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Olin Kreutz: Football’s Ultimate Defender

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In this interview with WCG historian Jack M Silverstein, Bears legend and middle school football coach Olin Kreutz explains the changes that need to be made in football to make sure the game doesn’t die — and how the NFL can lead the way.

Chicago Bears v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

The boy was injured, just lying there, and parents and coaches were yelling and tempers were hot when the calmest guy in the football game, Coach Olin Kreutz, walked onto the field. It was a chilly October night in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, and Kreutz’s School of St. Mary team was up 13-0 early in the 3rd quarter. On a St. Mary’s punt, one of the bigger St. Mary’s kids tackled the returner, a hit that left the boy motionless.

The opposing coach started yelling at Kreutz’s player, calling for his ejection. Kreutz asked him to calm down, and then warded off his player — an 8th grader — and walked him back to their sideline. He gathered the team.

“Don’t worry about this,” Kreutz told them about the anger on the other sideline. “All you have to worry about is playing good football. Sometimes adults get a little too crazy about this stuff.”

The opposing player was still down. Kreutz reiterated to his players his common mantra: no dirty hits, but hard, clean hits. No trash talk. No fights.

“We’ve got your back,” he said in a measured tone to the boy who made the hit.

The kids are used to hearing Coach Kreutz speak this way. The team comprises 7th and 8th graders, teens who weren’t yet five years old when their coach was starting at center in Super Bowl XLI. They don’t know the ornery All Pro center who was called a “thug” in a newspaper before he was in the NFL. They don’t know the offensive stalwart who became one of the key leaders on a team ruled by its defense.

“One day, I’ll tell my son, ‘You were coached by a Hall of Famer,’” says a father of one of Kreutz’s players. But that boy and his teammates don’t know Kreutz as a future Hall of Famer. They don’t know the bruising offensive lineman who showed no fear on an NFL field. They know the kindly coach who encourages them to avoid dangerous collisions — to harm the team before they harm themselves.

“Football is life,” Kreutz explained to me later. “You’re in the huddle with 11 guys. Some of them you might never talk to at school before. Now you know them, now you have to work together. The guy across from you might be bigger and stronger, but guess what? You have your teammate next to you. There’s so much to learn from playing football if it’s taught the proper way.”

Kreutz doesn’t see it played the proper way. From the NFL on down, he sees reactionary flags and excessive fines. He sees good hits ruled illegal and errant measures of protection. He sees the vilification of physicality and the crumbling of the sport at the prep level.

He is using his retirement from the game to become one of its chief caregivers, both as a youth coach and media member. He wants people to understand its beauty and its value. He wants us to wonder what he wonders:

What do we lose if we lose football?

Olin Kreutz in his gym in Lake Forest, Illinois.
Photo by Jack M Silverstein

“You could ruin the game.”

Two months after I saw him coach, Kreutz was watching the Steelers and Bengals game on television when he saw something upsetting.

As Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict pursued a Pittsburgh running back on a little dump off, Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster spotted Burfict with his head turned, set his feet in front of Burfict and propelled himself upward into Burfict’s chest, catching Burfict’s chin and causing his head to snap back.

Burfict hit the turf. Smith-Schuster stood over him. Flags flew. Smith-Schuster received penalties for unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct and was suspended one game without pay.

The hit looked legal to Kreutz. The refs and announcers felt otherwise.

“I was hearing the words ‘disgusting’ and ‘cheap,’” Kreutz tells me about the broadcast. “And you forget sometimes if you’re not on that sideline how emotional it is. It’s emotional in an 8th grade football game.”

We are sitting in his private gym in Lake Forest, Illinois, a 10-minute drive from Halas Hall. Since retiring from the NFL four games into the 2011 season, Kreutz has become a boots-on-the-ground advocate for football. In 2012, he began assisting with his eldest son’s youth team in Libertyville. He and his wife Wendi have six children, two boys and four girls, and Kreutz enjoyed coaching so much that he stayed with it, moving up to his current position as head coach of the 7th and 8th grade St. Mary’s team, where his younger son plays.

