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From the corner of East Roosevelt and South Columbus near downtown Chicago, you can very clearly see both the old and new Soldier Field. The stadium was recently renovated to make it a modern facility while still retaining some of its historic traits. The stone columns that have been there since the 1920s were preserved, but newly built stands now jut out over them, making the grand pillars look almost as if they were hiding. You can't even see the columns from inside the stadium like you used to.
Above the stands on one side, rows of black- and aqua-colored glass enclose the new luxury boxes, and they're very futuristic-looking. This blending of the old Soldier with the new Soldier looks a bit odd, unnatural, science fiction-y. Which isn't to say that anyone did a poor job designing it. It just looks strange, that's all.
Now let's say we were discussing both the old and new Chicago Bears – only they wouldn't be stacked one on top of the other, the way designers did with Soldier. And to simplify matters, let's limit the discussion to Bears linebackers, of which there have been many standouts over the years.
The old would be Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary, to name only the best. Both men are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Butkus inducted in 1979, Singletary in '98. The two are by no means carbon copies of each other, but both were intimidating by nature, both seldom missed tackles, and both hit blockers and ball carriers very, very hard.
The new would be 28-year-old Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, who has played six seasons in the NFL. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in five of those. In 2002, he broke Butkus' team record for tackles in a season (190) with 214 – 19 of which were for a loss of yards. And last year the Associated Press named him NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He's one of the best – if not the best – players at his position.
Urlacher is kind of like Solider Field. He's new, but he's also got a lot of old stuff in him. Like Butkus and Singletary, he hits hard, tackles well and intimidates. Also like them, he's not flashy. After making a great play – and he makes many – he doesn't celebrate. Commentators, coaches and sports fans consider him a tough guy, a blue-collar guy, a throwback.
Urlacher's newness resides in his rare speed and athleticism for a player of his size and position. He's 6'4" and around 260 pounds. (In person, he's taller than you expect, resembling a burly NBA forward as much as an NFL linebacker.) Sometimes in a game, he'll make a tackle that most linebackers wouldn't have the speed to make. He'll sprint from the middle of the field to the sideline to nail a running back behind the line of scrimmage before he can turn the corner and move upfield. And in a game against the 49ers last season, when Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher picked up a missed field goal and returned it 108 yards for a touchdown, setting a league record, Urlacher used his speed and athleticism to make what looked like three different blocks to help his teammate go all the way.
"The game is so much different now than when they played," says Urlacher, referring to Butkus and Singletary. "There's so much more speed now and so many good athletes. I feel like I'm a new breed of linebacker."
Here are a few other things you should know about Brian Urlacher. He's from Lovington, New Mexico, where, in addition to football, he ran track and played basketball while growing up. In track, Urlacher did the long jump and ran the hurdles, relays and 100- and 200-meter sprints. In the summer after seventh grade, to prepare for high school football, he started lifting weights. At first, the coaches wouldn't let him do much in the weight room – he mostly ran – but in high school he was allowed to lift more, and he stuck with it year-round after that, getting stronger every year.
During the football season, Urlacher and his younger brother, Casey (who looks exactly like Brian but is about 6 inches shorter), would get up at 5:30 in the morning three days a week to lift weights. His main lifts were squats and power cleans. Although never a big bencher, Urlacher has benched 390 pounds in the past, which is quite good for someone as long-armed and tall as he is. "I was always more of a leg guy," says Urlacher. "My high school coach instilled in us that you were gonna hit legs no matter what. Squats and power cleans, that's what he wanted us to do. If we didn't get our bench in, he wasn't too worried."
At Lovington High School, Urlacher was an all-state wide receiver and defensive back, but he wasn't heavily recruited by colleges. "I went to a small high school, so that's probably why," he says. "I wasn't huge -I was 195 pounds – but I could still run fast." The University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque was the only college to offer him a scholarship.
