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."