That is not the same as when a team thinks it's over for one of its declining stars who adamantly disagrees. That adequately describes the current situation surrounding free agent linebacker Brian Urlacher. The Bears offered the eight-time Pro Bowler and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year a 2013 contract for $2 million. Not a bad payday in the real world, but in the insular world of sports it constituted a pay cut of egocentric proportions.
Urlacher, who made $8 million in 2012, called the Bears' offer "a slap in the face." The view is far different from the club's perspective. Urlacher, who turns 35 in May, was paid the $8 million despite missing the final four games of the 2012 season with a hamstring injury. The year before, he suffered a serious left knee injury in the 2011 regular season finale. With the Bears changing general managers after the 2011 season, and head coaches this offseason, Urlacher's days in the Windy City had come to an end.
Those of us who knew Urlacher and saw him play in person believed he was one of those iconic players whose visage and number were indelibly linked with the team he started with. Bill Russell, Ernie Banks, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle all played their entire careers in one uniform and to imagine them in another was, well,unimaginable. And so we thought it would be with Urlacher. The Man in the Middle, the grit, grime and big shoulders of Chicago personified in No. 54.Those days are gone, maybe forever. Free agency allows players to shop themselves at their prime, and salary caps reduce a club's ability to keep a player content forever. And I believe sports has lost some of its enduring quality because of it.
Enough of the editorializing, let us end with my favorite Urlacher story, told before but worthy of a repeat.
Urlacher was the Bears' first-round draft choice in 2000, and as the club's chief negotiator it was my responsibility to negotiate a contract with his agent. Negotiations for first-round draft choices was a tedious process in those days that traditionally extended to the opening day of training camp or beyond. The outcome was generally predictable, because every agent has a track record, whether it was signing on time, signing a few days into camp or signing after an extensive holdout.
The problem with the Urlacher negotiation was his agent had never done an NFL contract. Steve Kauffman was a veteran negotiator for National Basketball Association players, but Urlacher would be his first NFL client. I called Jerry Krause, general manager of the Chicago Bulls, to get an idea of what to expect from Kauffman. Krause's response was: "Well, you could do a lot worse." That gave me some confidence that Kauffman would not engage in the dance of posturing and threats that would keep his client out of camp.
When I met with Kauffman, he was friendly and appeared eager to hear my take on the process. I did not expect his admission that he wanted to achieve a contract prior to July 1, a full three weeks before camp opened. Most agents in the first meeting might say they want an early agreement, but that desire normally carries the unspoken clause "as long as you give us what I want." But Kauffman framed his desire in a context that I never had heard before. Urlacher was betrothed to a woman whom Kauffman believed was an opportunist, and he wanted to protect his client. Under the applicable law, anything that Urlacher brought into the marriage was his property, and anything the woman brought into the marriage was her property. Therefore, Kauffman wanted the deal consummated before the wedding date so Urlacher could keep whatever signing bonus was agreed upon.
And that is how Brian Urlacher became the first player in the 2000 NFL draft to sign a contract, on June 15, 2000. The prophecy as written by Steve Kauffman came to pass as Urlacher married, and eventually divorced, the woman. However, he kept his signing bonus.
by Jim W. Miller
His new book, "Where the Water Kept Rising," is now available in local bookstores, at Amazon.com and at his website: www.JWMillerSports.com