He played at UNM as an 18-year-old true freshman in 1996. That same year he added a lot of weight by continuing to lift hard four days a week. "College is where I made most of my gains," Urlacher says. "I gained a bunch of weight, and my lifts all jumped up. I got to school at 210 pounds, and at the end of my freshman year I was 235. I gained 25 pounds of muscle that year alone. We busted our asses in college and had a great conditioning program."
Urlacher's primary position during his four years at UNM was free safety, but he also returned punts and kickoffs and even caught some passes. It was only in his sophomore season that he played linebacker full time. By senior year, he weighed 245 pounds and was as fast as ever. At the 2000 NFL combine, Urlacher ran the 40-yard dash in a swift 4.57 seconds. When the Bears drafted him with the ninth pick in the first round, he was power-cleaning 405 for a one-rep max and squatting as much as 555 pounds.
"And," he notes, "I haven't maxed out since."
There's nothing old about the Chicago Bears training facilities at 1000 Football Drive in Lake Forest, Illinois, about 45 minutes north of Soldier Field. Nothing, that is, except some black-and-white photographs of former players on the walls, a few murals celebrating the Bears' rich tradition – which includes nine world championships – and the fact that the indoor practice field is called the Walter Payton Center.
The facilities are likely no more remarkable than the average NFL team's, but to the nonprofessional athlete, they're impressive. The main building, which houses the weight and training rooms, is called Halas Hall, named after the late George "Papa Bear" Halas, who founded the Bears organization in 1920 and coached them, off and on, for 40 years. (His initials, GSH, can still be found on the left sleeve of the current Bears jerseys.) Inside the training room are hot and cold whirlpools, electric-stimulation machines and more or less everything else you might expect to be used to prevent and treat football-related injuries.
If you play for the Bears, you'd rather not have to see head athletic trainer Tim Bream too often; spending hours every day in the training room means you're injured and probably not playing much. Yet Urlacher logged countless hours with Bream back in 2004, when he missed seven games because of severe hamstring strains and a compartment syndrome in his lower left leg.
But Urlacher didn't miss any games in '05. Bream attributes this to the linebacker's thorough rehab, but also – strange as it may sound – to a more healthful diet. The Bears provide breakfast and lunch for the team both in- and off-season; they also encourage players to eat lots of complex carbohydrates like pastas and whole grains, which the muscles use for energy. "My first five years in the league, I ate like crap," Urlacher says. "I just ate junk. And it didn't bother me on the field. But as I'm getting older, I'm trying to eat better so I can keep my body in shape. I'm still not where I need to be with my diet, but I'm getting better."
The weight room at Halas has been furnished to accommodate 50 or more players lifting at the same time. It has all the basics: three heavy-duty squat racks; four incline-press racks; three flat-bench racks; two wooden powerlifting platforms with Bears helmets painted on them; multiple dumbbell racks; various Hammer Strength, Cybex and cardio machines and so on. There are also a lot of esoteric pieces of equipment, which remind you that enhancing performance on the football field – not just looking good in pads – is Job One. These include an agility ladder, a Reebok Core Board, some odd-looking stretching contraption, a heavy bag and even, off in the corner, a tackling dummy.
Other than that, it's just a regular weight room.
Rusty Jones is the Bears' head strength coach, and Urlacher swears by him. "Whatever he tells me to do, I do," says the linebacker. "Seems to be working." Jones believes in having balance in his program by hitting nearly every major muscle group in each training session. Everything Jones tells his players to do has a purpose, not that Urlacher or most others would necessarily understand all that comes out of his mouth.
Here's an example: In explaining the philosophy behind Urlacher's Monday-Wednesday-Friday lifting routine and his Tuesday-Thursday football-specific running program, Jones uses terms like functional movement screening—differentiation—proprioception—level to 15 in your pass drop—sprint to 40 and drop to 12—training at 180%-210% of your VO2 max—attacking quad dominance by stretching so the glute doesn't shut down when your IT band and psoas get tight—that kind of stuff.