Along with his coaching, he has become a staple of the Bears media world. He does the postgame show on 670 The Score and is one of the best Bears follows on Twitter, where he edits his own video to break down plays (especially blocking schemes) and bringing his typical candor to his interactions with fans.

He is the same in person as he is on Twitter: honest, funny, insightful. I followed his discussions on Twitter about the Smith-Schuster hit on Burfict. He plainly stated that Burfict was involved in the play, he was on the field during a play, and football players are trained to hit, so Smith-Schuster hit him. Kreutz took heat for that.

Perhaps more than anything else, I wanted to know one thing from a man who played the game at the highest level, is paid to talk about it, and spends his free time coaching its potential future participants:

What do fans and non-athlete media get wrong?

“Everybody thinks they have to protect football players right now — from themselves and from the game,” he tells me. “I don’t think football players want that. I think we just want to play football. People will call me a meathead football player for this, but I would be livid if you pulled me out of a game to check me for a concussion. I would be pissed. I know the state of mind I played with. You better have security guards on the sideline if you’re going to pull me out for a concussion when I feel I can play. If you’re going to take my helmet away, the mentality I was in when I played and the way I approached the game, you better have 20 guys taking my helmet away, because I want to play.

“And I just feel like a lot of us — I hate using this term because there are guys who have suffered, like we talked about — but a lot of us do know what the game is, and that’s what we’re doing. That’s why we’re here. A lot of us are here for that.

I stop him right there and ask: “What is ‘that’?”

“The violence of the game,” he tells me. “The camaraderie. The fight to the end. I’m going to fight through injuries. We’re doing it because we’re doing something that we know a lot of people can’t do.”

Kreutz in the Honolulu Advertiser as a star sophomore offensive guard for St. Louis High School, Sept. 28, 1994.
Newspapers.com

He notes that not everyone will agree with him — “There will be a guy who played 14 years who totally disagrees with my statements” — but they come from his experience in the game as both a player and a coach. He had his share of injuries, starting with a fractured left foot as a high school sophomore that caused him to miss a season. As a professional, he suffered serious injuries to both knees, one in 2000, the other in 2011 with the Saints, effectively ending his career. He missed one game in 2002 with appendicitis. He had surgery on his elbow during the bye week in 2007 to remove bone chips. He slept in a neck brace the night before the Super Bowl to combat stingers he suffered three weeks prior in the Seattle game while trying to make a tackle on an interception.

And in his final game as a Bear, the NFC championship game against the Packers in January of 2011, he tore the Lisfranc ligament in his right foot at the start of the 2nd half. (That of course was the game that Jay Cutler left with what turned out to be an MCL sprain. He took flack for that injury due to a perceived lack of “toughness.” Kreutz has been one of Cutler’s staunchest supporters.

“Two totally different situations,” he explains. “I wasn’t 100% healthy but I could do my job. But when you’re a quarterback and your plant leg is gone, your leg shakes when you try to plant or step on it hard.”)

Kreutz finished that game despite his own concerns that he wouldn’t be able to block anyone. It was a rare concern. When he started his football career in Hawaii in sixth grade, he had to drop 15 pounds from 150 to 135 to play Pop Warner. By his senior year in high school, he was listed at 285. He was a high school heavyweight wrestling champion, and was the strongest player during his time at Washington, bench pressing 530 pounds.

The combination of his ability to play through injuries and physically dominate opponents is the essence of what bothers him about the NFL’s in-game safety measures.

“If you ask somebody, or me, what do you miss the most? You miss being the best in the world at something like that,” Kreutz says. “When you’re in the NFL, and I line up and there’s a 350-pound nose guard and a 240-pound linebacker behind him, I know there are not too many guys who can block them. I know it. I know what’s going to happen. I know I’m going to hit him as hard as I can and he’s going to hit me as hard as he can and I’m going to come off the block and hit the linebacker.

