Note to readers: This story first published in the most recent edition of Chicago Football (the magazine), which appeared on news stands beginning Oct. 14. Chicago Football will publish 26 times a year, weekly during the Bears season, and includes in-depth features like this on the Bears, Illinois college football programs and Chicago-area prep football programs and athletes. It will also include Hub Arkush's expert analysis on all things football, a high school rivalry of the week and so much more.
On the day Don Beebe and his wife welcomed their only son into the world, they knew one day, their baby boy would face pressure.
There would come a day when Chad Beebe would be expected to follow the path that his father had – one that began in anonymity and that ended not only in the NFL, but that included six Super Bowl appearances and a world championship with the Green Bay Packers.
But from the start, Don Beebe vowed that he would never be that father, the one who pushed his son to make his dream that of his father’s. If his son chose that life, fine. But if the boy chose to travel down the same road that Beebe had, the former Bills and Packers kick returner and wide receiver told himself, it wouldn’t be because he was forced.
So when the time came, Don Beebe sat his son down the same way he had with his three daughters and delivered a very simple message.
“Whatever you decide to do, go be the best that you can be at it,” Don Beebe told Chad. “You just try, you work real hard and don’t ever give up.
“I don’t expect you to be the best ... whatever you do, Dad’s going to support it 100 percent. You’ve just got to try.”
Years later, Chad Beebe’s efforts have landed him in a place his father never ventured himself, playing Division I football at Northern Illinois. It’s there – in a football program that has won at least a share of the last four Mid-American Conference championships – where Chad is doing what his father asked of him: Being the best he can be on a journey he believes he is supposed to be on.
Not because it’s a road similar to the one traveled before him by his father, but because Chad’s faith has pointed him in the direction he’s currently traveling.
“I just feel like I’m called to be doing what I’m doing right now,” Chad Beebe says.
Chad Beebe has vivid memories of his first football experience.
Ten years after the fact, the NIU sophomore receiver and punt returner can laugh. But in that moment, the first time he was on the receiving end of what seemed at the time to be the most punishment his young body had ever suffered, Chad sensed football wasn’t right for him.
“I think the first time I was out there, I got hit real hard and I went home crying,” he says. “I was young, obviously. But I didn’t really like it at all.”
True to his word, Don Beebe – who spent nine years in the NFL after being drafted by the Bills in the third round out of Chadron State College in Nebraska – never pushed his son to continue playing. But eventually, football stuck and Chad went on to be an all-state receiver at Aurora Christian, where he holds the school record for most career catches and receiving yards.
Despite being only 5-8 and 140 pounds as a senior when he finished with 65 catches for 980 yards and 15 touchdowns, Beebe drew plenty of recruiting attention. Before choosing to play at NIU, Beebe had offers from Wyoming, Ball State, Bowling Green, Illinois State, Western Illinois, North Dakota and Colgate. Big Ten schools Northwestern and Purdue also expressed interest, but Beebe decided that sticking close to home was the right thing to do.
Throughout the process, Don Beebe – who coached Aurora Christian to Class 3A state titles in 2011 and 2012 – allowed Chad to seek his own path. He realized that many from the outside expected his name and his football career to have an influence on where his son ended up. He easily could have made a call, especially after coaching Chad through high school, using his influence as a former NFL player with plenty of connections to get Chad into any number of college programs.
But that was never the father’s plan.
“This ain’t Don Beebe’s life – this is Chad Beebe’s life and I wanted him to experience that,” Don Beebe says. “Everybody in his life was already going to put that pressure on him and the last person he needed to do that was his dad.”
Ask Chad Beebe about The Play and he just laughs.
Thinking back on it, the 20-year-old college sophomore recalls he was alive for the play that still seems to define his father’s NFL career. Except he wasn’t.
During Super Bowl XXVII in 1993 and five months before Chad was born, Don Beebe – then with the Bills – chased down Dallas Cowboys’ defensive tackle Leon Lett on what appeared to be an easy fumble recovery for a touchdown. Instead, Beebe, who four years earlier had set a new NFL Combine record for posting what was then the fastest time in the 40-yard dash at 4.21, chased Lett down and stripped the ball away during the Cowboys’ 52-17 win over the Bills.
Regardless of his other five Super Bowl appearances or the 219 career receptions and 23 touchdowns he scored during his career, it’s the moment that puts Beebe’s career into a tidy compartment, showcasing his speed and undying work ethic.
“I’ve heard that story a lot, obviously,” Chad Beebe says as a broad smile crosses his youthful face. “It’s a great play. The first time I saw it I was around 10. Probably saw it on YouTube.”
Don never sat down and watched games from his NFL career with his son. In a household where he and Chad were the only males, Beebe rarely brought up his playing career or Super Bowl appearances, leaving that chapter of his life in the past. If Chad asked about a particular moment or asked his father to re-live a game from his NFL career, that was one thing.
But as Chad started to develop as a player, Don was there more for guidance rather than as a measuring stick of how things were to be done. After his retirement in 1997, Don Beebe opened up the House of Speed, a performance facility on Aurora Christian’s campus where at age 49, Beebe trains athletes ranging in age from youngsters to Division I players.
As Chad grew older, Don’s professional past allowed him to pass on a wealth of knowledge to his son. But how Chad processed that information and what he did with it would be up to him. He wouldn’t allow himself to become one of the fathers that he often encounters, who seek out Beebe’s expertise with the intent of turning a young player into a future star.
Just by watching his son train, though, Don sensed Chad had the kind of skill set as a route runner and pass catcher that could set him up for a bright future. But while others may have held the talented youngster to a certain standard because of the name printed across his back on Friday nights, Don never did, again asking only that Chad just put everything into the game he was choosing to pursue.
