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Don Beebe still gets letters on the "Leon Lett Play" every single day
The former Bills/Packers wide receiver talks perseverance, the emotion of finally winning the Super Bowl, his son's heart, coaching D-III football and his best Brett Favre story.
Few players in the history of the game have lived as impossible of an NFL career as Don Beebe, the 5-foot-11 wide receiver out of Chadron State who went on to reach six Super Bowls.
He was there for all four of the Buffalo Bills’ trips in the early 1990s before winning one, in 1996, with the Green Bay Packers.
He’s been keeping busy since, too.
Beebe founded the “House of Speed,” where he has trained athletes of all ages. He coached high school football at Aurora Christian (Ill.) from 2004 to 2013, saw his son (Chad Beebe) reach the NFL as a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings and, now, Beebe is the head coach at Division-III Aurora (Ill.) University.
With both the Bills and Packers still alive in the NFL postseason this year, I figured Beebe would be a good person to call. He is, of course, most known for chasing down Leon Lett in the Super Bowl, a play he’s still asked about all of the time today. Beebe played a key role in Buffalo’s K-Gun offense and then, when injuries hit the Packers hard, he stepped up in a big way. His 220-yard night keyed an overtime win over the 49ers that season.
As you’ll see, too, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
This is your second season coaching at Aurora (Ill.) University? How is coaching going at this level?
Beebe: This past fall would’ve been my second season but it got cancelled obviously. So we’re heading into coaching our second season. And last year, 2019, ended up being a great year and a lot of fun. I certainly found my niche. I just love college coaching.
What do you really love about it? You’ve done speed coaching/training, high school coaching. What’s it like at the college level?
Beebe: House of Speed, we’ve done that for 23 years. But coaching, you can be a part of a person’s life at a more intimate level. It’s a lot more gratifying to me because I know that’s my true calling to mentor young men and football is a great avenue to be able to do that. Going from high school to the collegiate level—and I certainly had the chance to go to the professional level but I chose not to do that—because there’s three different levels. High school kids are a little immature. You’re dealing with parents more, which is fine. The pro level is probably the opposite. It’s more of a business, which is fine too. All three levels are competitive. There’s no question about that. The college level just seems to me to be a great mix of the two. And I’ve really enjoyed that level of it.
It’s such a fragile point of their lives. You’re figuring life out. You’re figuring out your place in life when you’re 19, 20, 21 years old. What an impact you can have on peoples’ lives. I imagine that’s gratifying.
Beebe: Yeah, it really is. Because it’s amazing what some of these kids come from in their home life. You get kids from all over the country. It’s not like high school and just kids from your local area. These kids are from everywhere. And I’ve really enjoyed just getting to know guys. Their stories. How different people persevere through hard times differently. And to bring all of that together, that’s my job as a coach. Forget X’s and O’s and talent. I’ll be honest with you: What coaching really is, is mentoring people and trying to bring them all together for one common cause.
And at that level, who knows, maybe you send someone to the NFL. But these guys are getting into a different line of work. It’s really about the love of the game. There’s a purity to this football that you might not get at an Alabama.
Beebe: Yeah, and I’ll even go a step farther. Especially at the D-III level because they’re not scholarship. These kids have jobs. And to try to do time management is incredible. Play football. The demands on them are extraordinary. And then they have to work and get good grades? It’s certainly more than a kid who goes to an SEC school or Division I on full scholarship and everything is kind of pampered. I’m not saying that’s bad either—those guys go through certain things as well. But that Division III, man, you’ve got to be real passionate about what you do because playing football because it’s a lot of work.
You ain’t kidding. My freshman year I went to St. John Fisher College and played football and it was fun but I wanted to get into journalism and transfer to Syracuse but the hours you put in for film and practice and training at D-III felt no different than you’d get anywhere else. And you’re not on scholarship. It really is a love for the game. You better love it.
Beebe: Yeah, that probably more than anything, I’ve enjoyed the most. Just seeing guys who have that gleam in their eye, who have a real passion for the game. Because that’s the way I played. And I just love coaching guys who are like that.
With you, yourself, and I’ve read your book. It’s remarkable. It might be an impossible question but you were kind of an impossible player with your career. How does somebody from Chadron State end up going to six Super Bowls, winning one, and being a legend in Buffalo and even Green Bay. How is any of this even possible?
