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For Brian Urlacher, age isn’t issue

Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.

Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.

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Updated: December 24, 2011 5:28PM

GREEN BAY, Wis. — A product of the Jimmy Johnson school of coaching, Dave Wannstedt was the epitome of the 25-hours-a-day football coach who lived in a football shell and seemed to be consumed by the three most important things in his life — football, football and football.

But with the Sword of Damocles hanging over Wannstedt as his six-year tenure as head coach of the Bears seemed certain to end in 1998, the spirit of Christmas elicited a rare fit of perspective from the chronically dogged coach.

‘‘I’d be lying if I said everything going on doesn’t affect me. It does,’’ Wannstedt said one day before Christmas and three days before facing the Packers in the regular-season finale. ‘‘But if you really stop, and if you really look at what you have and how good life really is and how fortunate we are when we think things are tough, the key is taking enough time to see the big picture.

‘‘I don’t do that very often. But I will do it tonight and tomorrow. The priority will be Christmas and time with my family.’’

Two days after Christmas, the Bears lost to the Packers 16-13 at Soldier Field to finish 4-12. Wannstedt was fired the day after. As sacred as Christmas is, football is still football, and business is still business.

But in the spirit of Wanny’s pre-Christmas sentiment of 1998 — with the wolves howling as the Bears appear destined to miss the playoffs after being 7-3 — Christmas Day seems like a good time to put the knives away and celebrate something good about our maddening, but beloved, football team: Brian Urlacher has grown up, as a player and a person, to become an even greater Chicago sports icon than he was in his prime.

While Derrick Rose was deservedly toasted this week as ‘‘the face of Chicago sports’’ after signing a five-year, $95 million contract, he will be fortunate to emulate Urlacher’s post-30 path to the Hall of Fame.

A few years ago, Urlacher was fading and seemed headed for oblivion when he lost the superior and gifted skills that made him the NFL’s defensive player of the year. But he has been rejuvenated since missing virtually the entire 2009 season with an injury. He’s not just fresher, he’s smarter. It turns out he wasn’t just making plays with his unique skills in his prime, he was learning.

‘‘Maybe I’m biased,’’ teammate Lance Briggs said this week, ‘‘but the guy just keeps getting better. He’s 33 . . . keeps getting better. Keeps adding to [his] legacy.’’

Urlacher’s legacy, a bit tarnished after a subpar season in 2008, also has been enhanced by his maturation off the field. He had some rocky times mid-career, not only in his personal life, but in responding to the often over-the-top negative publicity — we know who we are — that ensued.

Who knows what Urlacher is like outside of football? But Urlacher’s public persona today is what a star professional athlete should be. He still won’t give you deep thoughts if he doesn’t have any. But he seems to be comfortable enough in his own skin that he doesn’t take every criticism as an insult.

He’s not infallible — he was unnecessarily snippy after Tim Tebow burned the Bears in Denver. But if he was upset about being criticized for calling Tebow ‘‘a good running back,’’ it’s not showing. When he was asked yet again about being part of the older-30 group of Bears defensive stars, he could have responded with a ‘‘Whistle Dixie’’ or dismissed the query as a tired angle.

Instead he gave a substantive answer that was hard to argue with. ‘‘Judge me by how I play, not by how old I am,’’ he said.

That’s a good answer that says a lot about Brian Urlacher the player and the person. As a one-time critic, I’ve got to give him his due: He’s come a long way.

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