Friday, March 22, 2013

Some Linebacker Talk

This past week, free agent linebacker Brian Urlacher and the Chicago Bears parted ways. The 6’4”, 258 lb. Urlacher was a popular fan favorite and played for the Monsters of the Midway for 13 years. According to reports, the Bears offered Urlacher, who had earned $8 million in 2012, a one-year contract worth $2 million, with only $1 million of it guaranteed. Urlacher’s camp had been seeking a two-year contract worth $11.5 million. The Bears weren’t interested in paying the eight-time Pro Bowler that much and are now in the market for a new linebacker.

Actually, the Bears are in need of several linebackers, currently the only one of note under contract is Lance Briggs. An NFL team, depending on its base defense, will carry a minimum of six linebackers. Most teams employ many more than that. Linebacker is a key position and vital to a team’s success.

For those of you wondering what exactly is a linebacker, I offer this brief definition:

A linebacker is a position in American football that was invented by football coach Fielding H. Yost of the University of Michigan back in the early 1900s. Linebacker is, arguably, the glamor position on the defensive side of the ball. They typically line up in a “two-point stance” three to five yards from the line of scrimmage, behind the defensive linemen. The job of the linebacker is to thwart the opposition’s offense by stopping the run, providing pass coverage and pressuring the quarterback.

All of this recent linebacker talk got me wondering which ones are considered the best ever? I found many lists ranking the all-time greats, anywhere from the top 5 all the way to the top 50. 

Going over the numerous lists was fun. There was a general consensus about which players ranked as the top 10 or 15 linebackers of all time. However, one list made me wonder if the guy putting it together didn’t start watching football until Urlacher was drafted in 2001. Or maybe he just did a lot of crack.

After studying these lists, I decided to come up with my own linebacker list. It wouldn’t necessarily be who I thought was the all-time best. Rather, my list would be my Favorite 5 Linebackers. A couple of them might shock you.

Before I get to my faves, here is a list of some all-time great linebackers that aren’t among my favorites: Andre Tippett, Bill George, Bobby Bell, Bryce Paup, Chuck Bednarik, Chuck Howley, Derrick Brooks, Derrick Thomas, Harry Carson, Joe Schmidt, Junior Seau, Karl Mecklenburg, Nick Buoniconti, Pat Swilling, Randy Gradishar, Rickey Jackson, Sam Huff, Sam Mills, Tom Jackson, Vaughn Johnson, Willie Lanier and Zach Thomas.

Those guys were all outstanding players; they just weren’t favorites of mine. Now this bunch never had a chance of making my faves list. Never: Brian Urlacher, Mike Singletary, Lance Briggs, Otis Wilson, Wilbur Marshall, Ray Lewis and Bill Romanowski.

If you need an explanation why the first five had no chance of being a favorite, you don’t really know me. I don’t care how good they were; they are way too “Beary” for me. As for the other two… I have a problem putting a thug who was an “alleged” accomplice to murder or a spittin’ cheap shot artist on my favorites list. But that’s just me.

Now for the guys that did make my favorites list. First, in order, the honorable mentions:

6. Dave Robinson, Green Bay Packers #89
7. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers #52
8. Brian Noble, Green Bay Packers #91
9. Jack Ham, Pittsburgh Steelers #59
10. Ted Hendricks, Green Bay Packers #56
11. Doug Buffone, Chicago Bears #55
12. Mike Curtis, Baltimore Colts #32
13. Kevin Greene, Pittsburgh Steelers #91
14. Chris Spielman, Detroit Lions #54
15. Mike Lucci, Detroit Lions #53

Did any of those surprise you? I don’t care if Doug Buffone was a Bear or not, you have to love Uncle Fuzzy. Now, without further adieu, starting with number 5, here are my all-time favorite linebackers:

5. Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants #56. Not only was L.T. one of the greatest pass rushing linebackers of all time, he did a little acting. That’s right, to go along with 132.5 career sacks, he appeared in ten movies. My favorite was the prison flick, “In Hell” featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme. In it, Taylor portrays an inmate named 451, a person whom everyone tried to avoid. Give it a watch some time, but be warned, it’s not for the squeamish.
4. John Anderson, Green Bay Packers #59. Anderson was named to the NFL All-Decade Team and is a member of the Packer Hall of Fame. While he was a very good linebacker, I wouldn’t call classify him an all-time great. The reason he is such a favorite is that I got to know him personally. As rookie, he was a salesman for Mid-City Sporting Goods in Milwaukee and sold the 400 Club softball team their very first uniforms. Upon retirement, Anderson became a sportscaster for WITI in Milwaukee. Since 1998, he has taught middle school earth science.
3. Dick Butkus, Chicago Bears #51. Yep, another Bear has infiltrated my list. Truth be told, if I were to make a list of the greatest linebackers ever, Butkus would be number one. He has appeared on both TV and on the silver screen. For a while he also tried his hand as a celebrity endorser. I was particularly fond of the job he did pimping the “Qwik-Cook Grill”, a grill utilizing newspaper as its main fuel, on TV infomercials in the ‘90s. Butkus is a devout Catholic and attends Mass on regular basis, just like legendary Packer coach Vince Lombardi did.

2. Jack Lambert, Pittsburgh Steelers #58. I loved this guy. In fact, I still have my football-shaped record “Madman Jack” from 1981. My favorite Lambert moment was from the 1975 Super Bowl, between the Steelers and Cowboys. The Steelers’ Roy Gerela had just missed a 33-yard field goal and the Cowboys’ Cliff Harris tapped him on the head and said, “Way to go.” Lambert took umbrage with this and body-slammed Harris to the ground, standing over him glowering. No flag was thrown, but referee Norm Schachter was on the verge of throwing Lambert out of the game. Somehow, the Steeler linebacker persuaded him not to. Like I said, I love this guy.

1. Ray Nitschke, Green Bay Packers #66. As much as I love Lambert, Nitschke is far and away my all-time favorite linebacker. And it isn’t only because he was one of the most ferocious and intimidating linebackers in NFL history. I have many other fond recollections of this Packer great, not the least of which was his part in the 1974 classic, “The Longest Yard”. Nitschke’s role was a bit a bit of a stretch for him. He portrayed a prison guard named Bogdanski who played a (are you ready for this?) linebacker on semi-pro football team made up of prison guards.

My earliest non-football remembrance of Nitschke was in the early ‘70s. My Dad took my brother Mike and I to see a charity basketball game between the Packers and a local team which featured some St. Joe’s athletes and faculty. What a treat it was seeing the 13-time World Champions up close and personal with Nitschke starring as team clown and chief antagonist.

The highlight was when St. Joe’s vice-president and head football coach stood at the charity stripe during a relatively quiet moment in the game. He was about to shoot a free throw when Nitschke snuck in behind him and pulled his trunks down to his ankles. The packed gymnasium erupted in laughter as the St. Joe’s bigwig stood there red-faced, attempting to cover himself with the ball, clad only in a jockstrap from the waist down.

My final memory of my favorite linebacker was many years after he had retired, sometime in the mid ‘90s. Once again, it was with brother Mike. Nitschke was signing autographs at the grand opening of an Ace Hardware store in Round Lake, Illinois. He was supposed to start signing at 11:00am, so we got there a good 45 minutes early. However, even though we were on the other side of the Cheddar Curtain and were almost an hour early, there was already a considerable line to see this all-time great.

At last, when Nitschke began signing, the line started to move. Slowly. Very slowly. It seems the linebacker was signing anything and everything people brought. It was all free, unless you had your picture taken with him and then it was only $1. Naturally, people were taking advantage of this generous deal, but this was ridiculous. Mike had to get to work that afternoon and was beginning to get concerned.

Finally we neared the front of the line and we were beginning to get excited. That quickly changed when Nitschke began hollering at the guy at the front of the line. It seems the oaf was wearing a Bears jacket and Nitschke took exception to it. In fact, the star linebacker told the fool in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t signing anything for him until he, “took the Bear shit off and put it on the floor.”

At first the clod thought Nitschke was kidding, but he soon did as he was told when he saw the scowl number 66 had on his face. Eventually, when all was said and done, we got our autographs and had our pictures taken with the Packer legend. We were quite pleased. You have to admire a guy with high moral standards like Nitschke.

There you have it, my favorite and not so favorite all-time linebackers. Let the snarky and remarks and comments begin! Until next time…from the booth.

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