Pantheon of Titans: Keith Bulluck

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

A Two-Toned Blue Omnibus

Preface

Our Titans Anthology continues with Keith Bulluck, one of the most under appreciated linebackers in NFL history. He is a man who stood at the heart of the Tennessee defense for the better part of a decade, and built a resume that, to Titans faithful, is impossible to forget. Bulluck was a stalwart on and off the field, a leader when called upon, and an icon that represents everything the Tennessee Titans stand for. But more than this, there is a humility to be observed, a team-first attitude that puts him above and beyond most all others. Bulluck's mark on the Titans, and indeed the NFL, is all the more impressive when you peel back the layers of his past. For this writer, despite the deserving credit that eludes him, Mr. Monday Night will always hold a place among not only a list of the best Tennessee Titans of all time, but among the best linebackers, and best men, the NFL has ever seen.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, when his aim is fulfilled, they will say; we did it ourselves.

- Lao Tzu

Mr. Monday Night

By Jordan Churchill



I.

A Troubled Genesis

II.

Football

III.

Mr. Monday Night

IV.

The Tennessee Pillar

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I.

A Troubled Genesis

Like most boys in New York Metropolitan area in the 1980's and 1990's, young Keith Bulluck grew up idolizing New York Giants Linebacker, Lawrence Taylor. But unlike most boys, there was more on the mind of Bulluck. While most children were concerned with the latest movie or video game, or what was for dinner that night, Keith was simply scrounging to survive. Abandoned at birth by his father, Bulluck lived a rocky existence for years in New York's dark underbelly, with little or no direction from parents, and nothing close to stability. Often forced out of the house, Keith bounced around the homes of relatives and friends, mostly sleeping on the floor for lack of beds.

"It wasn't a situation conducive for a young child...But it was just my life, so I didn't know any better."

- Keith Bulluck

At twelve years old, Bulluck's stepfather died, leaving his mother without any way to pay the bills. Keith and his mother were evicted from their NY apartment with no place to go.

Bulluck was taken to the home of Linda Welch, a white woman from the UK, who agreed to look after him for a few weeks while his mother got back on her feet. Those "few weeks" turned into more than six years.

With that, the life of young Keith Bulluck as he knew it changed forever. He had been plucked from the streets of New York and placed directly into an affluent, predominantly white, community under the watchful eye of a woman who was so unlike anything he had ever encountered before.

"I'm sure it affected him more than I realized or apprenticed...He was always so popular and social. I'm sure when he was lying quietly at night, he wondered what was going on with his life and how it was all going to play out."

- Linda Welch

But young Keith knew he had been given a real chance at something special, a chance to make something of his life that transcended where he came from or what he had experienced. He recalls being taken to Mets games, and to amusement parks, and slowly the artificial shield Bulluck had put up to harbor his emotions was broken down.

"You have to play the cards you're dealt. I tried to keep my head level and just persevere. I went to live with Linda Welch, a single woman from England. My foster mother and I came from such different cultures. But she gave me the love, stability, and support I needed to excel in school."

- Keith Bulluck

Bulluck did just that. He grew up with Welch in Clarkestown, New York, where he attended the local school, shining both in the classroom and on the football field. That added focus on both academics and athletics led to something more than the boy himself could ever imagine.

____________________________________________________________________

II.

Football

Bulluck's stellar play at Clarkestown earned him quick recognition. He was a three sport athlete who stood out, nowhere more than the gridiron, where he earned a full scholarship to Syracuse University. There he was switched from safety to linebacker, where his talents exploded.

One of the leaders on a squad that featured Donovan McNabb and Dwight Freeney, Bulluck was given the Bill Horr award for Most Valuable Player his senior season. Among other things, this set him up for the impending NFL draft, a world away from where he expected to be only a few short years before. Suddenly he was about to live the life of Lawrence Taylor, with the chance to show his abilities on the national stage.

The Titans selected Keith Bulluck with the 30th overall pick in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft. Bulluck was inserted into a team with local legends like Steve McNair, Eddie George, Frank Wycheck, and Jevon Kearse. Bulluck's hard-hitting style fit right in. By 2002 Bulluck was starting full-time at outside linebacker, and there he remained for the better part of a decade.

Bulluck stood out that year, a big part of a particularly impressive win over the rival Indianapolis Colts team led by Peyton Manning. Bulluck took a second quarter fumble 61 yards for a touchdown, propelling the Titans to a 23-15 win, drawing the attention of Tennesseans, and the respect of his teammates.

Number 53 helped the Titans to the playoffs in the newly dubbed AFC South, where they knocked off the former division rival Pittsburgh Steelers, and took on the eventual Super Bowl losers in the high-flying Oakland Raiders for the AFC Conference Championship.

Just like in Clarkestown and Syracuse, Bulluck thrived in Nashville, becoming a cornerstone of the team's physical defense, and his impressive acumen didn't go unnoticed by his teammates.

"There are a lot of gifted athletes on the team...but Keith is one of those guys who is just rare."

- David Thornton

Keith was a leader both on the field and in the locker room, and one who knew the importance of confidence; both in one's self, and in the encouragement of teammates. He even had a motto doing just that hung up in his locker for years: "Confidence is like money. Very hard to get and very easy to lose". Bulluck never lost the confidence he needed, and the team and its fans never lost it in him either.

The physical linebacker was known for his ability to rally the troops, and for not giving in regardless of the situation, and that side of him transcended the sport of football.

"I've never met anyone who is as strong as he is...He is able to deal with any situation, probably because, at a young age, he didn't have a choice."

- Dan Welch, Keith Bulluck's close friend.

Bulluck was a force of consistency and within the realms of Tennessee sports, his resume was a source or pride. Another reason Bulluck was so highly regarded? Durability. Bulluck rarely ever missed a practice, much less a game, and played through injury without complaint.