“And then you’re going to come on the field and say,” and here he stops, and whispers this in a condescending tone: “I have to protect you from yourself.”

“I don’t want that,” he says. “Get away from me. This is what I want to be out here doing. I know what’s going on out here. I know that when I strap the helmet on. I know. And I think that’s where a lot of people get mixed up.

“People thinking they have to protect football players from themselves — I think eventually you could ruin the product. You could ruin the game. By taking practices away, by taking padded practices away. You need to practice football. It’s hard. Eleven guys have to dance together. Well, you have to practice that. You have to practice it in full pads. You have to practice it at full speed. But, ‘Oh, we’re going to protect you and I’m going to take your helmet away.’

“To me, that’s just phony. We all know what we’re doing. We all know what this game is about. You guys go stand over there. Go be a doctor, or the suits up there in the NFL office in New York, you go be suits. But I think that they have to be careful. I think that people show up to the stadium to see that game. That’s what people are here for. They’re here to see everybody hit and fly around.”

I ask him if he saw the statement from Steelers safety Mike Mitchell a few weeks prior, when Mitchell admonished those who want to force football players to slow down and consider the consequences of a hit while they’re on the field and potentially vulnerable to those same hits.

“Yeah,” Kreutz says, “and there’s a lot to what he’s saying. You’re creating confusion by saying ‘We’re playing football, but we’re not.’ So what are we doing then? For me, I would just sign a waiver. Like, let me play. Now, that doesn’t mean — you see me coach little league — that doesn’t mean little league should be like that. High school shouldn’t be like that. But once we’re in the NFL and this is professional, the whole, ‘I’m going to protect the player from himself,’ that thing baffles me, to be honest.”

“If you’re worried about head injuries, I cannot argue.”

I’ve been a Bears fan all my life, yet when I saw Olin Kreutz this fall at Winnetka’s Skokie Playfield in October, I didn’t recognize him. I didn’t know which team was his or even if he were the head coach or an assistant, so I didn’t know who I was looking for… except of course that I was looking for Olin Kreutz. Easy right?

It took me a look up and down one sideline, and then a walk to the other side of the field to realize which man was Kreutz, the former perennial Pro Bowler I watched nearly every Sunday for 13 years. First of all, he is slimmed down from his playing days. He played anywhere between 280 and 290 pounds. Today he is 260.

Secondly, I think I just instinctively thought a man who injured both knees during a career spanning 14 years and 202 combined regular season and playoff games would walk with a limp.

And third, I for some reason figured I would see on the St. Mary’s sideline the same intense, if toned down, Kreutz we knew and loved from Soldier Field.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

“He’s a great coach,” St. Mary’s father Edward Scheidler told me. “He’s very calm, very thoughtful, very much about teaching, very much about fun. You see a lot of dads out here, they get a little carried away. This is boys football. He’s not like that at all. He makes sure that (the kids) understand the fundamentals, that they have a good time, and that they understand teamwork.”

Kreutz is in his sixth season working in youth football, and his second as the head coach of the St. Mary’s varsity. His team has about 20 players throughout the season. Practices run three or four times per week for 90-120 minutes.

“I figured I had a lot to teach, and I wanted to give back to the game,” he told me. “The game’s given me everything I have, so every chance I get I am going to give back to the game any way I can.”

Indeed, at the game I attended, with St. Mary’s leading 13-0 at the half, Kreutz ran the team over to an area just off the field to discuss play calling and execution, and to just generally review the first half to see what the kids had observed and retained. He had the kids take a knee in a circle around him.

“Somebody talk to me on 16 Power,” he said, referring to a running play. “What do you see?”

“The second linebacker is shading over the top,” one of his players said.

“Are they in a 5-2 or a 6-2?” Kreutz asked about the opponent’s defense. “They’re filling that hole, and that’s where the counter is.”

The kids listened to their coach.