Beebe: One word: God. My whole book is centered on my faith. It was just the path that God took me and it was a calling for my life at a very young age. The odds of guys making it under normal circumstances is incredible. Under what I had to go through — and where I came from — is literally off the charts. I mean, you don’t go from Chadron State to being the first pick of an NFL team. And that’s just a God thing, believe me. I don’t take any credit other than the fact I worked really hard, I never gave up and I depended on my faith. Other than that, God just opened doors and I was just ready to walk through them.
When did God and faith become a huge part of your life?
Beebe: Seven. My Mom and Dad, we went to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday evening. Youth group, when I got older. It’s everything I’ve known my whole life. I’ve never known anything but God. I’ve never walked away or wanted to walk to away. So I was very fortunate. It gives me a platform to mentor young men today that, listen, you’re going to have kids. It’s hard to see these kids come from broken homes and tough situations. And yet they still persevere. So I put my faith into something that’s bigger than me. Bigger than anything, really. Even though I don’t push my faith on players. I don’t. But they know where coach stands and they always come around and come to my office to talk. I have a kid coming in here in a half-hour and I know what he wants to talk about. He comes from a home where he lives with his Grandma and doesn’t know his Dad or Mom very well at all. It’s such a sad situation but he’s such a great kid. Just a great, humble kid. And that’s why I do what I do, I’ll be honest with you.
People hear the name “Don Beebe” and they think “speed.” Where did your speed come from?
Beebe: Well, it depends if you’re talking to my Mom or Dad. In all seriousness, my Mom and Dad were both pretty fast. Neither one of them were athletes but they were… West Aurora is a big high school here in the suburbs of Chicago and, back in the 50s, from what my Mom and Dad would tell you, they were the fastest in the school. Both female and male. So I think, from the combination of those two, that’s where I got the genes and then I just enhanced it as I got older and trained really hard. Because I always believe you can get faster. But to reach a 4.2 40, you’re going to have to have something genetically, that’s for sure.
We know what you timed at the Combine, but what is your best time?
Beebe: I ran a 4.21 for the Jets in a pre-draft workout back in the spring of 1989. I only ran the 40 six times in my whole life. Actually, seven. My seventh one was when I was 41 years old.
I was talking to Drew Bledsoe last week and he said you tend to remember the good times and not the bad times. Let’s start in Buffalo. When you think back, what memories do you cherish to this day? A lot of ups, some downs on the world’s biggest stage. What comes to mind?
Beebe: This may sound surprising: I don’t remember any downs. I remember six years in Buffalo as the best time of my life. If I were to go back in time — and I’m not one to go back in time — there’s no question I’d go back to Buffalo. It was absolutely the times of our lives. And every guy who played on those four Super Bowl teams would tell you the exact same thing. Marv Levy was the perfect coach. We had the perfect general manager. We even had the perfect owner. That’s hard to say for any player. And then you throw on absolutely the most incredible enduring fans a player could ever play for and with — because they were right there with you every step of the way. It’s funny to say. I won a Super Bowl with the Packers, and as great as that was and trust me: it was great. Packer people are great. I loved it. Loved the city. There’s something about Western New York and Buffalo fans. They don’t want anything from you. They just want to be alongside you. That’s a big difference. No matter where I would go in town, people just wanted to be your friend. I still have some of my fondest friends, and business people like my accountant and people like that, are still with me. It’s a unique town. Anyone who says anything bad about Buffalo has never been in Buffalo. Believe me.
For you, what does that look like day to day?
Beebe: If I went to the Galleria Mall or wherever — still, to this day, 20-some years later — people just want to come up, shake your hand and it’s genuine. It’s a gentleman’s shake. It’s not like they want something from you. Even if it’s an autograph, you can tell that autograph means something to them. It’s not like they’re going to try to go sell it like that. It’s family. I’ve said this quite often but when I won the Super Bowl, I was 10 yards behind Favre because I was the safety guy when we were taking a knee. Just to see those last 10 seconds click off that clock when Favre was taking a knee, after we won it I was just kind of standing there and had a few words with Brett before everything got crazy. Right after that, my reflection went back to “Why me?” I really felt guilty. I was thinking about all of the players and Marv and Bill Polian and Ralph and the fans and everybody involved back in Western New York that I knew was watching the game. And I knew they were pulling for me. I knew they were. My feelings went to them. It’s almost like, “Golly, I wish they all could be here with me right now.”
