It didn't have to end this way. Not in Brian Urlacher's eyes.
The eight-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker and future Hall of Famer yearned to be a Bear for life. He wanted to walk off Soldier Field on his terms.
When the Bears sent out a news release Wednesday saying they were parting ways with their longtime leader, the reality of the moment caught Urlacher by surprise. In fact, Urlacher and his camp never voiced a desire to move on, although the Bears' statement labeled it a mutual decision.
"My phone was blowing up, and I had no freaking idea what was going on," Urlacher said. "I had 10 messages in 20 seconds. Then I was like, 'Holy crap.' It was crazy."
Even crazier to Urlacher was the team's decision to hold firm on a one-year contract offer that maxed out at $2 million and included $1 million guaranteed. Urlacher, a free agent for the first time after 13 seasons, initially sought a two-year, $11.5 million deal and figured the sides would reach a middle ground. Problem was, there never truly were any negotiations.
After Urlacher's agents presented their initial proposal after the combine, the Bears took a few weeks to mull it over before sending an email Thursday with the one-year, $2 million offer. Urlacher made $7.5 million last season.
"It wasn't even an offer, it was an ultimatum," Urlacher told the Tribune. "I feel like I'm a decent football player still. It was insulting, somewhat of a slap in the face.
"They came back with the offer and said, 'This is what it is, take it or leave it.' It was, 'If you want to play for the Bears, you'll play for this. If not, then you're not playing for the Bears.'"
Urlacher's agents, Pat Dye Jr. and Bill Johnson, responded with another proposal to play for one year at about $3.5 million. Although general manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman had voiced their support of Urlacher and expressed a desire to have him back, the Bears wouldn't budge.
"This whole offseason, I had a bad feeling about this situation anyway," Urlacher said. "I just wish they would have said, 'We don't want you back.' I think this whole thing is just about them saving face and trying to say that they made a run at me."
Urlacher, who turns 35 in May, said he has worked too hard this offseason to consider retirement. He counted on the sides coming to an amicable agreement so a hamstring strain wouldn't be his last memory as a Bear.
"I wanted to be here," Urlacher said. "I wanted to be in Chicago. I wanted to finish here. Now, it's not possible.
"Don't get me wrong $2 million is a lot of money. But I'm not going to put my body through what it goes through during the season for that amount of money. Not for anybody. Not at this point of my career. It's not worth it to me."
Emery and Chairman George McCaskey expressed their thoughts on Urlacher in the team statement.
"Brian has been an elite player in our league for over a decade," Emery said. "He showed great leadership and helped develop a winning culture over his time with the Bears. We appreciate all he has given our team, on and off the field. Brian will always be welcomed as a member of the Bears."
Said McCaskey: "As Bears fans, we have been lucky to have such a humble superstar represent our city. He embodies the same characteristics displayed by the Bears all-time greats who played before him, and he will eventually join many of them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame."
The Bears might not appreciate Urlacher's value until they take the field without him this fall. A severe left knee injury suffered at the end of the 2011 season kept him from roaming the field in his usual fashion last season. His teammates, however, understood the importance of having him out there as a defensive field general and overall team leader, even if a step slower.
Lance Briggs, Urlacher's tag-team partner at linebacker, was too emotional to talk about his friend's abrupt departure when contacted by phone Wednesday. Pro Bowl cornerback Tim Jennings had a difficult time coming to grips with the news too.
"Hell, yeah, it's a shock to me," Jennings said. "I thought the organization would at least have a little bit more respect for the man, pay him what he's worth and not try to lowball him.
"Brian knows what he's worth, going out there at the stage of his career that he's at and risking his body. It was very insulting to hear what they thought of him. And it's very disappointing that he won't be coming back."
Urlacher's legend was born Sept. 17, 2000, when he recorded 13 tackles and a sack in his first NFL start after being drafted in the first round out of New Mexico. Thirteen seasons and a franchise-record 1,776 tackles later (according to team statistics), Urlacher must start a new chapter.
His agents have been in contact with the Cowboys, Vikings, Cardinals and others. The Cowboys appear to be a long shot based on their tight salary-cap situation and faith in Sean Lee at middle linebacker. The Vikings plan to address their middle linebacker void through the draft.
Urlacher isn't focused on any one team.
"I would like to go somewhere that has a chance to win," Urlacher said. "There are a lot of opportunities out there for me. I'm not in any hurry to make any decisions right now."
Despite the way things ended, Urlacher said he is not bitter toward the franchise.
"There are no hard feelings between me and the Bears organization," Urlacher said. "I'm going to miss the hell out of my teammates. I had a great run here."
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