“Here’s the deal now — 16 Power is a what?” he said about a play they relied on heavily. “It’s an attitude play. They know we’re running 16 Power. We know we’re running 16 Power. The parents on the sideline know we’re running 16 Power. Their parents on the sideline know we’re running 16 Power. And we’re gonna run it all day long.”

Few are. Youth tackle football programs are making news around the country for folding, including in Illinois. In one week last August, the Park District of Highland Park canceled its youth program for fifth through eighth graders, followed by North Shore Country Day high school ending its program after 98 years. A month later, Whitney Young High School canceled its 2017 season. All three programs cited falling participation due in large part to parental concern over injuries, particularly head and brain injuries.

And last week, an Illinois state representative joined former Bears Otis Wilson and Mike Adamle to introduce the Dave Duerson Act, a bill that would ban tackle football in Illinois for children under the age of 12. The bill is named after the former Bears great Duerson, a starter on the 1985 Super Bowl-champion team whose life ended tragically by suicide in 2011.

Kreutz is sympathetic. He believes any child showing signs of a concussion should be pulled from the game. He certainly does not want children to get injured, nor does he want them to suffer lifelong negative effects from football.

He just wants them to benefit from the game the way he did.

“If you’re worried about head injuries, I cannot argue,” he says about parents. “With the information that people are thrusting out there on the public right now, I can’t argue with that. And I don’t argue with parents at St. Mary’s. If they say ‘Olin, we’re leaving,’ by all means. I’ll tell parents, ‘I will teach your kids everything I can teach them. I’ll keep them safe as possible. But if you’re worried about head injuries, you’re correct. Because it could happen at any moment.’”

While youth coaches today have a great deal of resources for safer instruction, Kreutz takes safe coaching one step further.

“As a coach, you always have to see matchups,” he says. “I’ll tell my kids who aren’t my biggest or strongest kids, ‘If that guy on the other team turns the corner and you’re one-on-one, let him go. If you’re in a matchup you don’t like, don’t tackle him.’ What do I care about a touchdown? I don’t. ‘If someone is coming downhill on you and he has 20 pounds on you, make a business decision.’ I tell them that in practice. You don’t have to hit someone you don’t want to hit.”

Kreutz recommends that youth coaches not allow all-out hitting in practice — only on game day. During practice they tackle bags and run controlled drills. He begins his drills with warnings to his players. “This is a live drill,” he tells them. “If you’re in a situation you don’t like, get out of it.”

That’s because what he wants them to learn is not merely a result of hitting.

“People use the word ‘toughness’ the wrong way nowadays,” he says. “Toughness is getting up at six in the morning and going to school. That’s toughness. The game will teach you that. You have to do bear crawls. In football, I tell the kids this: do you know why people don’t play football anymore? It’s not because it’s dangerous. It’s not all the things people say. Kids want out of football because it’s hard. It’s hard. Football’s hard. Wrestling’s hard. These are the sports that are dying. There’s no other reason except for it’s hard. These are hard sports to do.”

“You don’t think it’s because of a fear of head injuries?” I ask him.

“No,” he says. “I think if you give people a way out of these hard sports, they’ll get out.”

That’s the inherent tension in the way Kreutz views the game. He wants young players to be safe, but also wants them to embrace the toughness the game demands. Yet he knows that embracing that toughness puts them at risk, and he fully understands when parents don’t want their children playing because of that risk.

The parents of his players respect him for exactly that.

“No other sport has the same team atmosphere where every player needs to make a play in these four seconds for the play to work,” says team parent Patrick Lindemann. “There’s no other sport like it. And I think it builds the greatest camaraderie and the greatest character and the greatest spirit of any of the team sports.”

Lindemann played football in high school and was a walk-on safety at the University of Wisconsin in the 1990s. When I asked him if he worries about the possibility of his son getting injured, he didn’t hesitate.

“All the time,” he said. “Every day. And he has had them. He broke his arm and broke his leg, both playing football. (But) he loves this game so much, and I love it too.”

