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Chuck Cecil: Too Vicious for the NFL? [SI, 1993]
Thought this was a good offseason read about our secondary coach, especially in context of recent rule changes.
Headlong and Headstrong
Chuck Cecil's world is exploding. The Phoenix Cardinal free safety has closed on his target like an electron returning to a nucleus, and now he uncoils into Washington Redskin tight end Ron Middleton with a crash that is both terrifying and thrilling to behold. Middleton crumples around Cecil like a crash-test dummy around a telephone pole. His feet buckle and his helmet flies. The headgear will come to rest five yards from the site of impact, and when Middleton revives sufficiently to know where he is—RFK Stadium on Sept. 12—he will notice that all four snaps on his helmet chin strap are still in place; Cecil's blow knocked the helmet off the way carbonation blows a champagne cork out of a bottle.
But just now Middleton is on another planet. Flat on his back, knees up, eyes closed, he looks as though he has been nailed to the ground. Cecil stands over him, twitching with ecstasy. Later, sports-writers will say Cecil appeared to be imitating a boxing referee, counting Middleton out. Cecil doesn't think that's what he was doing, though he admits he doesn't remember much of what happened in the euphoric state he had entered. He does recall kicking Middleton's helmet when he saw it lying in front of him.
For the six-foot, 185-pound Heat Seeking Missile, as Cecil was dubbed during his All-America career at the University of Arizona, the blow approached perfection. For the NFL brass reviewing the collision on slow-motion replay later that week, the hit, and another on the same series, approached insanity. On Sept. 20, Bill Polian, the NFL's vice-president for football development, announced that Cecil was being fined $30,000, one of the largest nonsuspension fines ever imposed on a player, for "two acts of flagrant unnecessary roughness involving the use of his helmet." He is appealing the fine, but he has reportedly been warned that another such hit will result in suspension.
Polian's statement read, "Cecil speared running back Ricky Ervins and tight end Ron Middleton of the Redskins. On each play, Cecil used the top of his helmet to strike intended receivers in the upper body." No matter that the two plays occurred during a crucial fourth-quarter Washington drive in a game that Phoenix would win 17-10, for its first victory at RFK in 15 years. No matter that no penalty flags were thrown on either play. No matter that Ervins bounced up after his hit or that Middleton outweighs Cecil by 75 pounds. The league had spoken: Spearing is illegal: Cecil was a menace to others and to himself. Striking with the crown of the helmet is prohibited, noted Polian, because of the danger it poses to the players involved, "including the one doing the hitting." Told that Cecil didn't think he had used the crown of his helmet for impact, Polian said, "Well, he's totally wrong then." And the fine was the stiffest ever, he said, "in light of Cecil's prior conduct outside the playing rules."
Almost two weeks later Cecil is sitting at a table in Rick's Cafe in Tempe, not far from the Cardinals' training camp. He orders biscuits and craw, ham on the side—"Get the cholesterol level up," he says with a crooked grin—a meal that might stick to his skinny, unmuscled bones. As a high school freshman Cecil weighed less than 90 pounds; as a walk-on at Arizona he weighed 148. "Don't ever let a recruiter see you without a shirt on," Rey Hernandez, his defensive coach at Helix High in La Mesa, Calif., had told him. As it happened, UCLA recruiter Homer Smith did catch a glimspe of the bare-chested Cecil, and that was the end of his interest.
"Why me?" Cecil says now in his quiet, almost docile way. "They single me out for something being done leaguewide on a regular basis. They're saying what I do is dirty and cheap, but I've played this way forever. I signed a million-dollar contract because of it. People cheer when I make a big hit. I mean, that's what I do."
Support for Cecil has come from many sources, including some who were at the game. After watching Middleton's helmet roll to a stop, CBS commentator Randy Cross said, "This, I gotta tell you, is how a safety gets to the Pro Bowl." After the game Redskin coach Richie Petitbon said, "That's football, man. This game is not played in short pants." Said Dallas Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson, "That's the kind of football I like to see."
Even Middleton doesn't think the hit on him was against the rules. "It was just great lick," he says. "That's the nature of the game. Guys dream of licks like that."