Although the pressure to live up to his father’s reputation isn’t constant, Chad admits there are times when it creeps in.
“We’re human,” Chad says. “It’s hard not to feel those feelings every once in a while. But I’m a faith-based guy and I really don’t base (success) off of worldly standards. It’s really more towards the Lord.”
While the way he approaches both football and where it will take him were instilled in him years ago while growing up in a home where the Beebes’ faith takes top priority, even those closest to Chad can understand how following the same path Don Beebe did could be difficult. Especially for Chad, who could see professional football in his career if that’s where the game takes him.
“That would be a tough thing to struggle with,” said NIU quarterback Anthony Maddie, who also played for Beebe at Aurora Christian and is now Chad’s roommate at NIU. “Having a dad who has done so many things like Coach Beebe has with all the Super Bowls and obviously, the big play [with Lett], that’s a big deal in NFL history. To have that be your dad, I would assume that would be tough.
“But I credit that more to Coach Beebe just because he has never put the pressure on Chad to be anything that he didn’t want to be.”
And yet, the similarities are striking.
Despite standing at 5-feet-9 – two inches shorter than his father – Chad Beebe has established his own identity with the Huskies. Through six games this season, Beebe is averaging 14.5 yards per punt return with a long return of 36 yards while also averaging 13.6 yards on the eight receptions he has had during his sophomore season.
He wears the same No. 82 that his father wore during his NFL career. It’s a way of paying homage. Chad sometimes finds old game video clips of his father. He watches them hoping to pick up pointers as he approaches his own college career as a punt returner and receiver.
While Chad has found a way to become his own player, NIU coach Rod Carey has benefited from having a player on his roster who comes with NFL pedigree. Yet, while understanding the background Beebe comes from, Carey was careful from the start of Chad’s freshman year not to mount any undue pressure on a young player.
“You try to treat him for who he is,” Carey says. “They’re such a good family and [Chad] isn’t threatened by his dad’s past – he embraces it. So yeah, you probably have expectations in the background, but we try to treat Chad for Chad.”
After coaching Chad in high school, where father and son were able to celebrate Aurora Christian’s two state titles together, Don Beebe has seen his perspective change in some ways.
Beebe still works with the Eagles’ program, sharing coaching responsibilities with his brother, David, who now serves as the program’s head coach. Not being in charge allows Don Beebe more freedom to travel to NIU games to watch from the stands as his son carries out his own football dreams.
It’s a different feeling, Don admits, being able to sit back and watch Chad play a game that connects father and son. His success – both in the NFL and in building Aurora Christian’s program into what it is today – has offered him opportunity. When former Bills coach Marv Levy was hired in 2006 to become Buffalo’s general manager and vice president for football operations, he offered Beebe a chance to come back to the Bills and work as an assistant coach.
Beebe politely declined, telling Levy that he felt he was called to mentor young athletes – something he was able to do by running the House of Speed and coaching at Aurora Christian. By staying home, it gave Beebe a front-row seat to watch Chad’s football career blossom, first in high school and now at NIU.
Beebe watches a player that he admits is more talented than he was 30 years ago. He sees a disciplined route runner who has worked for everything that has come to him without taking a shortcut that having a former NFL player could have afforded him. When Chad was in high school and Don was coaching, Beebe admits there were times when having to manage the game kept him from watching Chad play strictly as his son and not as one of Aurora Christian’s most potent playmakers.
But now, Beebe says, how he looks at his son has changed.
Earlier this season, Beebe sat inside Northwestern’s Ryan Field as NIU posted their third straight win over a Big Ten opponent with a 22-15 victory over the Wildcats. As Chad dashed down the field on a fourth-quarter punt return that helped seal the Huskies’ win, his father watched, experiencing an emotional tug he had never felt before.
For the first time, Beebe was watching Chad just play.
“I finally felt like, wow – this is what my dad must have felt like,” Don Beebe says. “I was really proud that [Chad]was my kid. It was really kind of a neat deal. I had never felt those feelings before of just enjoyment and pride. I’m not a prideful person, but it was like, ‘That’s my boy doing what he does.’”
With two years remaining in his college career, Chad will continue to pursue football. He returned for Saturday’s game against Central Michigan after missing NIU’s MAC opener with a concussion, which he suffered in the Huskies’ lone loss of the year at Arkansas. For Don Beebe, who suffered a concussion in his final season with the Packers and who is listed as a plaintiff in the NFL concussion lawsuit, injuries are just part of the game.
He is hesitant to predict whether the NFL lies in Chad’s future. While his own story is proof that an undersized player blessed with speed and good hands can find a career in professional football, he will leave his son’s future where it is, again allowing his son’s faith and life’s desires to point him in the right direction.
Chad, whose humility and unwillingness to talk about himself more than he is forced to, follows the same course of action when asked if his football road will lead to the NFL like it did with his father.
“He left an awesome legacy and for me, it’s just an honor to carry on that legacy,” Chad says. “[Playing in the NFL] would be a dream come true and that’s what I’m working for. I don’t know if that’s in God’s plan but if it is, that’s something that I would love to do.
“Life throws all kinds of different things at you and leads you in different directions. So....”
With that, Chad Beebe leaves the thought unfinished, leaving the rest of his story to be told down the road. However it ends, Don Beebe will be there content that he has allowed his son to follow his own path.
Either way, he is smiling, knowing that Chad has heeded his words.
“Whatever you do, Dad’s going to support it 100 percent. You’ve just got to try.”