You really felt that, right in that moment, at the Superdome?
Beebe: Yeah, because I remember Brett gave me the ball and said, “Man, Beebs, you deserve it.” And I started walking because it’s just chaos. There’s people running everywhere after that game. I remember walking or jogging a little bit over to the stands where I knew my wife and my two kids (were) — one of them is now with the Vikings which is crazy to even think of that — they were just four years old and two years old. I got to walk on the field with them. My brother was with me and my wife. And through all this, my thoughts, and I even shared this with my wife — “Man, I wish the Buffalo people could be here with me. They deserve it.” So, yeah, it was definitely at the forefront of my mind.
I’ve talked to people who have won a Super Bowl — and when it’s the first one they’ve won — it’s almost not that celebratory. It feels anti-climactic. Or relief. Or some type of emotion you wouldn’t expect. You were there four times. You saw the confetti falling for all the wrong reasons. I imagine it was different for you when you could enjoy that moment in real time.
Beebe: Granted, it’s a great feeling. You said something that’s pretty profound and very true. When you win a Super Bowl, it’s really anti-climactic. Because as an athlete, it’s always about tomorrow. It’s always about striving for the next goal. What is the next goal? But when you win the Super Bowl, Monday morning rolls around and it’s like, “Now, what?” I will say this: The greatest feeling I’ve ever had as a high school coach, going to a state championship, and as a college coach, winning and getting in, and as a professional athlete, that AFC/NFC Championship Game to go to a Super Bowl, that is the greatest feeling because when you win that game—and you know you’re going—there ain’t no better feeling than that.
Did it feel anti-climactic for you even in Green Bay then?
Beebe: It was somewhat anti-climactic. For several reasons. One, nobody from Buffalo was with me. Two, OK, it was a great feeling—don’t get me wrong, it was a great feeling. To win a Super Bowl and carry my kids off the field was a great feeling. It’s kind of that night, when you get back to the hotel and the next day. It’s “OK, on to the next one.” Shoot, I remember in Buffalo, when we’d land the plane — and even Green Bay when we won it — I remember we landed the plane and, literally, after we did the bus ride through town in Green Bay and the stadium in Lambeau Field was packed. I got to be one of the guys to speak to the Lambeau people — 63,000 were in the stadium that day. And as soon as I walked off the stage that day, I went into the weight room. I started working out for next year. Because I wanted to go again. You just want to keep doing it.
And you did. You went to a sixth Super Bowl. I’ve got to ask you this: How often are you asked about the Leon Lett play?
Beebe: This is going to sound funny but it’s true, OK? Here we are, what, 28 years later? Something like that? I still today — every single day — and I’m a coach at Aurora University, I have a business “House of Speed” and people have my home address, and every day I get letters at one of those three locations telling me and thanking me about the Leon Lett play. And, “Please sign this.” Every day. Every day. I ain’t kidding you.
Every day? No way.
Beebe:Every day, every day. I don’t think I’ve missed a day where somebody hasn’t talked to me about it through a letter or I’m doing an interview like this talking about it. And Super Bowl time, as the playoffs get rolling, it’ll be many times during the day. It’s crazy.
You’re probably used to the pacing of this then. It gets closer to the Super Bowl and picks up a little bit.
Beebe: You know the saying, “If you had a dime…” I’d be a multi-, multi-millionaire.
It’s funny. Nobody really remembers anything Dallas did in either of those Super Bowls, really. Those memories are blurred together. Maybe not for the people on the team. But people think back to that and it’s your play, your perseverance, your never-quit attitude that lives on. You want to win the game, don’t get me wrong, but that has to mean so much.
Beebe: It’s funny, because at the time, it meant nothing. I was upset. We were getting killed. I do a lot of public speaking and I always end with the Leon Lett play because that’s what people want to hear, really, for the most part, right? Never giving up. I always get around to saying this. If you do everything you can within your power to win or lose—and you’re not going to always win because, hey, it’s life—but if you give everything you’ve got, you can always live with the result. Always. No matter what it is. My dream and passion going into that game — and I did a nice, long prayer at the 50-yard line an hour before the game on a beautiful day in Pasadena — and I seriously thought I was going to score the touchdown to win the game with no time on the clock. One of those toe-tapping, JJ Jefferson, one-handed catches in the back of the end zone. One of those deals. That’s how good I felt. And then the game starts to unfold. And then it comes down to a few minutes left in the game and I run down Leon Lett. Well, you see my reaction. I ain’t happy. At all.
