Up close, personal with a star

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Long before Knox College athletic director Chad Eisele met Casey Urlacher and his big brother, Brian, he was a huge Chicago Bears fan.

As a young athlete at Peoria Richwoods and Knox College, Eisele's idol was Bears safety Gary Fencik and the one of the highlights of his high school career was the day Dick Butkus showed up at practice.

So when Eisele was head football coach at Lake Forest College in 2000, you can imagine the jolt of excitement he got while mowing his yard one spring day and the kicker from his team delivered some urgent news he read in the newspaper. "He said Brian Urlacher is looking for a place for his younger brother to play football," said Eisele.

The young coach wasted no time calling a Bears assistant coach he knew to arrange contact with Brian Urlacher and the next day, Eisele was talking to the Bears No. 1 draft pick on the phone. "He said he wanted his brother to play football but the No. 1 thing was he wanted him to get a degree," said Eisele. "Casey and Brian came to visit campus about two weeks later and after Casey told me he was coming to the school, he looked at me and said, 'I just want to win a conference championship before I leave.'

"I said, sure, we were 3-7 the next year and I said, how am I going to accomplish this in three years?"

Casey Urlacher was a big help.

The Foresters improved to 4-6 the next year and the Midwest Conference title came the following year when Casey also picked up Player of the Year honors in the MWC as a linebacker and fullback.

Not bad for a player Eisele had never seen play before he arrived in Lake Forest.

"You have to sort of expect that if he's the brother of a first-round NFL draft pick, he has to have some kind of ability," said Eisele.

Casey was listed at 6-1, 245-pounds in the college days and Eisele said he thought his skills were best suited to linebacker.

"He flowed well, he was very smart," said Eisele. "The big difference between Casey and Brian is Casey never dropped more than two yards in his life on a pass drop and that's all they talk about with Brian on TV is how well and how deep he gets on his pass drops.

"At the time, Casey was faster and stronger than Brian. But quickness and agility-wise, side-to-side motion, I've never seen anybody play like Brian."

Brian followed his brother's career closely, attending as many games as he could and made road trips on consecutive weekends in 2002 when the Foresters played at Monmouth and Knox. His appearance here gave many unsuspecting fans a thrill.

But despite his familiarity with Lake Forest - he frequently played pickup basketball at the college - Eisele said he never felt nervous about Brian Urlacher's getting too close to the football program.

"Brian made it very clear early on that it was Casey's show," said Eisele. "He said it was Casey's time to shine. He didn't want to cause any problems or distractions for what he was doing.

"He is one of the nicest and most giving people I've been around."

Eisele has stayed close to Casey, talking by phone about once a week. Over the years he has become friendly socially with Brian, dining out with the Bears star in downtown Chicago on occasion.

Casey was signed by the Bears after graduation and stuck for a while in training camp before getting released. He played with several area league teams - including Peoria and Chicago - but has ended his playing career and is planning to open a bar and restaurant in Chicago.

"Casey and Brian are peas in a pod. My wife Katherine watched the news conference after the NFC championship and said, 'I just can't get over how much he and Casey look alike but act alike. They are as close to being twins as you can get."

Eisele flirted with the idea of attending today's Super Bowl game with his dad but he'll celebrate the game today with his family and the Knox athletic staff at his home.

Like a lot of us, he'll have an intense rooting interest but one with a special insight into one of the main participants.

"Brian is a leader and he sets the tone," said Eisele. "He's not vocal. Mike Brown is the vocal leader on the defense and Olin Kruetz is the vocal leader on the offense.

"Brian does it by going out and playing hard on every play."

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