The voices are always in Don Beebe’s head, sounding as vivid as they did nearly 30 years ago.
Marv Levy. Bill Polian. John Butler. They instantly made a believer out of Beebe when, after making a splash at the NFL Scouting Combine by running a 4.25-second 40-yard dash, he joined the Buffalo Bills as a third-round draft pick from Chadron (Neb.) State in 1989. They convinced him that he and his teammates were capable of doing great things.
Their collective message is behind everything Beebe has done since he retired from catching passes and began making a living as a coach. The Sugar Grove, Ill., native has taken on projects, such as helping young athletes find the additional speed that allows them to achieve lofty professional dreams, and turning a small Illinois high school football team into a powerhouse.
His latest challenge: Making a winner of the football program at Division III Aurora (Ill.) University, which hired Beebe as its coach Nov. 15.
“It’s just a matter of getting kids to buy into what you're selling,” Beebe, 53, said. “And I had great mentors to teach that in (former general managers) Bill Polian and John Butler and, obviously, (former coach) Marv Levy. I mean, those guys just instilled in us that we could go to the Super Bowl. That’s why we went to four in a row, because we knew we could.”
During nine NFL seasons, Beebe wound up playing in six Super Bowls: four with the Bills and two with the Green Bay Packers. He was part of the Packer team that beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. However, Beebe’s most memorable Super Bowl moment came during the third of the Bills’ four consecutive losses in the big game. With Dallas leading, 52-17, in the fourth quarter, Beebe gave chase after Cowboys defensive end Leon Lett recovered a fumble and lumbered toward the end zone. As Lett began celebrating a certain touchdown, Beebe came streaking in seemingly out of nowhere to knock the ball out of his hand just before he crossed the goal line. The ball rolled out of the end zone for a touchback.
“I don’t think there's been a day in 25 years that I haven't received at least one letter in the mail about that Leon Lett play,” Beebe said. “Wherever I go, I mean, it doesn't matter if it's a restaurant, anywhere, people will come up and say something about that. It has gotten more miles for me than anything else by far.”
He and his wife, Diana, have three daughters and a son, Chad, a rookie wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. His father proudly points out that Chad, who has caught four passes for 39 yards, overcame numerous injuries at Northern Illinois and forced his way into activation after being the Vikings’ scout team player of the week for three consecutive weeks. “His story is better than mine in so many ways,” Beebe said.
In this week’s “One-on-One Coverage,” Beebe spent some time on the phone with The Buffalo News to talk about his time with the Bills, training athletes to run faster, his highly successful scholastic football coaching career, and his new opportunity as a college football coach.
Buffalo News: You had tremendous success as a high school football coach, but it came from humble beginnings.
Don Beebe: Back in ’04, at Aurora Christian High School, we had 17 kids in the program from freshman through senior year. They had never won a conference title, they never won a playoff game, there were a couple of teams they had never beaten in the history of their school. And I looked at those boys that very first day and I told them, “We’ve got one goal and one goal only and that's to win the state.” They looked at me like I was crazy.
That first year, we went to the quarterfinals. In three of the 10 years I was head coach, we won state championships. In five of the years, we were in the semis and in seven, we were in the quarters. We made the playoffs every year. That was unheard of in any school and Aurora, let alone Aurora Christian. So what happens is, success breeds success. We went from 17 kids in 2004 to 74 in 2007. Every person wants to be a part of something great.
We kind of have the same situation at Aurora University. They have never won a playoff game in the history of the school. They’re the sixth-best team out of seven in the conference over the last 10 years, so we need to get this program going in the other direction when it comes to winning. And I’m going to tell them the same thing. Our goal here is not to so much just win a conference title, it's to win the national title.
First thing is you’ve got to earn it, you’ve got to work hard. We live in a society today that everything is just handed to people. They feel like they're entitled to get things, and that’s just not what I’m from at all. I’ve always said that the definition of passion is you train when nobody knows. Your coach doesn’t know it; your mom and dad don't know; your friends, your peers don’t know. Just you. You and the ball, you and the turf, whatever it is. I say this all time: “I don’t want to have to motivate you.” I’m going to recruit and scout players who are already motivated. I know that those are the guys that I can count on.
BN: In 1998, you founded House of Speed, in Aurora, and began training athletes to help make them faster. How did you do that?
DB: When we started House to Speed, I would go around talking to people and everybody back then was like, “Oh, you can't make a kid faster. Come on, Don. You're going to try to sell that?” I always used myself as an example, explaining that if I would have never trained and I never had people help me, I would have never reached that 4.2 level that I was able to reach. I may have stayed at a 4.4, but if I ran a 4.4 at the Combine out of Chadron State, I wouldn't get drafted. I would have gotten a free-agent shot probably, maybe. But you go in and break the record and run a 4.25 at the Combine, that changed everything.
I love using video analysis so that they can see – no matter if they're running, jumping or cutting or sprinting – what they look like biomechanically. Because the key to an athlete being quicker and faster is fast and quick athletes just spend less time on the ground. I mean, that’s common sense. And you can teach that through video analysis – how to cut quicker, like a Barry Sanders; how to run faster, like a Usain Bolt. Now, obviously genetics come into the factor. I cannot make every kid a Usain Bolt or run a 4.2.But you can certainly have that knee drive. You can have that force down into the ground. You can get the foot underneath the hip and spend less time on the ground.