It didn’t mean anything to me at all until I got into the locker room and Ralph Wilson, the owner, walks into the locker room and he was on a beeline for me. He’s not talking to anybody else. He comes over to me and says, “Son…” He didn’t call me “82” or “Don.” He says, “Son, you showed me a lot today. You showed me exactly what Buffalo is all about.” At that point, I said, “Thank you,” and then it started to mean something. And then I went down to do a press conference and everybody was talking to me about this. I’m like, “Guys, I was just doing my job.” I didn’t think anything of it. And then when I got back to One Bills Drive — this is when it really sunk in — I’m talking boxes of mail. I mean hundreds and hundreds every single day for weeks. From coaches. From teachers. And the ones who it meant the most to were the parents. Parents just pouring their hearts out in these letters — “Thank you for being an example to my kids.” Just crazy stuff. The reason it happened, I really believe, because of my faith, it gave me a reason to speak on that platform for sure.
If I stand on stage today and I talk about the winning touchdown, how many in the audience can relate to that? Nobody. Nobody. How many people can say they can score a touchdown in the Super Bowl? Nobody. But how many people can relate to never giving up? Everybody. I don’t care if you’re a 10-year-old or a 90-year-old in that audience. Everybody can relate to that play. So that’s why it became so important. And that’s why I tell people, you never know when that opportunity is going to happen. Never. So always try and then you can live with that result.
And it’s emblematic of your life, that play. Did it feel like an extension of how far you had come?
Beebe: Yeah, I suppose so. You look at me and I don’t look like a pro athlete. That’s for sure. Which is OK. What I had to persevere and go through, I’m what every person who walks the streets is and dreams to be: a pro athlete. And my son, you could say the same thing. You look at him and say, “How did that guy make it?” But you just can’t measure a man’s heart. You can’t measure it. You can’t measure a man’s heart or brain — or woman in athletics and life. If you have that attitude of never giving up and you’re always trying and always picking yourself up and always thinking positive, those people, man, just end up doing great things in life.
You have to be a proud Dad then watching Chad in that Carolina game, right? A fumble to the game-winning touchdown before you can even blink.
Beebe: That three minutes of football encapsulated his whole career. Think about this for a second. He’s gone 10 straight years, from his sophomore year of high school — so three years of high school — five years of college and two years professionally, so 10 straight years of reconstructive surgery. Every year. He has missed significant time every year of his career except this year. This year was the first year he played every game and didn’t have one injury. That’s insane. And yet, he’s still three years into the league? That’s not Chad, that’s not me. That’s God. For him to even have a shot in the NFL after eight years of reconstructive surgery, who in their right mind would take him? And they did. They gave him a chance. And he persevered through it. Then, he blows his hamstring out and is on IR his rookie year. Then, his second year, he gets run over by Burfict — the linebacker from the Raiders — and severs all four interior ligaments in his ankle. They had to reconstruct and tie him back together. It was completely separated from his leg. Can you imagine that? Here, he’s full speed this year, played great, had a great year. He’s doing exceptional. He just finished his third year and I really think he’s going to have a nice career.
Ten straight years?
Beebe: Knees, twice. His junior year, which is your big year in high school to go Division I, he broke his collarbone twice. Broke his arm his senior year in high school. Broke his foot his sophomore year of high school. That’s just his high school career. It’s crazy.
How did he deal with this all? How did he mentally come back again and again?
Beebe: I always said this to him, as it got to his junior year, and it was just devastating to him—because we went to the state championship. I always said this to him, after every injury when he was down — “Chad, do you love the Lord with all of your heart?” He’d say, “Dad, you know I do.” And I’d say, “Do you think God has your back? Do you think he has your best interest at heart?” And he’d say, “Yeah, I know.” Then, “What in the world are we crying about? Pick yourself up son. Tomorrow’s another day. You’ll be just fine.” Now, he just lives it. It’s so engrained in him now, nothing fazes this kid. It’s crazy. Nothing.
So dropping that punt in an NFL game, that really cost them the game up to that point, and then to score the winning touchdown two minutes later? That’s the epitome of that kid. That was easy for him.
And then he’s probably hearing from fans about perseverance himself. Maybe not letters but a tweet here and there. He’s inspiring himself.
