Ex-Bear Cabral survived many concussions

Ex-Bear Cabral survived many concussions
February 19, 2013, 11:15 am
Share This Post

The 67th annual Chicago Catholic League Football Coaches Clinic will be conducted on Saturday at Fenwick High School in Oak Park and sometime during the gathering you have to believe that the subject of concussions will be discussed. It's a timely topic that Brian Cabral knows very well.

"When I played, I had a lot of significant concussions throughout high school, college and the NFL," said Cabral, who played nine years in the NFL, including six with the Chicago Bears.

"In those days, you passed it off, shook it off. It was a macho thing in the pros. You try not to let it hold you down and just go with it. You knew you had to be on the field or you wouldn't be playing.

"I have memories of being in the wrong huddle and going to the wrong sideline and not being able to stand up. When they had issues, they self-medicated, then got into bigger issues. No NFL player will admit that he has something wrong."

Cabral, 56, who was a special teams player on the Bears' 1985 Super Bowl championship team, became very proactive when concussions and CTE became front-page news, documentaries appeared on ESPN and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell finally went public with the controversial issue.

"The reality is the way it is looked at today, it is treated as a significant injury. That wasn't the case until recently," Cabral said. "I wanted to know if I could find out what was going on with my brain. I had tests. I discovered there is some damage but not significant damage to the extent that I have Alzheimer's disease. But there is general damage.

"My biggest concern was: 'Could they tell me if there were any major issues?' There weren't, they told me. I saw Dave Duerson and Jim McMahon and Ray Eastering and players I had coached who are dealing with it in the NFL. They are taking precautions now. It's the right thing to do.

"They need to find out who has got what, who has a history of it. Do they need treatment? How are they being treated? As a college coach, I know equipment is getting better. But you can't do anything about contact. We're very cautious in college now, teaching proper technique and knowing where to place your helmet. We try to prevent using the helmet as a weapon."

Cabral was an outstanding linebacker at Colorado. As a junior, he made 13 tackles against Ohio State in the 1977 Orange Bowl. As a senior, he made 25 tackles in a victory over Stanford. He coached at Purdue for two years, then served as linebacker coach at Colorado for 24 years. Last month, he became the defensive coordinator at Indiana State.

"We've come a long way in protecting players on the field," he said. "There is a fine line between hitting and using your helmet."

Cabral will be one of the speakers at the Catholic League clinic. Others will be Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, Michigan wide receiver coach Jeff Hecklinski, Illinois cornerback coach Steve Clinkscale and coaches Werner Emmerich of St. Xavier and Steve Helminiak of Loras.

As the new defensive coordinator at Indiana State, Cabral dreams of being the coach who devises a defense to combat today's fast-paced, spread offenses.

"It's an offensive game right now. We have to adjust to what the offense is doing. We haven't beat the spread yet," he said.

"Anytime the quarterback carries the ball, you are outnumbered and outmanned. The biggest threat is an athletic quarterback who can throw and run. More college teams are going to spread offenses, looking for dual threat guys.

"The challenge for every defense is to stop that spread offense. You must contain the quarterback in pass situations. But you must play one-on-one, like basketball, to prevent the quarterback from running. To do that, the defenses must recruit more speed at the second level. You have to put a safety at linebacker and a linebacker down at tackle to get a speed factor. That's why the SEC is so dominant."

His goal still is to be a head coach at the college level. He loves working with young athletes from many different backgrounds and situations and sees himself more as a mentor than a coach. He hopes to be a positive influence and have an impact in their lives -- on the field, in the classroom and beyond football. But he knows it won't be easy.

"Kids have more baggage these days." Cabral said. "They come from one parent in the home or a broken family or raised by a grandmother. There is a lot of baggage with drugs and alcohol and gangs, the pressure of young life. You must understand who and why they are, where they come from, what they bring with them. You have to be in position of them knowing how much you do care and if you really care and if you are willing to be there for them and with them."

Cabral arrived at Indiana State a month ago, in time to get involved in the recruiting process before national signing day. Going from Division I to Division 1-AA is another challenge that he must confront in his new position.

"Every kid sees himself playing at the highest level. We're recruiting against some of the worst programs at the highest level as opposed to the best programs at the lowest level. I didn't realize everybody wants to be at the highest level," he said.

"We aren't at the highest level. But it still is a great experience. I point out guys who had successful careers in Division 1-AA and are in the NFL. I watched the Super Bowl and noticed all the small schools that were represented in the game. How do you get that across to kids. It comes down to them not understanding the process. There are a lot of transfers at our level."

Cabral still has wonderful memories of the game he loves. He coached on Bill McCartney's national championship team at Colorado in 1990. His students included 1996 Butkus Award winner Matt Russell and future NFL players Greg Biekert, Chad Brown and Ted Johnson. He recruited tailback Rashaan Salaam, the 1994 Heisman Trophy winner. He served as interim head coach at Colorado for two years.

After being drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth round of the 1978 NFL draft, he played two seasons with Atlanta and one with Green Bay before joining the Chicago Bears. As captain of the special teams, he was a member of the 1985 Super Bowl championship team.

"Just taking it all in after the game was a wonderful experience," he recalled. "Mosi Tatupu of the Patriots and I battled in high school. He went to USC and we both ended up in the Super Bowl. He clipped me on a kickoff and I still made the tackle."
    
Tatupu, who played with the Patriots for 13 years, died in 2010 at age 54. Cause of death wasn't disclosed. It was said he had "some health issues." He has been speculated that he died of brain damage.