The best example I can give, because he’s still playing in the league, is (Miami Dolphins defensive end) Robert Quinn. When Robert Quinn came to us, he was a 4.81. He still would have been drafted, no question about it. But he came to us, I trained him personally six times a week. It was probably after a couple of months of training him that he was able to run a 4.59 at his Pro Day. Well, that changed his whole world. He went from that to the 14th pick in the draft and now he is who he is. He had 19 sacks in his third year in the league. He was just unblockable. There's a guy, genetically, who was a freak but he wasn’t reaching his potential.
BN: You also worked with Tony Romo. What was that like?
DB: You talk about passion? This guy was at Eastern Illinois, I was up in Aurora, so that’s three hours or so. He would come Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He would drive that three hours, train for two, turn around and go back because he had classes. He did this three times a week for months. That's passion. That’s a guy that wants to want to be great.
BN: What are some of the highlights that come to mind when you think about your time with the Bills?
DB: For me, personally, it was breaking in the first time I’m in the huddle at the Houston Astrodome, third game of my rookie year. They had cut Chris Burkett that week and then I got moved into the third spot, so Flip Johnson and Andre (Reed) and I came in on third downs because we didn't have the K-Gun then. The first time on the field, it was a run play and (Oilers cornerback) Cris Dishman was talking trash to me and I was scared to death.
The second time I was on the field, I was supposed to run a post-corner and as I'm breaking the huddle, Jim Kelly goes, “Beebe, if Dishman’s pressed on you, go deep, I’ll throw it to you.” Oh, my gosh, you could have seen a brown stain on my pants, I was so scared. Jim threw the pass to me and it looked like a punt because Jim used to throw that high ball and it got lost in the lights of the dome. And I just kind of stuck my hand out there and it just stuck to my hand. To have the first pass go your way as a 63-yard touchdown, I mean, come on. What a way to break into the NFL.
BN: And you never get tired of talking about the Leon Lett play?
DB: No, and here’s why. The inside story is that about an hour before the game, it was a beautiful day in Pasadena, and I was out praying on the football field. My prayer that day was, literally, “Lord let me glorify your name more than mine more than ever.” So when I was walking off the field, I seriously thought I was going to catch a JJ Jefferson, one-handed stab, with a tiptoe in the back of the end zone, and win the game with no time on the clock. I felt that good. But, no, the Lord gave me the Leon Lett play. I mean, come on, give me a break, right?
But when I do public speaking – I probably do 30-40 events a year – and I’m on a stage, I think, if I would have been the guy that would have scored that touchdown to win the Super Bowl, it would not have near the impact that the Leon Lett play has because how many people can relate to the tiptoe touchdown? Probably nobody in that crowd. But everybody, I mean everybody in that audience, can relate to never giving up. And so they look at that and they think, God, I've given up on my marriage, I’ve given up on my kids, I’ve given up on my job, I’ve given up on myself. When I talk to them, I try to inspire them to just never give up.
BN: What were those years like with Brett Favre and the Packers?
DB: They were similar to being with the Bills. Don’t get me wrong, Buffalo was Buffalo. But the guys at quarterback, same mentality, linebackers playing quarterback. They were both great guys and fun to play with and I spent a lot of time golfing with Brett and everything like that. But there's nobody like Jim Kelly. Jim Kelly might be the most loyal person I've ever met. I call Jim, and Jim says, “Whatever you need, Beebes.” Brett was just a little different in that area.
But the teams are similar – great guys, great organizations. But there's just that little element, to me, that Buffalo had, and it was family. And that would be the difference for me. I've always said this – and I will say this to anybody – going to Green Bay and winning a championship in a Green Bay Packer uniform is iconic. But if you're asking me what I would go back to, I go back to losing four in a row with Buffalo, hands-down. There was no better time in my history than my time in Buffalo.
I had the great opportunity of being the safety guy 10 yards behind Favre as he was kneeling down for that Super Bowl win, so I was on the field looking at the clock ticking down on that last 10 seconds. And, honestly, the thoughts that were going through my mind after the whistle blew and I went up to Brett and kind of shared a moment and he actually handed me the ball, which was kind of a cool moment. But when I got that ball and I started going over to where Diana and my kids were, I actually felt guilty. Why me? Why not Jim? Why not Marv? Why not Bill? Why not John Butler? Why not all the fans? How about (team founder) Mr. (Ralph) Wilson? All my thoughts went back to Buffalo. I wish they could have been standing on the field because they deserved it more than I and certainly as much as I.
BN: Did coaching in the NFL ever cross your mind?
DB: Not many people know this, but when Marv came back as a GM of the Bills in ’05, he called me the night before he announced it. Before that, I had him come in and give the pregame speech before the first playoff game in history at Aurora Christian High School. So he called and said, “Don, would you ever consider coming back and coaching at the pro level now I'm taking that GM job back at Buffalo?” I said, “Ah, man, Coach, I would love to and I'm so honored that you would even consider me. But my heart is at this high school right now. I just can't leave these kids.”
And I wanted to be a part of my three daughters’ and son’s lives. I’ve got no regrets, but now that I'm an empty nester, I'm hitting it running. I love AU right now. How long will I be here? I have no idea. I don’t know what tomorrow holds. I just know today I’m at AU and I’m going to do everything I can to make this program an elite program.