Urlacher and Bears must reach understanding

He is not as athletic as he once was.

But last year he remained one of football's best linebackers. If he doesn't lose much more, letting him walk would be bad for business. And karma.

    The sun had sunk behind the trees. In the fading light, the woods were dusky shadows.

    And faintly, just barely, I thought I heard something.

    I stood still and listened in the quiet of the darkening forest.

    Hoo hoo hoo. Hoo.

    An owl. I was smiling as I walked on, then stopped. About 30 feet ahead, two deer were standing next to the trail, staring at me. Then one jumped back into the brush, and they were both gone.

    Night was falling at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien, and I was taking a different kind of walk.

    Nature at night is quiet, mysterious. It is a place of dark woods and of strange rustlings, of owl hoots and coyote howls.

    "The people have gone home; it's the animals' time," said Ray Soszynski, senior ranger with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, who leads night walks at Waterfall Glen. "The nocturnal animals are waking up and starting their day."

    Ranger-led programs are the only way to experience night well after dark in area forest preserves; most close at sunset, including those in Cook, Lake and McHenry counties.

    But the DuPage County preserves stay open for an hour after sunset. You can stay on the trails as the sky darkens.

    Not everyone would want to; some before-sunset walkers I spoke to said they thought the trail would be frightening after dark.

    But Gina Early does so several times a week, walking her dog, Champ.

    "It's peaceful; it's quiet; and the animals come out," she said.

    She and Champ had stopped to watch the deer too. Early, who lives nearby in unincorporated Hinsdale, has seen coyotes and foxes. She has heard owls hoot and seen great blue herons walk across the trail.

    And between Champ's company and her familiarity with the trail, she feels safe.

    The preserves are safe, said Tom Wakolbinger, chief of police of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. As for evening visits, "if we didn't think it was safe, our preserves wouldn't be open after sunset," he said.

    "People should use some common sense," he said. "I wouldn't recommend that somebody go out there at dusk and later by themselves if they're not in an area they're very comfortable with. Every once in a while, we'll have someone get lost at Waterfall Glen. Once that sun goes down, all of a sudden it's really dark."

    But "it's a beautiful time to be out," he said, sounding more like a naturalist than a police chief. "It's quieter; there are fewer people around; and right now it's a beautiful time of year."

    I found myself wishing I had brought a friend on my walk. Between the dark and the absence of other people, it was a little unnerving for a solo stroll.

    On the other hand, the solitude was part of the magic. In the quiet, I heard every rustling and tried to figure out what animal had caused it. And a lone walk that featured tall pines silhouetted against the sky and a single star glowing in the west had a powerful appeal.

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More than the face of the franchise, Urlacher remains the heart of the defense, the soul of the team. You don't treat him like he's some ham-and-egger.

The model is in Baltimore, where 37-year-old Ray Lewis does more than lead the Ravens in tackles every year.

He leads them in many ways. In preparation. In intensity. In direction.

Lewis is not the player he was either. In fact, he may not be the player Urlacher is at this stage. But he still is in the upper echelon. And the Ravens recognize he has a value to their team and their franchise that goes beyond stopping opposing running backs — that's what makes their relationship remain viable.

Lewis has aged exceptionally well. Urlacher might not.

But it is not unheard of to see extraordinary players — even big-hitting linebackers — make their value last longer than the average player, assuming they can stay healthy.

Bears Hall of Famer Bill George played until he was 37, though he finished up with the Rams. Junior Seau lasted until 40. Kevin Greene made it to 39. And Derrick Brooks lasted to 35.

It is possible Urlacher could keep going strong for another four or five years. And even if his play declines a bit, keeping him happy would be a boon for the team, the locker room and the Bears brand.

This is how it should end — Brian Urlacher Day at Soldier Field.

Speeches. Testimonials. Proclamations.

A large gathering of former teammates standing behind him. His children in his arms and by his side.

A jersey in a frame. A parting gift with lots of chrome and a big engine.

A standing ovation from nearly 64,000 people, many of whom are wearing his number. And applause. Long, heartfelt applause.

His reign as a Bear should end with Urlacher shedding a tear, but not one of disenchantment.


Twitter @danpompei