May 22, 2013
By Greg Archuleta
UNM Assistant Director of Communications
When Brian Urlacher graduated from Lovington High School in 1996, he had one offer from a Division I-A program -- the University of New Mexico.
Seventeen years later, after a successful four years at UNM followed by a certain Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears, Urlacher has announced his retirement, several media outlets are reporting.
Urlacher was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler during his 13-year NFL career as the Bears' middle linebacker, selected as an All-Pro five times and earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2000.
But few know the impact he had on the University of New Mexico football program.
Urlacher led Lovington to a 14-0 record and a New Mexico Class 3A championship in 1995, but still was fairly new as a football commodity (back before the days of social media). As a sophomore in high school, Urlacher was a 5-foot-9, 160-pound wide receiver and safety.
By the time he got to New Mexico, he was 6-4 and 214 pounds.
Urlacher played as a true freshman for coach Dennis Franchione in 1996. Franchione was known for his aversion to playing true freshmen, but Urlacher was one of two true freshmen in '96 to earn a letter. He played in 10 games, primarily on kickoff coverage and return units and finished with eight tackles.
Urlacher's first glimpse of greatness came during the 1997 season. As a backup sophomore linebacker, Urlacher finished second on the Lobos in tackles with 102 despite playing just 363 snaps the entire year. He helped UNM achieve a 9-4 record, win the Mountain Division of the then-16-team Weatern Athletic Conference and qualify for its first bowl game in 36 years, the Insight.com Bowl.
With the arrival of new Lobo head coach Rocky Long, Urlacher's road to stardom took off. Despite the team's struggles of a 3-9 season in 1998, Urlacher led the nation in tackles and set a school record with 178 stops playing the "Lobo back" position in Long's 3-3-5 defense.
The position was a cross between middle linebacker and free safety, and Urlacher's job was to roam from sideline to sideline making plays. He had 20 tackles in a game twice that season and earned first-team All-WAC Pacific Division honors for his play.
In 1999, Urlacher did everything for the Lobos.
He led the team and the Mountain West with 154 tackles, earning All-America honors and All-Mountain West honors at defensive back. Urlacher also played wide receiver, catching seven passes for 61 yards and led the team with six touchdown receptions.
He scored seven TDs total in 1999, including a fumble return at San Diego State that helped UNM beat the Aztecs 24-21 for the first time in eight tries at Qualcomm Stadium.
Urlacher also led the team with 10 punt returns for an average of 15.8 yards and had three kickoff returns for a 26.3-yard average.
The moment I knew Urlacher was going to be an awesome NFL player came on Nov. 13, 1999. The Lobos played at Utah and had a dismal performance, losing 52-7. Utah had a wide receiver by the name of Steve Smith (who has become a famed wideout for the Carolina Panthers), who reportedly had 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash.
That was evident in two punt returns he took back for touchdowns(of 52 and 70 yards) in the first against the Lobos.
Utah led UNM 35-7 at the half. I was a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal who was at that game (up in the press box), and I remember Urlacher and Smith crossing paths as they headed into their respective locker rooms at half time.
Smith must have been doing some trash-talking or said something Urlacher didn't like because the conversation got a little animated before they separated.
In the second half, Smith received another punt, and Urlacher was one of the "gunners," the players that lined up on the outside of the punt team, and was the first to reach Smith. Smith made a move on Urlacher and got past him and appeared ready to score on a third return.
Urlacher, however, not only ran down Smith some 30-40 yards later but also knocked Smith about five feet out of bounds. Urlacher then stood over Smith and must have said something before returning to UNM's sidelines.
The Lobos went just 4-7 in Urlacher's senior year. But he was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award -- which goes annually to the top defensive back in the country. That, his All-America honors (he also received two votes for the Heisman Trophy) and his being selected as the ninth overall pick by the Bears in the 2000 NFL draft helped make Long's 3-3-5 defense popular and put New Mexico on the college football map.
The year after Urlacher left, UNM began a five-year run of finishing in the top 30 in the nation in total defense. The Lobos went to five bowl games from 2002-2007.
Was Urlacher the sole reason for that prosperity? Obviously not. But it cannot be argued his contributions helped set the wheels in motion for the Lobos' success.
Good luck in your future endeavors, Brian, wherever your next step in life takes you. Just remember, your name's still on the field at the Indoor Practice Facility (where he donated $500,000 for the upkeep of that building).
Come back and visit, now that you have more free time, and thanks for representing the University of New Mexico.