But Jones' bottom line for training Urlacher and the rest of the Bears is easier to digest. He believes in incorporating "true specificity of training" – that is, doing in the gym and on the practice field only what's going to help you be a better, stronger football player. And that makes perfect sense. What, for instance, would be the point of running long distances when the average football play lasts about five seconds?
That Wednesday in May when we photographed Urlacher, he wanted to actually work out, not just act like he was. At the time, he was in Phase 2, the strength phase, of his off-season lifting program, which means performing sets of mostly 5-6 reps. That phase lasted from May 1 to June 4, and that was after he did a strength and endurance phase in the previous three weeks, with sets of 8-10 reps.
"I take pride in being in the weight room," says Urlacher. "Eleven months out of the year [he takes a month off after the season], I'm in there training, trying to get better. Now that I'm getting older, I realize that the weight room is going to keep me healthy. I hate missing days in the gym. I grew up lifting, and I just love being in there and being around my teammates."
On that day, he wore orange Bears shorts, a white sleeveless T-shirt and white Nikes. His hair was cut very short, almost buzzed, like it always seems to be, and you could see the barbed-wire tattoo on his right arm that makes him look pretty tough, not like a lot of guys who get that tattoo and look corny. Before doing any lifting, he performed some core warm-up exercises, was stretched by Jones on a training table and ran through the quick foot ladder. Clearly, in the NFL, warming up before training is crucial to minimizing injuries and therefore taken very seriously.
"The thing about the pros is, you don't want to get hurt in the weight room," Urlacher says. "There's no doubt that you train hard, but you don't want to push the weight around like you do in college. At UNM, we'd max out every five or six weeks. I've never maxed out in the NFL. There's really no reason to put that much weight on the bar and risk hurting yourself. We train smart, we train hard, but we don't do anything crazy."
That said, Urlacher still went plenty heavy on his first lift, incline barbell presses. He did seven sets, including warm-ups, with his last three heavy sets at 295 pounds for five reps and one "comedown set" after that for 10 reps at 250. He supersetted Hammer-Strength rows with the inclines and got up to four plates on each side for sets of six. Urlacher supersets a lot and likes to move quickly through his workouts, so much so that our photographer fell behind the pace. After the incline/row supersets, he paired rear-delt flyes with a hip-extension machine, then supersetted incline dumbbell presses with standing one-legged calf raises. He used 110-pound dumbbells on the incline press, which is a heck of a lot of weight considering his vast wingspan.
"I lift by myself a lot because I like to do supersets," Urlacher notes. "A lot of guys don't like to do them, but I do so I can get through my workout quicker. I feel like I've built my endurance that way, too."
Later in the workout, he paired 60-pound alternating dumbbell curls and triceps pressdowns and was moving even more quickly between sets than before, working up quite a sweat. One of his last exercises, the rotary punch, was performed on a Free Motion cable machine. In a knees-bent position, with a cable handle in each hand, Urlacher explosively stepped out diagonally with one foot and punched with the opposite hand, alternating sides every rep. The rotary punch represents true specificity of training. You can easily picture him jabbing at an offensive lineman trying to come up and block him.
Not long after his workout, which lasted about 11?2 hours, Urlacher was resting on a wooden bench off to the side of the field inside the Walter Payton Center, answering questions from a visitor. By now he was showered and wearing a blue Nike sleeveless T with orange shorts. The visitor asked him, "Do you try to emulate your game after any former Bears players, like Butkus or Singletary or anyone else?"
"I just try to do my own thing," Urlacher answered. "I try to emulate myself, I guess." M&F
The following is a sample of Brian Urlacher's training regimen during the Bears' monthlong off-season Strength Phase. A few things to keep in mind:
1) Strength, flexibility and muscular balance through functional movement are the main emphases of the Bears' strength and conditioning staff, which constantly reevaluates him;
2) Urlacher often supersets exercises to shorten his workouts;
3) Tuesdays and Thursdays consist of football-specific running drills and conditioning.