When John Holecek played linebacker for the Buffalo Bills, he lived in a downtown townhouse with nothing between him and Lake Erie but LaSalle Park.
“It was beautiful to be on the water,” he says, “looking into Canada.”
Holecek hadn’t heard that the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation is giving $100 million to make over LaSalle, meaning the man whose foundation is turning it into a signature park is the man who put signatures on Holecek’s checks.
“I can only imagine how nice that’ll be when it’s done,” Holecek says. “I loved living there.”
So did his dog, Keira, a 40-pound mutt that looked like a coyote — and hunted like one, too.
“I used to let her run in the park,” Holecek says, “and she’d come back with some vermin once in a while.”
A lot has changed since Holecek left Buffalo. Now the park in front of his old home is renamed for his old boss — Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park. And Holecek himself has emerged as one of the most successful high school football coaches in the country.
His Loyola Academy Ramblers have twice won Illinois state football championships in 8A, the classification for the state’s largest schools. And they have won 11 or more games for nine consecutive seasons, including those state titles last season and in 2015.
Loyola is a Jesuit high school in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago. This school year all three of his sons are there. Jake, a senior, and Nick, a sophomore, are linebackers, like their father. And Luke, a freshman, is the team’s videographer.
“Coaching your sons is difficult at times, but it is also very rewarding,” Holecek says. “Winning a state championship with your sons, that’s beyond words.”
How Holecek got the job at Loyola, where he is also assistant athletics director, is something of a Buffalo story.
He was a volunteer coach at St. Ignatius, a Jesuit high school in Chicago, when the Loyola job opened up. Nick Rassas, a safety for the Atlanta Falcons in the mid-1960s who is a graduate of Loyola Academy and of Notre Dame, urged Holecek to apply.
“I didn’t really think I had much of a chance,” Holecek says. “But I got recommendations from Marv Levy and Wade Phillips, and I think they’re the reason I got the job.”
Levy and Phillips are the head coaches under whom Holecek played during his six seasons with the Bills, from 1995 to 2000. He finished his career with the San Diego Chargers in 2001 and the Falcons in 2002.
“I see Marv once in a while,” Holecek says. “He comes to the school to speak sometimes. He’s still dispensing wisdom. Anyone who was ever coached by him can tell you he is such a terrific human being.”
Holecek remains proud of the Bills defense of 1999, which ranked No. 1 in the NFL.
“We had guys like Ted Washington, Phil Hansen and Henry Jones,” he says. “And to get to play with a guy like Bruce Smith, that’s pretty special.”
The Bills played the last game of that 1999 regular season at home against the Indianapolis Colts. Holecek fondly remembers throwing a New Year’s Eve party for the turnover of the millennial odometer at his waterfront townhouse. Merrymakers included some of the Bills plus Colts tight end Ken Dilger, with whom Holecek had played at the University of Illinois.
The Bills rolled over the Colts on Jan. 2, 2000, to finish 11-5. The next week they played a wild-card playoff game at the Tennessee Titans. The play that cinched that game — known in Nashville as the Music City Miracle and in Buffalo as Forward Lateral — obscures everything else. But let the record show Holecek was a force for the Bills’ defense that day. He led the team with 10 solo tackles and three assists.
“I remember that was a tough, physical, exhausting game,” Holecek says. “We had a lot of injuries. We were undermanned.”
Holecek declines to be drawn into arguments over who should have played quarterback for the Bills that day — Doug Flutie, who started most of that season, or Rob Johnson, who got that start and led the Bills to what appeared to be the winning field goal. Nor does he care to speak of what happened when the Bills failed to stay in their lanes on that fateful kickoff.
“You can dissect it a million times,” Holecek says. “Players play the game and move on.”
He doesn’t get back to Buffalo much, partly because he’s busy coaching football during much of the time that the Bills are playing. But Holecek and his wife took their boys to Buffalo last summer so they could see the city and the thundering falls at Niagara — on the river that begins near the townhouse where he once lived on Wilson Centennial Park.
“Buffalo is a wonderful sports town,” Holecek says. “My wife and I, we loved it there. The fans are great blue-collar people who have a devotion to the Bills and Sabres like nowhere else.”