Bears

Ex-Bear Becker speaks out on head trauma

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Ex-Bear Becker speaks out on head trauma

Kurt Becker played football for 19 years at the junior high school, high school, college and professional levels. During that time, he didn't know what a concussion was. Medical research hadn't defined it yet. In the era of Dick Butkus and Mike Ditka, it was all about getting your "bell rung."

"Now the medical community has defined what a concussion is. In my 19 years, we thought a concussion was when a guy got knocked out," said Becker, who started 36 consecutive games as an offensive guard at Michigan and played for eight years with the Chicago Bears.

"We found through medical research that a concussion is when you get your bell rung. As an offensive lineman, we got our bell rung a lot. To say how many times, I couldn't put a number on it. I never lost consciousness. But there were numerous times I went back to the wrong huddle or had a lapse during a play."

It was a different game in those days. It was coached differently and played differently. The athletes weren't as big or as strong or as fast as today's players. They didn't refer to bounties but there were Doug Planks and Jack Tatums and they wore stickers on their helmets as rewards for hits and tackles and big hits.

"We took care of each other, our teammates," Becker said. "If it occurred, a teammate would straighten me out and I'd play through it. It was a mentality of macho. We were warriors and that meant something to you as a football player."

"There was pain and there was injury. An injury was when it didn't work. In the whole time I played, I can recall only one or two players who missed a week because of a concussion. But now we have found that it is a dangerous subject. Now a week isn't nearly enough time to recover. There is a big change."

Becker has become more aware of the issue in recent months. He recently was hired as the head football coach at his alma mater, East Aurora. Next fall, his son will be a preferred walkon on the football team at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

He has seen many former football players suffer through Alzheimer's disease and dementia, mostly related to concussions. And he has agonized over 20 former NFL players who committed suicide because of their physical condition, most notably former Bears teammate Dave Duerson.

As a result, Becker was persuaded by friend Tom Cross (R-Oswego), the minority leader of the Illinois House of Representatives, to testify before a House panel to support legislation designed to increase widespread awareness of head trauma and provide concussion safeguards for high school athletes.

"As someone who is involved in high school sports, I could see there was no protocol for dealing with this subject," Becker said. "We created a platform for the Illinois High School Association to adopt. It gives us tools to deal with concussions."

Under provisions of the legislation, the referee has the primary responsibility of pulling an athlete from a game if he is experiencing concussion-like symptoms. But that is only the beginning in a series of events that are designed to be sure that the injured athlete isn't returned to competition before he is physically and neurologically able.

"Football is a contact sport and you will get hit in the head. Is it a head injury or part of the game?" Becker said. "The good thing now is the issue is out of the hands of the trainers and coaches to determine when an athlete can return to play. If it is determined that you have a concussion, you have to see a physician who must determine when you can return to play."

"The part of the bill that I like is the education part. We need to educate parents and kids about what a concussion is. More importantly, we need to re-evaluate how we are teaching the game. We're still stuck in the way it was 20 years ago, not how it is today."

Becker points out how the game has changed. For an offensive lineman, the style has changed. And there's a big difference. Today, offensive linemen in college and the NFL are taught zone blocking with their torsos in an upright position and using their hands. Previously, blocking skills weren't as clearly defined in the era of the Green Bay sweep and traps and pulling guards.

"Skills have evolved today as athletes have evolved. Today, they are bigger, stronger and faster," Becker said. "If we change the way we play the game, if we use the body and not the head, then the rules have to change. What position is a player hit on every play? The line of scrimmage. Today, we block more with our hands and body. We need to change the rules so kids aren't called for holding for playing that way."

As Becker approaches his first season as a head coach in a high school program, he believes he has two vital responsibilities:

1. To produce the best athletes he can, to prepare them physically so they are ready to compete.

2. To be sure that the way he is teaching the game is the right way.

"What we did 20 years ago isn't the correct way today," Becker said. "This is a different style than I learned when I was growing up, what is being adopted today in college and the NFL.

"Before, linemen would hit with their heads and shoulder block. Now we block with our torso with our hands and arms in front of our chest and shoulders. We keep our heads out of the game.