Maybe so. But Middleton's tongue was numb for several minutes after the blow, and when Cecil had hit Ervins moments earlier, it was Cecil who had fallen to the turf in agony, a nerve stinger shooting down his left arm. These days, in fact, he moves his neck with difficulty, even off the field. Cecil says that his head was up on both hits, that he was tackling with his face mask and the front area of his helmet, nose on numbers, trying to drive his body through his opponent, the way coaches, fans and teammates like it. If he doesn't tackle like that, he says, he has little to offer on the playing field.
"He's totally wrong," Polian says of Cecil's insistence that the hits were legal. "His head was down. The sole issue is where his head is at contact. What we say is, 'See what you hit.' " Polian knows about improper head placement on tackles; as a safety for New York University in the mid-'60s, he twice knocked himself out by hitting with the crown of his helmet. Watching Cecil's tackles in slow motion, Polian was overwhelmed by visions of Darryl Stingley, Mike Utley and Dennis Byrd, all victims of spinalcord injuries. If not reined in, Polian concluded, Chuck Cecil would paralyze someone—an opponent or himself. "Are we saving him from himself?" Polian asks. "Perhaps."
And there was that "prior conduct" thing. In 1988, his rookie season with the Green Bay Packers, Cecil walloped New England Patriot receiver Stanley Morgan. "Morgan was on the ground for five minutes, inert," recalls Packer publicist Lee Remmel. "A lot of us were very concerned." But there was no penalty called and no fine from the league. Last year, in the Packers' season finale against the Minnesota Vikings, Cecil dished out two hits, against wide receivers Jake Reed and Joe Johnson, that were deemed flagrant, and he was fined $3,500 for each by the league office. "The one on me was definitely a cheap shot," says Reed. "It was at the end of the game, the ball was way overthrown, uncatchable. I was slowing down, and he hit me helmet first under the chin." Then in the Cardinals' second preseason game this year, against the Chicago Bears, Cecil crushed wideout Anthony Morgan on a crossing pattern, hitting the stretched-out receiver under the chin with his helmet and knocking him into the gray area. "It was a quick slant and the ball was high," recalls Morgan. "I don't remember anything else until the next day." Morgan spent four days with a concussion. It's no wonder that the Bears now call the NFL-issued locker-room sign, warning players against blocking or tackling with the top of the helmet, the Chuck Cecil poster.
"With repeat offenders you step up the fine to get them to stop," says NFL director of communications Greg Aiello. "It's a deterrent. The important message is to kids, so they don't see these things and practice unsafe tackling techniques."
Funny thing is, young people love Cecil. In Green Bay a group called the Rock 'n' Roll Cecil Club used to come to Lambeau Field wearing Cecil's jersey number, 26, and sporting fake blood on their noses in homage to the gore that often streamed from Cecil's battered beak.
Says Hernandez, Cecil's old coach, "He's a hero to every small, slow kid in the secondary. Kids are always saying to me, 'God, he hits hard!' "
But Cecil's skills are not easily duplicated. He may be small and slow (a 4.7 40 these days), but he has keen football intelligence, great anticipation, outstanding hand-eye coordination and the ability to raise himself to a transcendent state of competitiveness during games. Even his father, a high school football coach in Avenal, Calif., is at a loss to explain it. "I never coached him," says Tom Cecil. "I had to talk to him in fourth and fifth grade and explain to him that games were not as important to other kids as to him. He's just so competitive at anything he has an interest in." Including academics: In high school Chuck had all A's except for one B, and he graduated from Arizona with a 3.3 GPA and a degree in finance.
Chuck's parents have been divorced since he was a young boy. His mother, Evelyn Aardema, recalls that Chuck, the second oldest of three boys and a girl, was "the most pleasant, honest, straightforward person you'd ever want to meet." She also remembers that she always told him he was too little to play football. Tom agreed. Chuck was not allowed to play Pop Warner ball, and it wasn't until the family moved from central California to the San Diego area during Chuck's junior year in high school that the boy was turned loose on a football field.