Beebe: He’s got a great story of never giving up himself. He’s just a great human being. And he’s a mentor to kids up in the Minneapolis area. He’s just an enduring person and people love him — and there’s a reason for that. Because he’s humble. He’s a humble kid. He takes nothing for granted. I’m really proud of him.
So, you’ve trained more than 100,000 kids at your speed camps?
Beebe: We tried to count 10, 12 years into it, and it was over 100,000 at that time. I enjoyed the training but, man, there’s nothing like coaching. Nothing.
Didn’t you train Tony Romo at one point?
Beebe: It’s funny you bring up Tony. You’re not Tony Romo just because you’re Tony Romo, and you think you can just walk on the scene. This guy — when he was at Eastern Illinois — it’s three hours and 15 minutes from our facility to his school, he’d drive, train with me for two hours, turn around and drive back three times a week. Monday, Wednesday and Friday for months when he was training. That’s insane. That kid never missed. Tony was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met and a great person and a great human being and he’s really a good commentator. I think he’s my favorite right now.
I kind of skipped past Green Bay there but you’ve got to have a best Brett Favre story.
Beebe: There’s a lot of them because Brett is a funny, funny individual. My favorite one, we used to golf every Friday. So we’d go over to the Green Bay Country Club and we’d play. It was always Favre and Frank Winters and me and Mark Chmura as partners. I remember coming down to the last hole and Brett — a funny guy and everything — but he’s a cheater. I’ll be honest with you. He hit his drive 50 yards into the woods. It was so far into the woods, I’ll be honest with you, you couldn’t even see him. And we’re standing in the fairway like, “Brett, c’mon man, we can’t even see you. Let’s go!” All of sudden, you hear, “I found it!” You could hear him yell. He was so far in it, he had to yell. All of a sudden you hear this, ka-choo! And he hits a ball. It comes flying out of there right in the middle of the fairway. They end up winning the hole and he cheated! There’s no way he found his ball! He still owes me $100. So if you ever see him or talk to him, tell him he owes Beebe $100 still.
He never admitted it after the fact?
Beebe: No. No way. Not Favre. There’s no way he’ll admit it.
The least he could do is give you that $100. You kind of saved that Packers offense in ’96— Robert Brooks went down, Antonio Freeman went down. You had that 200-yard night against the ‘Niners. You kind of saved that offense that Super Bowl year. It had to be fun to see your role just blow up like that.
Beebe: I don’t know if I saved it but I was the Band-Aid that kind of kept it from profusely bleeding. I was another cog in that team that had a lot of great players. I was fortunate to be on it. Playing with Jim Kelly and Brett Favre, two of the greatest quarterbacks ever and, arguably, two of the greatest defensive ends ever in Reggie White and Bruce Smith, was just a treat.
Two of the toughest quarterbacks, too. I imagine you saw that up close, too.
Beebe: Yeah, they were linebackers playing quarterback. That’s for sure. They were tough individuals. But I will say this: There’s nobody like Jim Kelly. Jim Kelly is one of the most loyal people I’ve ever known. And to play six years with that guy was a real treat because he wasn’t in it for him. You can see it in how he’s a fan now. A guy like him could just walk away and live the lifestyle a guy like him could. A Hall of Famer. But, no, this guy wants to be on the sideline but they won’t let him anymore. He’s Superman. He’s a team guy. A Buffalo guy. One of the most loyal people I’ve ever met.
What would a Super Bowl this year mean for him, for Thurman Thomas, for Bruce Smith, for all the locals in Buffalo? You’re probably pulling for Buffalo hard right now.
Beebe: I really like this team. I think they’ve got all the tools to win it all. The funny thing is, it’s going to be Buffalo against Green Bay. You watch. My phone is going to ring off the hook.
The Don Beebe Bowl!
Beebe: It’s going to be a pretty sweet thing. I hope they can pull it off for the fans in Buffalo because nobody — nobody — deserves it more than them.
What’s going to happen in Buffalo? I know there’s Covid protocols and all but if they win the Super Bowl, they’re not stopping anybody from storming Delaware Avenue.
Beebe: Yeah, have fun with that. You know what it’d be like — it’d be like them trying to keep the fans out who left the Houston game and they all tried to get back, and they locked the gates. They just started jumping that 12-foot linked fence by the hundreds. So they had to open up the gate. That’s what it’s going to be like. They’re just going to open up the streets of Buffalo when they win this thing.