Nearby, I met the father whose son placed the hit on the opposing player. (Note: I am not including any information that could identify the children involved, or the opposing coach.) Kreutz has coached that player for three years, since the boy was in 5th grade. I asked the father for a story that summed up why he trusted Kreutz with his son.

“I think we just witnessed one, standing up for my son,” he told me. “It was a football hit, a good hit, and he’s not going to let another adult go after my son.”

Immediately after the game, I had a brief moment to talk to Kreutz. I asked him about what had occurred. He simply asked the opposing coach to stop screaming at his player.

“No one wants to see that kid lying on the ground, trust me,” he told me.

During our interview at his gym, I relayed to Kreutz the parental comments, and told him my observation that he was the calmest person on the field, especially when the shouting started.

“It’s 8th grade football,” he says, laughing. “I tell people: ‘I’ve lost the Super Bowl.’”

He calls the Super Bowl “the worst game in the world to lose.” Immediately after the game, he was hit with the realization that he might not ever get back to that point.

“Listen, man, I was a ballplayer,” he says. “Would I love to have a Super Bowl ring? Hell yeah. But I can’t be mad about where I’m sitting right now. I’ve got a pretty good life. And I always knew that when I played. I’d get up and it’d be like, ‘I’m just lifting weights and blocking. I’m doing the same shit I did when I was in high school.’ I could never really be fully like, ‘My life would be so much better with a Super Bowl ring.’ That’s not true.

“I mean, it’d be great! I wanted to win. I put everything I had into it. Win the Super Bowl, have the parties and the parade. The parade was set up for downtown. That would have been awesome. (But) I always stop and say, ‘Wow, I do a postgame show and own a gym. Because of football.’ I can’t be too down about it.”

Super Bowl XLI: Indianapolis Colts v Chicago Bears Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

“I know football — I loved it.”

When Kreutz thinks about the future of football, he thinks of two actions he wants to see from the NFL to help preserve the game. The first is a stronger and more direct bridge between the league and youth football.

“I argue with some people with the JuJu Smith-Schuster hit, that I thought it was legal,” he says. “But people have to realize that it’s going to take some time to get those shots out of the game, and the only way to get them out is to drill them out from a young age” — meaning to use football drills to develop in players certain split-second instincts.

“Just coming in and saying, ‘This isn’t legal now’ — well, guess what JuJu Smith-Schuster’s been doing since he was nine? He’s been making that block,” Kreutz says. “Football is muscle memory. You play how you practice. Whatever you do in practice is what you’ll do in the game. So someone has to coach it. It has to be coached out from a little league level. So where are the NFL programs that are showing little league coaches how to coach it out of football? Are they showing the high school coaches, ‘Here are the drills. Here’s what we want done’?”

The NFL does work with USA Football, an independent non-profit that provides resources for youth coaches. In 2012, USA Football created its safety program called Heads Up Football, which “more than 10,000 high schools and youth leagues combined enrolled in nationwide last year,” a USA Football spokesperson told me via email.

The website offers thousands of hours of video for coaches, but what Kreutz is looking for, he has not yet found. He wants drills that teach players how to not hit in certain situations when the ball carrier is particularly vulnerable, plays like the Smith-Schuster block or the play on the punt return where the St. Mary’s player injured the other boy.

“I teach kids to run down the field and hit somebody, so how would I teach this?” he wonders. “I guess I would have to teach them to run down there and pretty much take a charge. Let the kid run him over, or stand there and screen him like a basketball screen instead of hitting him. That’s the only thing I can think of.”

As a youth coach, that’s what Kreutz needs: drills that re-program a player’s muscle memory in accordance with NFL rules and what have essentially become NFL ethics. That’s where the NFL and USA Football can help, he says.

“And look, if they prove you or me wrong and have a drill that does this, thank goodness. I just didn’t find it,” he says. “I don’t mind being proven wrong. ‘Hey Olin, you’re wrong and you’re an idiot.’ Well that’s not the first time. Congratulations,” he says, chuckling.