"Players who have that type on longevity with this type of success, it doesn't come by accident...To be able to do it that long, at that level, at that position, it takes something. Something deep inside...Ability means one thing in this league. Availability means everything."

- Dave McGinnis, Tennessee Titans linebackers coach

Keith Bulluck led the Titans to a knocking off of the Baltimore Ravens in the 2004 playoffs, in a game better remembered for Eddie George's heroics, as well as a 13-3 record during the 2008 season.

____________________________________________________________________

III.

Mr. Monday Night

"It all stated off as a joke, and the media of Nashville held me to it. I had to make something happen...I loved playing under the lights. In high school we never had night games. In college at Syracuse, we played in the dome. So I feel that is the biggest stage, other than the Super Bowl."

- Keith Bulluck

After a three year hiatus from Monday Night Football in the 2007 season, the Tennessee Titans were set to take on the New Orleans Saints in prime time. Keith Bulluck, now a stalwart for the Nashville NFL Franchise, was set to lead his troops to battle, half joking all the way to the reporters and beat-writers present.

"America wants to see me..."

"A lot of my teammates haven't played on Monday Night Football before, going into this game...I'm Mr. Monday Night."

Bulluck backed up his talk by intercepting Drew Brees three times under the lights. Suddenly the name Bulluck had given himself as a jest was a very real thing.

"I didn't know how far it would go, but it's gone farther than Nashville now. I backed it up and I feel I'm a player in this league that considers himself one of the top players at his position."

Number 53 earned fame that grew beyond the borders of Tennessee. His moniker may have had more to it though; he had a flair for the dramatic. In 11 Monday night games, the Titans' outside linebacker recorded 5 interceptions, multiple double digit tackle games (including a 14 tackle performance against NE), and a number of impressive third down stops.

"It's not always about making the spectacular play. It could be something as simple as making a key third-down stop."

- Keith Bulluck

Bulluck's streak on prime time television keyed in a lot of people's attentions, but hardly enough considering the way he played the game of football.

"If you do great, everybody knows who you are, and if you do bad, everyone knows who you are."

- Kevin Mawae, Tennessee Titans Center

Bulluck took notice of the small-market limits and the mainstream media disregard of the Tennessee Titans, but that never stopped him from motivating his teammates to a higher level of play when it mattered most.

"Some people get stage fright, you know what I mean?...I feel this team doesn't get put on a national stage a lot. So any time we get that opportunity, we've got to make the most of it....Any time you get an opportunity to play in a big game on a national stage, you always want to put your best foot forward. That's your best opportunity to show people what they've been missing."

Kbull_medium

Photo courtesy: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

____________________________________________________________________

IV.

The Tennessee Pillar

"My body of work over the last nine years speaks for itself...Well, it should speak for itself. It really doesn't."

- Keith Bulluck

Off the field he attained a psychology degree from Syracuse, as well as summer courses during his career at both Stanford and Harvard. Beyond this, Bulluck founded the Believe and Achieve program, to provide aid to foster children across the country, a cause anyone can understand him crusading for. Bulluck regularly hosts charity events for the benefit of foster children.

"Young people in foster care often figure they will be stuck in minimum-wage jobs after they leave the system. I'm proof it doesn't have to be that way. Sure, I had natural ability, size, and a lot of breaks, but you also need focus in life, someone to bring you along, someone to help you develop job skills."

It's no small wonder Bulluck earned the "Walter Payton Man of the Year" award during his time in Tennessee.

"I think that playing in Nashville for 10 years made me a better player than I would have been if I'd spent that time in a bigger market. Nashville is like one big family, and for a 23-year-old who'd never had money before, there was less trouble to get into and more focus on the right things. Also, I think that with the national spotlight comes and increased emphasis on the commercial side of being a player, whereas I was just focused on being the best at my position. But the fans in Nashville made me feel national...they take such a joy in their team and each other. I'll never forget winning the final home game of the year where we finished 5-11. The fans cheered so loud you would have though we made the playoffs. Now that's a proud community!"

Today Keith Bulluck stands as one of the best linebackers in NFL history, with few of the plaudits. He ranks 3rd on the Titans/Oilers all time list in tackles, including a Franchise record 7 consecutive with over 100. Even in his prime he was unappreciated, with a pro bowl and three all-pro nods in his favor despite matching the best stats of others at his position each year.

In a league and fandom obsessed with flashy stats, guys like number 53 get lost in the shuffle. But you can't quantify intelligence, reliability, and leadership, at least not as far as it's relation to accolades earned in the NFL. For me, and for those that played both with and against him, Keith Bulluck stands as one of the best outside backers to ever see the field, certainly a top 3 guy while he was playing. In his day, Bulluck was a force at outside linebacker, and lingers maybe to this day as one of the most underrated defenders in NFL history. Like many players in small-market Nashville, he will continue to be under-celebrated nationally, but none of that matters.

To those loyal fans who packed LP, and even to future Tennessee Titans fans who look back on old tape and see number 53 bossing the defense, there is an element of pride and recognition that wells up inside, a force that begs emulation and demands adulation. This is what Bulluck brought to the football field, what he did for the state of Tennessee and for the Titans' franchise. He stands to this day as a true pillar of both the community in Nashville, and in his stomping grounds of suburban New York, serving as an inspiration to those who come from even the darkest corners, and bringing the core values of work ethic, loyalty, and leadership to anyone brave enough to hear the call. Alongside the greats like George, McNair, Wycheck, and Kearse, Bulluck helped build the Tennessee Titans into the team we all love today, and his influence and prowess will not soon be forgotten.

Sources:

Greg Bishop, New York Times

Dena E. Bolton, Yahoo

Teddy Wayne, Huffington Post

The City Paper, Nashville

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