"He kept asking me when we'd have hitting drills," recalls Hernandez. "Bugging me all the time. Finally we had the drill, and he took out three players, injured them. Against Monte Vista he took out their two best receivers, and there went their passing attack."
The story was the same in college. Recruited mostly by Ivy League schools and the military academics, Cecil made the squad at Arizona by dominating in drills. "They had to yell at me a lot," he says. At Arizona he had 21 interceptions, running one of them back for a 100-yard touchdown. In his sophomore season he played with a left thumb so badly broken that a doctor later said it looked as though it had been "smashed with a hammer."
At Green Bay, where he was a fourth-round pick, it was more of the same. In his rookie season, after Cecil knocked teammate Scott Bolton out of action on a drill, the coach at the time, Lindy Infante, assembled the team and said, "The next man who hits somebody and makes him miss practice will get the maximum fine of $1,500! Did you hear that, Chuck?"
Last season Cecil's kamikaze style was rewarded when he was voted a starter in the Pro Bowl. He played every game, says Packer coach Mike Holmgren, in a "controlled rage." After a narrow win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Cecil let his inner fire burn out of control, raising a ruckus at a Green Bay restaurant and somehow getting his nose bloodied. Arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, Cecil was described in the police report as being "very intoxicated." He ranted that he was being arrested only because the policemen on the scene were Bengal fans. He exhaled blood onto the Plexiglas shield behind the front seat of the squad car taking him to the station, then used his nose to smear the blood across the partition, the report said.
Cecil, who became a free agent after last season and signed a $5.25 million, three-year contract with the Cardinals in April, described that incident in Green Bay as a "misunderstanding." His concern now is that football may be taken away from him. "Football has always been the foundation of my life," he said in Phoenix. "It's me. It's what I understand. Now officials are after me, teams may not want me, I may not have a job. I need football. Football gives my life meaning. I don't feel like I'm contributing to the planet unless I'm playing it."
Two days later, in a 26-20 loss to the Detroit Lions, Cecil seemed reserved, subdued. When he broke up a long pass to wideout Willie Green in the second quarter, he didn't detonate. After the game he and Green talked, as friends. "You know I could have knocked you out," Cecil said. "But it's not worth it."
In the locker room Green voiced his compassion for Cecil. "Fining him is like putting a guy in jail for stealing a Snickers bar," he said.
Lion linebacker Chris Spielman was more outraged. "Fining Chuck was terrible," he said angrily. "We all know the risk of this game. Hell, I lived it with my buddy Mike Utley. That's the way it is."
Back in Phoenix, alone in the darkened team auditorium, Cecil is watching a film of his hit on Middleton again and again. He sees himself make a break on the receiver before the ball has even been thrown. It is a move only a brilliant defender could make. It guarantees a critical third-down pass will not be caught. "It's very pure," he says quietly. "I'm not afraid to hurt myself. That's a great hit."
But is it great football? There is a deep scar across the crown of Cecil's helmet that looks like it was made with an axe. He says he has no idea how it got there. No doubt it is from a big collision, one of those meetings that Cecil says happen "much too fast to rationalize." He doesn't think the game should be slowed down on screens and analyzed, the way the league big shots are doing, just as he doesn't think he should be labeled a dirty player. He says there's nothing personal about any of this violence. "I don't see players," he says. "I see situations."
But the damage is real, involving real people. One of Cecil's big hits two years ago was laid on the skull of former Jet wideout Al Toon. The blow gave Toon a concussion. Toon is now retired, the victim of cumulative head trauma, some of it courtesy of the Heat Seeking Missile. Toon doesn't blame Cecil for the blow, though he does feel all contact in pro football should be made below the neck. "Chuck is only going to hurt himself," he says. "He's going to break his own neck."
Cecil brushes such warnings aside, focusing instead on the rapture of a devastating hit. "It's unbelievable," he says. "An orgasm. Euphoria. I don't know if you can put it into words. There is just this feeling of...power. For that split second of time you own that person. You are better. For just one moment, you know where you stand."
Perhaps no longer.
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