BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – Brian Urlacher's former teammates aren't the only ones who respect and admire what the star middle linebacker accomplished during 13 illustrious seasons with the Bears.
Some of the greatest players of his era who battled against Urlacher share the belief that the Hall of Fame finalist deserves to be enshrined in Canton.
"There was a stretch in the NFL where he was the preeminent linebacker," Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis said Wednesday at Super Bowl LII. "You knew when you were playing the Chicago Bears that you had to be ready because he was not only going to be ready, he was going to have that defense ready and they were coming at you.
"The best thing that stood out about him as a player was his leadership ability. That's what you want from your middle linebacker. You want him to be a dominant player, but you want him to be a leader on the field and that's what he was."
Urlacher played his entire career with the Bears after being selected with the ninth pick in the 2000 draft out of New Mexico. Fueled by a rare combination of size, speed and toughness, he was voted to eight Pro Bowls, was named NFL Rookie of the Year in 2000 and was selected NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005.
"Brian was such a unique player," said Cowboys star tight end Jason Witten, a future Hall of Famer. "People probably don't give him enough credit because there was so much talk about the system. But in a lot of ways he really made that system. With cover-two, he could stretch the field but he could also come up and make the tackle.
Senior writer Larry Mayer ranks the top 10 games of Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher's career with the Bears.
"It's been hard to see somebody duplicate what he did. Smart, intelligent, big, strong, fast, athletic. But really the most important thing I felt about him was he raised everybody else's game around him by the way he played and that's the ultimate sign of a great player."
In their game plans, the Cowboys always accounted for Urlacher.
"You knew where he was at all times," Witten said. "They didn't do a lot of stuff. It wasn't a trick defense. They weren't necessarily protecting him with that because they were true to their system and I think that showed that he could make plays regardless."
Urlacher was a four-time All-Pro who helped the Bears win four division titles and reach the Super Bowl in 2006. He started 180 of 182 games played with the Bears, recording 1,779 tackles, 41.5 sacks, 22 interceptions, 16 fumble recoveries and 11 forced fumbles. The only players who've started more games for the team are Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton (184) and center Olin Kreutz (183).
"He's one of the great linebackers of our era," said former tackle Tony Boselli, who is also one of 15 modern-era finalists for the Hall of Fame this year. "He was a three-down linebacker in an era when they were always trying to substitute and [employ] situational defenses. He could do it all. He could come up and hit you, he could cover backs out of the backfield.
"I never got to play with him, but you hear how people talk about him as a leader and what he brought to the locker room. He's a Hall of Famer in my book. I think the question is, 'Is it this year, is it next year?' But he was a great player and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if he gets in on the first ballot."
Boselli was impressed with Urlacher's size, athleticism and football intelligence.
"He was able to do it all," Boselli said. "He studied the game a lot and understood what he was seeing. And then that athletic ability with his size just allowed him to dominate football games."
Urlacher, Boselli and the rest of the finalists will learn their fate Saturday when the Hall of Fame Selection Committee meets to elect the Class of 2018.
"He was a real special linebacker," Bettis said. "I think he's definitely deserving of going into the Hall of Fame."