Awkward end paves way for Urlacher's great ending

"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.

Twitter @John_Kass