NFL: Former Hawaii player Jeff Ulbrich made himself into a pro's pro
By Cam Inman
Contra Costa Times
Bill Walsh had it right with former Hawaii linebacker Jeff Ulbrich.
That goes for drafting him onto the 49ers in the third round in 2000, and especially for what he said to Ulbrich a few years later during a break at practice.
"He came up to me on the sideline and let me know he was proud of the way I'd become a pro," Ulbrich said Friday while sitting in the 49ers' trophy-laden lobby. "I grew up around here and understood his legacy, so that's one of the highest compliments I've ever gotten in football."
Ulbrich confirmed this week that his 10-year career is over, his final season robbed by a concussion two months ago. He certainly was a pro, embodying the spirit of an overachieving grunt and lasting far longer than his initial goal of three seasons.
"I didn't foresee people wanting me longer than that, to tell you the truth," says Ulbrich, 32, a San Jose, Calif., native.
Eager to become a coach, he has the intangibles to become a great one. He knows football, he knows people and he knows what it takes to endure in the NFL.
He is the longest tenured 49er, having been drafted a day ahead of long snapper Brian Jennings. The 49ers put up plaques on a wall at their facility to honor such 10-year vets, and Ulbrich earned his with a hardworking, teammate-assisting style.
One decade, one team. So rare in this era.
He played under four coaches and four personnel regimes. He's seen what can go right and what can turn wrong. He played with his job on the line. Annually. Weekly.
"I didn't play to assemble a bunch of memories about my glory," Ulbrich said. "I played because I loved to go on the field and play, and I loved the relationships I made around the league.
"I could give a (expletive) if I remember hitting Steven Jackson on the goal line."
He is not scared about losing such memories from a series of concussions in his career, the latest of which reduced his sleep to two hours a night. Brain trauma has become the NFL's hot-button topic this season, bringing with it a more thorough evaluation process. But Ulbrich evaluated his career enough in recent seasons to know a future in coaching was calling.
"I've recovered from every injury," Ulbrich said, "so hopefully this is next in line."
That conga line: shoulder in 2000, ankle in 2001, knee in 2002, ankle and thigh in 2003, biceps in 2005, hamstring in 2006.
"There's a certain pride I have regarding 10 years," Ulbrich added. "Every year I thought I was going to get cut. Ask my wife. I had to play well every training camp, every preseason. I'm fortunate there were enough people around who appreciated the way I played."
Appreciation came via:
—A 2004 game against the host New York Jets. Hospitalized a couple nights earlier with a stomach virus and chest pains, he guzzled five cups of coffee before kickoff to fight fatigue. A goal-line tackle could have been his highlight, but it wasn't. He vividly recalls an "awesome" hit on center Kevin Mawae. "It was in the middle of the field, nothing in particular on the play. Those were the kind of plays I loved."
—Rivalry games with the St. Louis Rams, whether it was making a goal-line tackle of Jackson or shutting down Marshall Faulk on pass patterns.
—Inheriting Ken Norton Jr.'s spot as the "plugger" linebacker and serving as a fixture in the starting lineup from 2001-04. His guts served him well as a special-teams ace in recent seasons.
—Tipping a pass that Julian Peterson intercepted in the January 2003 49ers' playoff victory over the New York Giants, Ulbrich's only postseason win.
—Ripping the Pro Bowl voting process in 2004 — and rightfully so — when fellow 49ers linebacker Derek Smith got snubbed. (Said Ulbrich: "You've got to be kidding me. It's whoever is on 'SportsCenter,' whoever the media wants to pump up. It's absolutely ridiculous.")
—Walking off the University of the Pacific practice field at 2001 training camp in full uniform and pushing a baby stroller (the first of three children he's had with his wife of now 10 years, Cristina).
—Framing a picture of him standing over Cowboys star Emmitt Smith after a tackle. "I asked him to sign it a couple years later when he was with the Arizona Cardinals, and he wouldn't do it," Ulbrich said.
—Twice winning the team's Matt Hazeltine Award for being the most courageous and inspirational defensive player.
—Appreciating teammates, such as Bryant Young. "One of my favorite memories, and it's kind of bittersweet, was carrying B.Y. off the day he retired. That was pretty amazing."
Ulbrich never made it to the Pro Bowl. But he made himself into an amazing pro, just like Walsh said.