Why did it take so long for Brian Urlacher to leave the game?
It could have been the pride a world-class athlete needs to become truly great at what he does. It could have been merely mercenary, the desire for another big payday.
The end for Urlacher — in limbo for months until he announced his retirement Wednesday — wasn't graceful, but then, life doesn't end gracefully either, except in fantasy.
He was broken, physically. He was worn out after playing 13 years in the NFL as one of the greatest linebackers the Chicago Bears ever had. They'd let him go, and no other teams wanted him at his asking price.
He'd been bickering with fans, with sportscasters; he seemed bitter and spent. He hadn't been Brian Urlacher for years. Lance Briggs was the superior player, though Urlacher's No. 54 jersey kept outselling all others, even though his body was breaking down.
And when it ended, when he was no longer in the Bears' plans, Urlacher persisted, surly, refusing to retire. I liked that. I think some of you did, too. The stubbornness in the man was so old-school Chicago.
Who wants to retire and play golf, wait for the early bird special and the complimentary Jell-O and then die?
If you're lucky, you keep doing what you love, that thing you were made to do, fighting to do it for as long as you can. And you live.
Sports fans have seen it happen before. And when the awkward drama finally ended, I found myself wondering what happens to champion athletes.
Their bodies might not be the same, but what's inside them is what made them. And on the Internet, in a dissertation by Scott P. Tinley, I found this, a scrap from Robert Hamblin's poem "On the Death of the Evansville Basketball Team in a Plane Crash, December 13, 1977."
"... the orphaned heart knows
that every contest is do or die,
that all opponents are Death
masquerading in school colors ...."
I knew I had to call Tinley, author of "Racing the Sunset: An Athlete's Quest for Life After Sport." He writes and lectures at San Diego State University.
But he's not some chinless academic devoid of practical knowledge. Tinley was a world-class triathlete, inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame and retired in 1999.
"Nobody really wants to leave," he told me over the phone. "Who would? One of the stories I like to tell when I was in a truly dark place after my retirement, somebody told me to see Jerry Sherk."
Sherk, a former All-Pro defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns, sat down with Tinley.
"He said, 'The sooner you can realize the best part of your life is over, the sooner you can realize you can build a pretty good second half.' I've never forgotten it."
Some fans are intrigued about what happens next to the retired champion. They've been primed to expect pathos and sometimes it's delivered to them in sports reports, a homeless all-star now living in a car, under a bridge, and Bryant Gumbel shakes his head. And other fans think: Who cares?
"But it's not always about the money," Tinley said. "If you start playing a sport at 6 years old, you're socialized through that sport, and your entire identity is connected with it," Tinley said. "All your friendships, your coaches, mentors, friends, it's all framed in that context. And then, you get old, and it's gone?"
Urlacher went through the predictable stages we've seen with other ballplayers who were called iconic before they were dumped:
Absolute dominance on the field for years, then injury and deterioration of skills; frustration, public bickering with fans, media and the franchise; a final front-office push out the back door; a search for a new team; and then the announcement: I'm through.
The graceful exits are few. Scottie Pippen had a bad breakup with the Chicago Bulls. He won six rings and was sent away. Brett Favre ended not with the Packers but the Vikings. Joe Montana, not with the 49ers but with the Chiefs.
Willie Mays ended stumbling in the outfield for the Mets, not for the Giants. The Dodgers traded Jackie Robinson.
And with the new teams they weren't who we thought they were. They were different, weaker, less confident, mortal. They were betrayed by bodies that got old. Urlacher spared himself that last act.
"I decided I didn't want to play for anyone else," he told a sports radio show. "I still have a ton of respect for the Bears. It didn't work out the way I wanted to, but I played 13 years for one of the best franchises in NFL history. I'm very proud of that, and I'm happy I won't have to wear another jersey."
Perhaps the Tribune's Dan Pompei, minutes after Urlacher announced his retirement from football on Wednesday, said it best.
"I think most careers of NFL players don't end exactly the way they would like for them to end," Pompei said. "But I think eventually everyone is going to forget how it ended and they're going to remember what Brian Urlacher was and what he contributed to this franchise."
Only a few make that a clean break, with a victory lap and a laurel wreath and fan appreciation day. Urlacher didn't get that. He might get it someday.
But we do know this. We knew who he was: one of the great Bears middle linebackers, alongside George and Butkus and Singletary. And now Urlacher.