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Beebe, Holecek recall pain of the game

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Beebe, Holecek recall pain of the game

Don Beebe and John Holecek played high school, college and professional football for more than 15 years. They still have their wits about them, but they vividly acknowledge how the violence of the game has tragically affected the lives of former teammates, mentally and physically.

Beebe, a wide receiver who played in six Super Bowls during a nine-year NFL career, recalls playing for the Green Bay Packers in a game in 1996 in which he sustained a dinger in the head in the first quarter, was knocked out cold in the second quarter and taken to the locker room, then returned in the third quarter and caught a 65-yard touchdown pass from Brett Favre.

"If that had happened today, the Packers would have been fined by the league," Beebe said. "I suffered six major concussions. I was knocked out cold and dinged many times, severe swelling to the head, dizziness, blurred vision, waking up and not knowing where you are. But guys I know and talk to regularly are doing fine. I don't know anyone who isn't doing well.

"But I don't want to make light of what has happened, the lawsuits against the NFL, the documented cases of dementia, the deaths of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau. We need to teach kids at a young age the better techniques of tackling and not to use their heads as weapons."

Holecek, a linebacker who played in the NFL for eight years, cites a former teammate with the New England Patriots, Ted Johnson, a linebacker who played 10 years in the NFL and retired after the 2005 season after sustaining many concussions.

In 2007, it was reported that Johnson suffers from amphetamine addiction, depression and headaches related to post-concussion syndrome. He placed some blame on Bill Belichick, his former coach, for pressuring him to participate in full contact practice drills three days after suffering a concussion in an exhibition game in 2002. He shows early signs of Alzheimer's disease.

"(Johnson) was the type of guy who led with his head and destroyed blocks with his head. He used his head as a weapon," Holecek said. "He isn't doing well. I never saw anyone play more physical and use his head as a weapon. He used to break face masks. Others hated to pay against him. I'm not surprised that he has had head injury problems."

So how have those daunting experiences and memories affected their lives as head football coaches at the high school level?

Beebe, who guided Aurora Christian to the Class 3A championship last year, is preparing for his ninth season as head coach. His son Chad, a wide receiver, has scholarship offers from Northern Illinois and Illinois State. He is 5-foot-8 and weighs 165 pounds, a tad smaller than his father was when he graduated from Kaneland High School. He was sidelined for much of last season with a broken collarbone.

"If it ever got to the point where Chad was scared to play or scared of getting a concussion, I wouldn't let him play. He has no fear at all. You can't play scared. But you can play smart, especially as a wide receiver or running back," Beebe said.

"I have changed as a coach. I know what a concussion looks like. I won't let a kid practice (if he has concussion symptoms) until he is cleared by a doctor. If I see a kid in practice or a game tackling with his head and not his shoulder pads, I correct him right away, just as if his footwork was wrong on a block. You have to teach proper technique in tackling."

Beebe is very careful about being too physical in practice. His players never tackle to the ground in practice. In fact, they don't engage in much contact at all prior to games. "You don't have to have contact every day in practice. You can do what you need to accomplish by talking to a kid. You don't have to prove it every day in practice," he said.

Holecek, who coached Loyola to second place in the Class 8A playoff last year, is looking ahead to his seventh season at the Wilmette school. He acknowledges that parents are more concerned about the safety of the game. As a parent and coach, so is he.

"I came from the old-school mentality. In my day, if you got knocked out, you came to and went back into the game. Today, if you have concussion symptoms, you won't play," he said. "The game is a lot safer now. There is more knowledge available. Parents must evaluate the coaches and programs, if the equipment is safe. My son, a second-grader, wants to play football and I don't have a problem with him playing."

Holecek has changed his approach to the game. Last year, his team tackled in practice only twice. No more Oklahoma drills, no unnecessary contact, no live tackling during the summer or during the season. He still recalls, in his first season, how future Penn State running back Joe Suhey, son of former Chicago Bear Matt Suhey, was injured in a drill that Holecek later admitted didn't need to be run.

"I changed a few years ago because we didn't want to lose our best players in practice," Holecek said. "I think the information on concussions has changed everybody. It is a completely different game than 10 years ago. I don't want kids to get hurt on the practice field. We want to limit chance of injury to games only. Sure, you can't avoid everything. But I think proper teaching and technique is key. You can avoid head injuries with proper technique."

That said, Beebe and Holecek want to remind parents, media and others who rush to judgment and claim that the game is too violent and the high school version can't be compared to college and the NFL, where the participants are bigger, stronger, faster and more violent.

"Parents don't hesitate to hand their car keys to a 16-year-old. What is the percentage who get into car accidents? But of all the boys who play high school football, what is the percentage who get concussions? What is the percentage of kids becoming dysfunctional from a concussion? And how many are dysfunctional in life? Remember, very few of those kids go on to play in college and the NFL," Beebe said.

"We blow it out of proportion. Personally, I think we sensationalize the big hits and they become more publicized in the NFL and it trickles down to the high schools."

Holecek said "there is no doubt that back in the day the NFL wasn't upfront with information about head injuries, that the league didn't disclose the risk and the long-term effects of concussions and head trauma. Now it is an issue that the league must take very seriously."

As former players, however, Beebe and Holecek wonder if there isn't more to it than the physical aspect. After all, they argue, what happened to the football players who wore leather helmets? Remember Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski and Tommy Harmon? Did they suffer concussions? Did they suffer head trauma that developed into dementia? Did they consider suicide?