Kreutz would also like to see the NFL stipulate the age at which children should start playing tackle football. To him, with proper coaching, children can start playing tackle football in fifth or sixth grade, when he started.

But he also realizes that not every coach shares his perspective on how best to manage practices and games for youth players, and believes the NFL can provide more explicit direction about the youth game.

The second thing he wants to see from the NFL is something that commissioner Roger Goodell tried to get in his most recent contract negotiation: lifetime health insurance.

“One thing that is shocking for a guy who played as long as me is that when you get to your fifth year out of the league and you have to get your own health insurance,” he says. “I think that’s one thing they can fix. I think they can get to a point where if you play five years, or whatever, you have lifetime health insurance from the NFL.”

Kreutz talks to a lot of guys who played in the generation before him, guys like Bears offensive linemen Jay Hilgenberg and Tom Thayer, and hears that the NFL doesn’t take care of them as they should. He doesn’t feel that way about himself.

“My retirement’s pretty damn good,” he says about his 401k and annuity. But he sees Goodell getting a $40 million-a-year contract, and sees the league spending $100 million to study head injuries, and the math doesn’t work for him. He would rather see that money used for lifetime health insurance for retired players.

“Eventually health insurance should be on the table for a game like football,” he says. “The fact that you have to pay your own health insurance for me and my family, that was kind of shocking when you get out and you think about it. That they could fix.”

Those two changes — league influence on the youth game that is situationally specific to the flags, fines, and health concerns in a college and NFL career, and lifetime health insurance for retired players — would not make the game safer, per se. What they would do is make it more honest, and improve outcomes for players who are participating, willingly and happily, in this most violent sport.

“To me, it’s an oxymoron when I hear guys saying, ‘I want to play football for a living, but I want to stay healthy,’” he says. “You gotta pick another profession, man. … I know football. I loved it. I’m not going to give back my big house, so I can’t give back the injuries either.”

So far, he has avoided any serious repercussions. He does not see signs of CTE, he does not walk with a limp, he still works out every day. He boxes, he wrestles. He’s a husband, father of six, and coach, all of which keeps him active.

“There’s gonna be pain,” he says. “My elbows are bad. My neck is what it is. But I feel good. I try to eat good. I have my own gym. I do a lot of movements. I try to keep all of my joints moving. So I feel good. But I’m 40. I don’t know how I’ll feel when I’m 50 or 60, but I feel good now.”

He plans to continue his active lifestyle, to continue his time on the Score, to continue talking about the game on Twitter. And he plans to continue coaching. He’s had the game forever. Growing up, his father was his coach in little league. His mother was the president of his little league team. His three older brothers played.

“I’m sure you see it now — you walk into a room, and everybody will be,” and he mimes people being on their phone. “In Chicago, it’s cold. Where’s the physical activity? Where’s the interaction? Where’s the guy dusting himself off after someone hit him? Or where’s the guy who is putting on a good hit that builds his confidence up? Or making a good run?

“When we’re coaching little league, I’m always cognizant of trying to get someone else to score a touchdown, just because that’s how you build your confidence. And every young man needs to start building his confidence up. Everybody loves to play basketball. Why? Because you’re not going to get hit. It’s easy. You run around. You get to score. Everybody wants to play.

“Obviously there’s a physical basketball game where you get hit, but like I said, the biggest reason people don’t like playing football is that it’s hard. You’re gonna have a helmet and shoulder pads and you’re going to be doing bear crawls in mud. That’s just how you get good at football. You’re gonna be lined up head to head with a guy and you’ve got to drive him one way or the other.”

“The drills are hard,” he says. “Everything is physically taxing. Eventually you’re going to meet someone who — no matter how good I was — who just beat the hell out of me. That’s not a fun game. But that’s the game you learn the most from.”

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Jack M Silverstein is WCG’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” Say hey at @readjack.