When Brian Urlacher held up that navy blue jersey for the first time on that April day in 2000, his face a little pimply and his scalp covered with closely cropped blond hair, no one had any idea what 54 would come to represent.
After 13 seasons, it's hard to imagine anyone else ever wearing a Bears 54 jersey. Urlacher announced his retirement Wednesday and will have spent his entire career in Chicago.
At one point those 54s were everywhere at Soldier Field, like flags at a Fourth of July parade.
According to NFLShop.com, 54 jerseys finished first in all NFL jersey sales three times over the last dozen seasons, and in the top 10 five times. The only other non-quarterback jersey with as many top 10 finishes was that of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, whose jersey was in the top 10 six times.
Even last year, when seemingly everyone in creation already had a 54, and when his level of play was the worst of his career, more 54 jerseys were sold than those of any other Bears player.
Those 54s will be worn en masse again one day, the day when he will be wearing a yellow jacket, standing beside a bronze bust and explaining his journey from Lovington, N.M., to Canton, Ohio.
Why did we buy 54? How could we not?
In many ways, he was one of us. He grew up the son of a single mother who worked three jobs to feed the family. Before playing in the NFL he worked in oil fields and lumber yards.
But in many other ways, he was one of a kind.
"If you drew up the perfect player, I don't know that you could have a better one," former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "There wasn't anything he couldn't do. Physically, he could have started at three or four positions, and he could have returned kicks too."
He played safety at the University of New Mexico, and his first NFL coach, Dick Jauron, remains convinced 54 could have been an NFL safety.
Jauron, who has been part of the league for 36 years as a player and coach, said 54 is "more gifted than anybody I've ever been around."
Jauron remembers veteran quarterback Chris Chandler warning young passers on the team not to test 54 on the seam route. With his long arms and his quick feet, you can't get the ball past him, Chandler warned.
"You can spend all your life coaching certain people, and they still can't make certain plays," Jauron said. "Then a guy like Brian, he may go underneath the block, over the block, through the block. A play that would go for plus eight, or plus 70 against other players, he might run it down for minus four — and he might do it four different ways."
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said 54 "revolutionized" the middle linebacker position.
"He was so good at running that Tampa-2 scheme," Rodgers said. "They had him play both the deep middle and then react to the short middle. He changed that position with his height and long levers and athleticism."
At 6 feet 4, 258 pounds, he ran a 4.5 40-yard dash. It was a rare combination of size, speed and athleticism with which he was blessed.
Quarterback Michael Vick was winless in five starts against 54. He considers 54 the second greatest nemesis of his career, behind only Julius Peppers, with whom he mostly tangled when both were in the NFC South.
"I remember playing him in 2001," Vick said. "I came in as one of the fastest guys in the league. But he ran me down. I'll never forget being so beat up and tired from running from Brian."
Against the Falcons back then, 54 played like a science fiction avatar from Pandora — bigger, faster and stronger than any human could be.
But it wasn't just talent that made 54 special. Jauron talks about him being tough, smart, coachable and hard working.
Angelo has been around some great players, including Lawrence Taylor, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Peppers. He said 54 outworked all of them.
"Despite his gifts, he looked at himself like an overachiever," Angelo said. "He had a rare work ethic, very rare, that enabled him to maximize his gifts. Brian did whatever he could to be great. He was so driven. People see the Adonis physique and think everything came easy to him. But nobody outworked him. That's how he gained the respect and trust from his peers and his coaches."
He was as popular in the locker room as he was in the stands. When his mother passed away, teammates rented a plane to attend the funeral.
He always made it a point to befriend the guys on the fringes of the roster. When someone got cut, even a nobody, he could expect a call from 54.
He threw big parties at his suburban home and invited teammates to partake in food, drink, paintball, pool, cards and table tennis.
Fiercely loyal and protective, nothing rankled 54 more than criticism of his teammates. He readily would talk about his own shortcomings but could not stand to hear about those of a teammate who had many more of them.
He would have done anything to play, including hiding concussion symptoms and taking whatever kind of needle Dr. Feelgood had in his bag.
So even though 54 never was big on speeches, whenever he did have something to say it got so quiet in the locker room you could hear a wristband drop.
Yes, this was a leader.
And this was a worthy heir to the middle linebacker throne. The scepter has been passed from legend to legend.
Initially, people wanted him to be Dick Butkus. But he wasn't the same kind of intimidator as 51.
Rodgers recalled how competitive 54 was, but he also talked at length about how they teased one another good-naturedly during breaks in the action.
They always were trying to anticipate each other's checks at the line, which put them in a game-long chess match. He said 54 sometimes would make funny faces at Rodgers across the line of scrimmage. Rodgers made fun of him once after 54's voice cracked while calling a defense.
They also have had some laughs over the time Rodgers tackled 54 after an interception in the NFC championship game.
"He plays the game with a lot of class and professionalism," Rodgers said. "He does it the right way."
Like the old school guys, 54 didn't do dancing or trash talking, and he didn't wear jewelry.
His way worked.
He won defensive rookie of the year and defensive player of the year awards, and he has been to eight Pro Bowls. The only other players to accomplish the same are Steelers defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene, Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert, Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor and former Packers cornerback Charles Woodson.
So far in his career, he has 411/2 sacks and 22 interceptions. Only one other middle linebacker in NFL history, Ray Lewis, has as many of each.
Angelo said if he were putting middle linebackers on an all-time draft board, he would take 54 third, behind only Lewis and Butkus.
The only way 54's Bears career could have been better is if he would have accepted a one-year deal at a price that he thought was below market value, and then announced this would be it. It would have been a valiant thing to do, his last act of humility and sacrifice.
He could have gone on a farewell tour and relived all that made him what he was.
He would have received long, heartfelt standing ovations, even in unfriendly places like Lambeau Field. He would have been presented with things to hang on his walls and park in his garages.
We would have appreciated him like he was young again. We would not have wanted it to end.
The curtain will not fall so poetically now.
But someday, when we think of 54, our minds will take us back to a time when those jerseys were everywhere. When he seemed too big for the playing field. When everyone with a football under his arm was too slow to run away from him.
That is the 54 we will remember.
Big bare arms in the dead of winter. Steam rising from his now bald scalp. Throwing his head back and laughing. Loving the game.
That is the 54 we will celebrate.