"We have to get back to tackling as we were taught. Aim at the target, your head slides off and you tackle with your shoulder and wrap your arms around the opponent. Throwing your body at his legs isn't what you can do.

"Concussions are an inherent risk of the game. The bottom line is it is a tough sport for tough kids. Now we have to be aware of another issue--the head injury. It was ignored before but now it is an issue we have to deal with."

Why Mitch Trubisky's biggest weakness won't preclude him from success in 2018

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Why Mitch Trubisky's biggest weakness won't preclude him from success in 2018

As the Bears set their foundation for training camp during OTAs this month, one part of that is beginning to identify each player’s strengths and weaknesses on which to build in Bourbonnais. 

Designing an offense to Mitch Trubisky’s strengths was one of the reasons why Ryan Pace hired Matt Nagy, who then hired Mark Helfrich to be his offensive coordinator. Easy is the wrong word — but it wouldn’t have made sense for the Bears to not build an offense around their second-picked quarterback. 

But as Nagy and Helfrich are installing that offense during OTAs and, next month, veteran minicamp, they’re also learning what Trubisky’s weaknesses are. And the one Helfrich pointed to, in a way, is a positive. 

“Experience,” Helfrich said. “I think it’s 100 percent experience and just reps, and that’s kind of what I was talking about was knowing why something happened. As a quarterback, he might take the perfect drop and be looking at the right guy in your progression, and that guy runs the wrong route or the left guard busts or something. The defense does something different or wrong, even. And trusting that is just a matter of putting rep on top of rep on top of rep and being confident.”

It'd be a concern if the Bears thought Trubisky lacked the necessary talent to be great, or had a lacking work ethic or bad attitude. Experience isn't something he can control, in a way. 

This isn’t anything new for Trubisky. His lack of experience at North Carolina — he only started 13 games there — was the biggest ding to his draft stock a year ago; while he started a dozen games for the Bears in 2017, the offense was simple and conservative, designed to minimize risk for Trubisky (and, to be fair, a sub-optimal group of weapons around him). 

But even if Trubisky started all 16 games in an innovative, aggressive offense last year, he’d still be experiencing plenty of things for the first time. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made this point back in September that still resonates now with regard to Trubisky:

“I think it takes a few years until you can really get that title of understanding being great or even good, because you see so many looks,” Roethlisberger said. “In Year 2 and 3, you’re still seeing looks and can act like a rookie.”

So the challenge for Nagy and Helfrich is to build an offense that accentuates Trubisky’s strengths while managing his lack of experience. For what it’s worth, the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles succeeded in those efforts last year with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively. 

For Helfrich, though, one of Trubisky’s strengths — his leadership qualities — are already helping mitigate his need for more experience. 

“He’s still in the mode of learning and doing things out here,” Helfrich said. “We might have run one play 10 times against 10 different defenses, you know? And so his response to every one of those 10 things is brand new. And so, you see his reaction to some of those is good. Some of those things you want to improve upon and then keep your chest up and lead because we need that.”
 

Charlie Tilson plays in Detroit for first time since getting injured in his MLB debut

Charlie Tilson plays in Detroit for first time since getting injured in his MLB debut

For over two years, Charlie Tilson was starting to look like his own version of "Moonlight" Graham, the player made famous in the movie "Field of Dreams" because he played in one major league game and never got to bat.

The White Sox traded for Tilson just before the trade deadline passed in 2016. Two days later he made his big league debut with the White Sox in Detroit. He got a single in his first at-bat, but left the game with an injury and missed the rest of the season. Tilson also missed all of the 2017 season and his MLB future was starting to come into question.

Back healthy, Tilson started this season in Triple-A Charlotte and hit .248 in 39 games when he got called up to replace Leury Garcia, who was placed on the disabled list. On Thursday, Tilson returned to a big league field for the first time in more than 20 months. He went 0-for-3 in a loss to Baltimore.

Friday marked a return to the site of Tilson's big league debut and the injury that made it such a brief stint. Tilson has now played three big league games, over the course of nearly 21 months, and two of them have been in Detroit.

Tilson went 1-for-4, meaning both his hits are in Comerica Park. The White Sox lost 5-4 after giving up three runs in the bottom of the eighth.