"Think about it," Beebe said. "You're a kid in your 20s. You are a super star, at the top of the world. You feel emotions that a normal person can never feel. Everybody wants a piece of you. Then it is taken away from you at a young age, in your early 30s. What do you do? What do you turn to?

"It has been reported that 90 percent of all NFL players who earned 15 million in their careers are bankrupt. That will cause depression. To me, that's the biggest culprit. You are the center of attention for so many years. Then it's all gone and you can't handle it emotionally. You don't know what to do with your life anymore."

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Bulls take sober approach in draft, satisfied with steady roster growth  

Bulls take sober approach in draft, satisfied with steady roster growth  

It wasn’t an exciting night at the Advocate Center but it was a successful one in the eyes of the rebuilding Chicago Bulls.

And a telling one, from their inaction as they stayed put to select Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr. and Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison with their two first round picks.

They’re not looking to press the fast-forward button on this methodical process, placing unrealistic expectations on themselves that they’re nowhere near ready to embrace.

But perhaps, it was necessary.

Trade offers were around, and the Bulls were enamored with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Marvin Bagley III in addition to their interest in Mohamed Bamba. But the price of swapping picks, along with giving up the 22nd spot and a future first-rounder was too rich for the Bulls, according to sources.

“We’re always looking and probing for opportunity. How close we got, we don’t know,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman said. “We looked into some things. We thought it was more than a six-player draft. And Wendell is a guy we’ve been high on for quite awhile.”

They believe they’ve opted for prudence instead of panic on a night where bold, confident steps are expected.

After a painful march to the end of an unsatisfying season and dropping a spot in the lottery, a trade would’ve been a do-good when many felt the Bulls should’ve been at the top of the draft order.

After all, so much was made of their scouts and staff spending so much time during the year to assess the top talent—nobody wanted to see all that unspoken promise result in a mid-lottery seventh selection.

“We feel we’re in a situation at this time of our rebuild that to give up assets, important draft assets to move up a spot or two, that didn’t make sense to us and the way we’re planning,” Paxson said. “We continue to talk about being patient and disciplined in how we make decisions.”

One can look at it as the Bulls being unwilling to embrace what comes with taking a top-four talent—especially with Jackson being viewed as a long play as opposed to an instant impact prospect—the word “playoffs” would’ve been swirling all around Madison and Wood for the next several months.

Or one can view it as a sober approach, that Paxson and Forman know there’s far too many unanswered questions about their core, that a slightly better-than-expected regular season wasn’t going to seduce them down a costly road.

They don’t seem to be completely sold on Kris Dunn as the unequivocal point guard of the future, unafraid to take Trae Young if he fell into their lap.

Zach LaVine didn’t play to his expectations, the franchise’s expectations and he didn’t look comfortable playing with the Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, in part because they didn’t have the opportunity.

He enters restricted free agency and nobody will know how much the Bulls value him until they put an initial offer in front of him, likely on the eve of free agency a week from now.

As much as the last 12 months were about hitting the reset button and trading Jimmy Butler to put themselves in this spot, the months of October to April didn’t shed as much light as many anticipated—hence the talk from Paxson about patience and not being in a rush with the rebuild right now.

Because honestly, there’s nothing to rush—the last thing this distrusting fan base wants to hear.

Carter can be exactly what the Bulls need—some ways immediately, other ways in time provided the roster construction is competent and not done at a snail’s pace, the biggest fear from this jaded fan base.

Having to sacrifice at Duke once Bagley III reclassified to get to college, his offensive game didn’t develop as much as it could have—and it’s not like he’ll be featured early on in Chicago with Markkanen and LaVine penciled in as main scoring options.

“As much as you wanna talk about the game getting away from bigs, big guys and their ability to score, the way the game’s going,” Paxson said. “He wants to set screens for guys. This is a young man who’s gonna fit into the team concept that we want to have. And Chandler will do the same.”

Carter had to submerge his talents and gifts during the one season he had to showcase it for the greater good. It speaks to a certain emotional maturity the 19-year old has, a sober approach to look at the bigger picture while still making the most of his not-so-plentiful opportunities.

“Wendell is still a young guy,” Paxson said. “Very few draft picks are finished product, especially in our game where we’re drafting so young. He’s got a lot of room to grow. Defensively as a rim protector, he’ll do really well. Verticality at the rim, he’s been taught really well. Smart kid, we think he’s gonna be really good.”

Hutchison isn’t the high-upside talent Carter is, having played four years of college ball, improving each year to the point that the Bulls supposedly made him a promise very early on in the draft process.

Their unwillingness to give up the 22nd pick, whether they like the perception or not, stems from their belief Hutchison can be an impact player.

“We like Chandler a lot,” Paxson said. “We scouted him early, scouted him often. He knew we liked him. He addresses a position of need. We had debates on wings and players at his position. His ability to rebound and take it off the board, those things are really valuable, especially the way we want to play.”

Paxson alluded to tense discussions leading to the draft, where one can surmise there was serious consideration about not just going with the status quo—their reported interest in point guard Collin Sexton should be proof of that—and that should come as a positive sign for Bulls fans, who feel the front office is satisfied with a slow-rolling, low-accountability approach since they aren’t saddling themselves with high expectations.

To paraphrase Forman, the Bulls are “still building up our asset base” and subtly saying they expect to be in a similar position next June.

Soberly saying winning and contention isn’t on the horizon can be refreshing to hear, but they walk a fine line of expressing too much comfort in things staying the way they are.