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."