linebacker doubles as a rangy rover who can drop deep into the secondary on passing downs. "Five or six years ago your middle linebacker was a guy you took out in nickel and dime packages," says St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk, last year's league MVP. "Now you've got guys who can do it all. Ray Lewis isn't just sideline to sideline; he's goal line to goal line, too."
Even with San Diego Chargers future Hall of Famer Junior Seau no longer listed at the position, the league boasts a bigger collection of influential middle men than a Hollywood talent agency. This crop of standouts includes the Miami Dolphins' Zach Thomas, the Tennessee Titans' Randall Godfrey, the New York Giants' Mike Barrow, the Detroit Lions' Stephen Boyd, the Philadelphia Eagles' Jeremiah Trotter, the Falcons' Keith Brooking, the Rams' London Fletcher, the Jacksonville Jaguars' Hardy Nickerson and the Buffalo Bills' injured standout, Sam Cowart. While none are likely to surpass Lewis in stature, Urlacher might.
"A lot of specific characteristics lead to greatness in the middle, and even some of the best ones haven't had all of them," says Lions president Matt Millen, an accomplished inside linebacker for the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins from 1980 to '91. " Ray Lewis is probably what you're looking for—a relatively big guy who can go sideline to sideline, be a physical tackler and get guys to rally around him because of his attitude. Urlacher has all those qualities, plus great vision and an uncanny feel for coverage, and that combination is rare. He's a [college] safety who happened to grow into a linebacker's body, and the possibilities are staggering."
As the Bears' middle linebacker, the 6'3", 244-pound Urlacher follows a Hall of Fame legacy that reaches back three generations: position pioneer Bill George (1952-66), Butkus (1965-73) and ultra-intense Mike Singletary (1981-92). In the City of the Big Shoulders, no other athlete shoulders such expectations. "Everybody wants to compare me with Butkus and Singletary," says Urlacher. "I hate it because I haven't done anything yet, and it's not fair to them. But I wish I had a little of those guys in me, that I was meaner and more violent."
Urlacher the linebacker—convenient how that rhymes—does his share of hitting. Ask Jerry Wunsch, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 6'6", 339-pound tackle, whom Urlacher flattened during teammate Tony Parrish's interception return for a touchdown last November. Yet Urlacher's approach is less punitive than many purists, including Butkus, would prefer. Urlacher concedes that he would rather score a touchdown than pummel a ballcarrier, and he benefits from a defensive scheme designed to keep blockers from negating his athleticism. Over the off-season Chicago signed a pair of mammoth defensive tackles, 330-pound Ted Washington and 320-pound Keith Traylor, whose primary job is to occupy double-teams at the line and let Urlacher roam. "I'm so lucky," says Urlacher, who, after earning defensive rookie of the year honors last season, sent Rolexes to each of the Bears' starting defensive linemen.
A similar scheme is employed by the Ravens, who protect Lewis with tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, and the Dolphins, who stack Thomas behind Tim Bowens and Daryl Gardener. "If somebody put a helmet on Zach, we were always upset," says former Miami coach Jimmy Johnson, who drafted the undersized Thomas (5'11", 221 pounds) in the fifth round in '96. "If he had to take on a blocker, our defense wasn't going to be effective."