My enduring image of Brian Urlacher probably is different than most.
I think of Urlacher holding an ice cream sandwich in one of his paws as he exits the cafeteria during training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais. He’s wearing gym shorts and a T-shirt – a Nike T-shirt, almost always – and he’s enjoying a brief break before meetings and practice.
Once the ice cream sandwich has vanished, Urlacher licks chocolate off his fingers.
After all, Bears don’t use napkins.
And Urlacher is, now and forever, a Bear.
That fact was made official Wednesday as Urlacher announced his retirement from the NFL after 13 seasons, 182 games, eight Pro Bowls, 22 interceptions, 41½ sacks, 1,779 tackles and millions upon millions of Bears fans who always will be grateful for his excellence.
“It was an honor to play my entire career for the Chicago Bears,” Urlacher said on Twitter, where he broke the news of his retirement.
It was an honor to watch that career.
It’s bittersweet any time a great player in any sport says goodbye, and Urlacher clearly is one of the all-time greats. But his decision to retire instead of latch on with another team represents the best-case scenario for him, the Bears and die-hard supporters of both.
None of us really wanted to see Urlacher, who turns 35 Saturday, wear another team’s jersey. Sure, he could have signed a one-year deal with some other organization to try to extend his career, but injuries to his knees, calf, back, neck, wrist and so on had taken their toll.
Urlacher seemed to acknowledge this in a written statement along with his announcement.
“Although I could continue playing, I’m not sure I would bring a level of performance or passion that’s up to my standards,” said Urlacher, who joined the Bears in 2000 as a rookie from New Mexico. “When considering this, along with the fact that I could retire after a 13-year career wearing only one jersey for such a storied franchise, my decision became pretty clear.
“I want to thank all of the people in my life that have helped me along the way. I will miss my teammates, my coaches, and the great Bears fans. I’m proud to say that I gave all of you everything I had every time I took the field. I will miss this great game, but I leave it with no regrets.”
That’s how it should be.
The next stop for Urlacher is the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, where he will be eligible for induction as part of the Class of 2018. Although the Bears lead all teams with 27 Hall of Famers, it’s hard to imagine any of the franchise’s icons drawing a larger crowd than Urlacher.
Imagine a 386-mile parade route packed with football fanatics wearing orange and blue. That’s what the trek from Soldier Field to the Hall of Fame will resemble five years from now.
During the hours after Urlacher’s retirement announcement, tributes to No. 54 poured in from teammates, opponents, analysts and fans. One in particular caught my attention.
It was a message from the official Twitter account of the Arizona Cardinals.
“You were who we thought you were,” the Cardinals said with a wink to the Bears’ unforgettable Monday night comeback, starring Urlacher, on Oct. 16, 2006. “Congrats.”
So let’s all grab an ice cream sandwich and salute the best linebacker in Bears history.
It’s OK to lick your fingers.
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.