As for Lewis, Baltimore coordinator Marvin Lewis (no relation) says, "It's a fallacy that Ray doesn't take on blocks. He plays with a guy tilted to him at all times, the way Jack Lambert did." Yet even the predaceous Lambert, the leader of the Steel Curtain defense that led the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowls wins in the 1970s, enjoyed protection (from tackles Joe Greene and Ernie Holmes) the likes of which the Butkuses, Nitschkes and Laniers could only dream.
With his eye black, buzz cut and the barbed-wire tattoo on his right biceps, Urlacher evokes images of the position's legends. Ever since a 1960 TV special, The Violent World of Sam Huff, gave viewers a peek at the NFL's sparring stage, star middle linebackers have enjoyed larger-than-life status. It is not surprising that nine of the 15 Hall of Fame linebackers from the so-called modern era (post-1950) played primarily in the middle. While there have always been overlooked technicians, like Lions Hall of Famer Joe Schmidt (1953-65) or undersized New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers standout Sam Mills ('86-97), the scowling thumpers have captivated fans. For example, the Chiefs' Lanier ('67-77) hit so hard that he had a special strip of padding that ran down the middle of the shell on the outside of his helmet. In the '80s Singletary, blessed with unprecedented range and versatility, was famous for glaring as if possessed, his eyes seemingly ready to pop out of his face mask.
Some current players, like the Falcons' Brooking, court that image. Like Rocky Balboa, Brooking, a fourth-year player in the Urlacher mode, has a dog named for his idol, Butkus. The Neapolitan mastiff, says Brooking, "is as big as Dick Butkus. He's 180 pounds, and he hasn't filled out yet."
Moved inside this past off-season, the 6'2", 245-pound Brooking doesn't yet look the part. "He is kind of handsome, and he's all full of piss and vinegar," says Nobis, the Falcons' vice president of corporate development. "But give him a year of playing there, and let's see what he looks like. All the middle linebackers from my day, we walk a little funny, we've got fingers that go in every direction and scars all over the place." Bring it on, says Brooking. After Atlanta's victory over Carolina on Sept. 23, he emerged with a cut on the bridge of his nose that was still bleeding when he walked out of the shower. Six days later he showed off his scab and said, "Hey, isn't it pretty?"
Urlacher has no such affection for battle scars, and off the field he's softer than a Larry King interview. He dotes on his wife, Laurie, and their 10-month-old daughter, Pamela, who, according to Brian's sister, Sheri, "won't let anyone else hold her when he's in the room." Call Urlacher a Mr. Mom of the Midway. He changes diapers and sings lullabies, including one he composed: I love you, yes I do. You are a pretty little girl.
Says Laurie: "He's thoughtful, considerate, calls when he's supposed to, is an amazing father and spoils me rotten. And he doesn't have a temper. Even when I try to start a fight, he won't."
Urlacher neither taunts nor trash-talks on the field, preferring to intimidate through his actions. He has the vision of a fighter pilot, an uncanny nose for the ball and a natural feel that even the Bears didn't foresee when they used the No. 9 choice in the 2000 draft to take Urlacher, who played safety at New Mexico. Chicago's coaches put him at strongside (Sam) linebacker, believing he would pick up that position more quickly, and planned to move him inside a couple of years later. But, Urlacher says, "I was the worst Sam linebacker ever. I had trouble covering tight ends, I struggled against the run, and I had no technique."
Beaten out by Rosevelt Colvin, a fourth-round draft pick in 1999, Urlacher was moved to the middle when veteran Barry Minter went down in the second game of the season. Urlacher started the next week against the Giants and Gehriged the job. "Brian's the total package," says Chicago defensive coordinator Greg Blache. "He has athleticism, size, speed, great eyes, instincts and intelligence, and guys like playing around him because he's unselfish. I'm certain he's got a hole, but I haven't found it."
In a 31-3 victory over the Falcons on Oct. 7, Urlacher put all his talents on display, finishing with five tackles, a sack, an interception, a pass defensed, a forced fumble and a 90-yard fumble return for a touchdown. His explanation: "Right places, right times." Our take: Yeah, right.
A decade ago such a performance would have been inconceivable. As passing attacks opened up to take advantage of liberalized rules and the 3-4 defense gained popularity, the dominant middle linebacker seemed doomed. The apparent death knell came at the end of the 1991 season when Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, preparing to face the Bills' no-huddle offense (which often forced middle linebackers into coverage mismatches) in Super Bowl XXVI, deactivated Millen, his starting middle linebacker. "My first thought was that if I were Joe Gibbs, I'd have done the same thing because I was no good in coverage against quick players " Millen recalls. "Then I thought, This position's going to have to evolve, or the middle linebacker will turn into a part-time run defender."