One week after Ray Lewis nominated himself as the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history, his competition in this year’s Hall-of-Fame class has been heard. That would be Brian Urlacher, who, like Lewis, is a former Defensive Player of the Year, all-decade choice, first-time Hall-of-Fame finalist for the Class of 2018 and … Ray Lewis supporter.
You heard me. He thinks Lewis might be right … even though Urlacher played the same position and is competing with Lewis … and 13 others … for one of five spots in this year’s Hall-of-Fame class.
Yet, when we caught up with him on this week’s Talk of Fame Network broadcast, a remarkably candid Urlacher didn’t challenge Lewis — though, in all fairness, he had him neck-and-neck with Hall-of-Famer Dick Butkus, widely considered the best middle linebacker ever and named to that position on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team.
“It’s going to be hard for me take away from Dick Butkus, just because I played for the Bears, and I’ve seen a lot of footage on him,” Urlacher said. “Man, I don’t want to shorten myself when I say this but … Ray Lewis was pretty damned good … for his longevity, as long as he played.
“Dick played for only … what? … 10 or 11 years (he played nine)? I don’t know the exact length of his career. You look at how many years Ray played (17 years) .. and I will say this about myself, too: I feel like there was a period there where I was also better than Ray. There were five or six years there where we went head-to-head there, and our stats are very comparable.
“But for the longevity that Ray played, I mean, he’s right there with Dick Butkus in my opinion. It’s just so hard to pick because of eras and players and people staying healthy. Dick’s health wasn’t always that good. At the end of his career he could barely walk. So it’s just hard to pick.”
It wasn’t for Lewis, considered the surest thing in this year’s Hall-of-Fame class. As he said on last week’s Talk of Fame Network broadcast ( http://www.talkoffamenetwork.com/ray-lewis-heres-why-i-think-im-the-best-middle-linebacker-ever/ ), he’s been saying he’s the best at that position for years … so why change now?
“That’s good,” said Urlacher, laughing. “Some people feel that way about themselves. I have a hard time saying that about myself. But it becomes easy for some people.”
Let’s get something straight: He wasn’t poking fun at Lewis or being sarcastic. He was just making a statement about people in general. But it wasn’t Lewis or people in general Brian Urlacher had to follow in Chicago. It was a line of great Bears’ middle linebackers, starting with Bill George, moving to Butkus and then on to Mike Singletary.
All are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And Urlacher will join them — if not this year, then, in all likelihood, 2019.
Nevertheless, it couldn’t have been easy to fill that position — not only because of its history in Chicago but because Urlacher wasn’t a middle linebacker in college. In fact, he wasn’t a linebacker at all. He was a safety, and a damned good one.
“The media made a huge deal of it,” he said of filling that spot. “When I got there it was a big deal because I started out at ‘Sam’ (strong side outside) linebacker, which I was terrible. So I got replaced. But I moved to ‘Mike’ (middle linebacker) in Week Two or Three, and the media talked about the tradition there so much. But I didn’t grow up a Bears’ fan, so it didn’t mean that much to me … until I got there. And then that changed real quick.
“There wasn’t a lot of pressure for me. I felt like if I just went out there and did my job, ran to the football and played hard, I’d be fine. And it worked out pretty good for me.
“My position is the most coveted position on defense in the NFL — to play middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears. I mean, you think of all the great linebackers we’ve had, and that’s where you want to be. If you play middle linebacker you want to be in that category.