By Greg Archuleta
Enchantment Sports Associate Editor
Copyright Enchantment Sports
The day was finally here – the first athlete I ever covered as a journalist, the first athlete I knew before he became a national celebrity, the first athlete who still called me by my first name without a reminder years after he became a national celebrity and long since our regular communication had terminated.
Brian Urlacher was entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I rushed to do the chores around the house, grabbed my favorite beverage and sat in my comfortable chair as the former Lovington Wildcat and New Mexico Lobo went through his induction ceremony.
I started watching beaming with pride to be a New Mexican.
I finished watching with … an empty feeling inside.
It had nothing to do with Urlacher’s speech. He was gracious (still a bit of a fast-talker, something I know the media relations staff worked on with him at length when he was at UNM and I was the Lobo football beat reporter at the Albuquerque Journal).
He talked about his Chicago Bears teammates, thanked his family – making touching points about his late mother, his step-father, his wife and his three children – and he was humble, funny in spots, down to earth and talked like the kid I remembered when I covered his junior and senior years at New Mexico.
I don’t know what I was hoping for when he made his speech. Wait – that’s not true. I know exactly what I was hoping for.
I was hoping to hear him tell stories of his years at UNM.
I was hoping to hear him talk about growing up at Lovington. I was hoping to hear him talk about his affinity for those places while ESPN put a graphic about him donating money to Lovington High School for a new weight room and donating money to UNM to help finance its indoor practice facility.
My heart sank a bit when I did see ESPN display a list of people Url wanted to thank but said time constraints didn’t permit. I did smile when I saw names I recognized with ties to UNM – coaches Jamie Quinones and “Speedie” (“Speedie?”) Faith at Lovington, friend Brandon Ridenour, and Lobo coaches Dennis Franchione, Bronco Mendenhall and Rocky Long.
But that just made me realize that he was not going to talk about them during his acceptance speech, other than to call his friends his “brothers” and all his coaches “fathers.”
As I watched him give his speech, I began to reminisce about all the conversations I had with him when he was a Lobo. He was New Mexico’s little secret. During the fall, if I wanted to see Url, all I had to do was drive to UNM practice football field and there he was.
He always made time for me. He never denied an interview; he never cut an interview short. He never left as soon as I stopped recording. We’d shoot the breeze.
Win or lose, he’d always be available for quotes after games. That included a game against New Mexico State in 1999 in which he was having a great game (playing offense, defense and special teams), until he muffed a punt return (yes, he was returning punts for the Lobos then) late in the game, leading to the Aggies’ game-winning TD in a 35-28 contest.
Url talked to the media, with tears in his eyes, feeling like he’d lost the game when he was the reason the Lobos were in the game in the first place.
I remember taking some heat from my Journal colleagues when I voted for Urlacher for the Heisman Trophy in 1999. Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne won that year. Urlacher, however, had 154 tackles, had six receiving touchdowns on offense, returned punts and kickoffs and played on every special teams unit.
He is a big reason Rocky went on to become the Lobos’ all-time winningest football coach. I maintain to this day that he had a bigger impact on his team than Dayne did on his during their senior years. I maintain that my vote was the correct one.
I also suffered some backlash when I argued that Urlacher should’ve been the first linebacker taken in the 2000 NFL Draft, ahead of Penn State’s LaVar Arrington.
I knew Url was destined for greatness. When he became NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000, the secret was out.
And those memories made me a bit sad because those days are long gone. Urlacher is no longer New Mexico’s little secret. He’s the Chicago Bears’ Hall of Fame linebacker. He is a national celebrity. My former employer, the Journal, could not secure an interview with him in the days leading up to his induction ceremony.
That’s not a knock on the Journal or Brian. He’s just become a mega-star, and just as he didn’t have time to thank everyone during his acceptance speech, I’m sure he couldn’t talk to every media person who requested an interview. That’s just Urlacher’s life, now.
That is also where the emptiness comes in for me. It’s an emptiness based on selfishness.
He was a special player with absolutely no ego. In a sense, I felt special having all the access I did to this budding superstar. And I was hoping he would talk about his days in Lovington and UNM, even though I realize he was entering the NFL Hall of Fame on Saturday, not the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame.
I just wanted to relive the days in which I felt I had a bond with him.
Urlacher’s speech on Saturday made me miss that.
Greg Archuleta covered the UNM Lobo football team for 12 years for the Albuquerque Journal and has been a professional journalist since 1992.
Contact Greg with story ideas and tips at Greg.EnchantmentSportsNM@gmail.com