In the NFL, it helps if your team has a talented secondary.
It’s even better if the team has someone who can both cover receivers and lay down the boom on ball carriers.
That player can set the tone for how opposing offenses game plan.
If offensive players have to constantly keep one eye on this player, it pulls them out of their comfort zone and leads to turnover opportunities for the defense.
Such a player was former Packer, Cardinal, and Oiler Chuck Cecil.
Cecil played in the NFL from 1988-1995 and was a fearsome tackler from his safety position.
Over the course of his career, Cecil was so adept at delivering bone rattling hits that he was considered too violent for the NFL.
The image of Cecil was of a wildman who oozed blood from his face after assaulting opponents all game.
— Packer Chat (@PackerChat) September 25, 2016
This is the story of the career and life of Chuck Cecil.
High School Standout to Walk on
Charles “Chuck” Douglas Cecil was born on November 8, 1964 in Red Bluff, California.
Cecil played football for Helix High School in La Mesa, California.
He was a standout athlete for Helix and helped the program set a state record for fewest points allowed per game and also win a state title.
Cecil was considered too small for the collegiate level (his coach reportedly suggested that Cecil not take his shirt off during workouts for recruiters so they didn’t see how skinny he was). Because of his size, Cecil did not receive any scholarship offers after his senior year.
Instead, he matriculated to the University of Arizona where he walked-on with the Wildcats.
Cecil proved he belonged on the college stage soon after arriving in Tucson.
In 1985, he played in 11 games and contributed six interceptions and countless tackles as the Wildcats went 8-3-1 on the year.
During the season, Arizona came back to beat rival Arizona State 16-13.
Cecil had 11 tackles and a pick with 1:02 left in the game to preserve the win.
Arizona played Georgia in the Sun Bowl after the season and Cecil was named the defensive MVP of the game after he blocked a punt and made 12 tackles.
The game ended in a 13-13 tie.
Cecil made national headlines in 1986 when he made 16 tackles and returned an interception 106 yards for a touchdown in a game versus cross-state rival Arizona State.
It's Territorial Cup Week!
— Arizona Football (@ArizonaFBall) November 20, 2017
“I am a firm believer that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog,” Cecil said years later. “I had a lot of fight in me at 22 years old.”
Arizona won the game 34-17 and upset the then number ninth ranked Sun Devils.
Cecil’s play that day has been voted as the greatest play in Arizona football history.
In addition to the ASU pick, Cecil snagged five more interceptions and another score that season.
Coach Chuck Cecil Arizona DB (1984-87' ) Hanford, CA
Happy Birthday! 🎂
LETTERMEN PAC 12, LETTERMEN of the SEC, SEC LETTERMEN, LETTERMEN of the IRON BOWL, MEN of the IRON BOWL, and LETTERMEN of the USA 🇺🇸
November 8https://t.co/JR0j6h4bYjhttps://t.co/jth2vLQx5l…/ pic.twitter.com/pNlHfBUlZk
— Darryl Fuhrman (@DarrylFuhrman) November 9, 2017
The Wildcats ended the year 9-3 and defeated North Carolina 30-21 in the Aloha Bowl.
Cecil forced two fumbles during the game that led to Wildcat scores and made 12 tackles before leaving the game with 10 minutes remaining due to a concussion.
He was named MVP after the game.
“When Chuck is done,” said then Arizona Coach Larry Smith, “something comes out at the other end, whether it is the ball carrier, or the ball, or Chuck himself.”
In 1987, Arizona struggled to a 4-4-3 record during coach Dick Tomey’s first year on the job.
However, Cecil played lights out on the way to a nine interception season.
During a game against Stanford that year, Cecil grabbed no less than four interceptions.
That set a program mark and tied a conference record for most interceptions in a single game.
Cecil was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and earned a consensus All-America designation.
Cecil’s career of 21 total picks stood as a conference record until Washington State’s Lamont Thompson passed him years later.
From “Too Small” to the Big Time
Cecil’s play for Arizona garnered a lot of attention from the NFL.
He was considered one of the top safeties in the country entering the 1988 NFL Draft.
After being passed over during the first three rounds of the draft, Cecil was selected with the 89th overall pick in the 4th Round by Green Bay.
He then spent his first two seasons in the league as an afterthought.
In his rookie year of 1988, Cecil only started two games but still made 39 total tackles, one fumble recovery, and four interceptions.
— MOCK THE BELLS (@Mock_The_Bells) June 18, 2018
1989 was mostly forgettable as Cecil did not have any starts and saw action in nine games.
He ended the year with 38 total tackles and one pick.
Despite the slow start to Cecil’s career, things were about to turn around.
Cecil finally had a breakthrough in 1990 and started eight of the nine games he played in.
While Green Bay was fighting through a 6-10 season, Cecil had 51 total tackles and one interception.
Things really took off in 1991, when Cecil put himself on the map for his crushing hits and prowess in the secondary.
As the Packers were mired in a 4-12 season, Cecil started every game and exploded for 110 total tackles and three interceptions.
In 1992, Green Bay climbed out of the cellar and played to a 9-7 overall record.
Helping to pace the team was Cecil who collected 102 total tackles, a forced fumble, and four interceptions.
Five years into his pro career, Cecil was named to his first Pro Bowl when the season concluded.
Former Packers maniac, Chuck Cecil, "attempted murder" hit on Dave Meggett. pic.twitter.com/Kj9r2J3QVJ
— 👊PrimitiveMonk🙏 (@gaspargomezjr) July 6, 2020
Not only was Cecil recognized for his solid play, he was also becoming known as one of the hardest hitters in the NFL.
Unfortunately, Cecil was just as adept at missing tackles as well.
He was nicknamed “Scud” Cecil because of his boom-or-bust approach to tackling.
Many times during a game, Cecil would launch himself at the ball carrier.
Then, just like the infamous missiles deployed during the Gulf War at the time, Cecil would either lay his opponent flat, or miss altogether.
Cecil had another unique distinction that stemmed from the type of helmet he wore.
Dispensing heavy hits would occasionally lead to concussions for Cecil or serious injury to opponents.
To protect both Cecil and his prey, he began to wear a helmet with extra thick padding that attached to the shell.
The oversized helmet became a running joke as it resembled The Great Gazoo character’s helmet from the Flintstones cartoon.
The Hit Heard ‘Round the World and Sports Illustrated
Cecil was a standout player on an improving Green Bay team and had just made the Pro Bowl in ‘92.
So, it shocked many people that he decided to sign a three year, $5.25 million dollar free agent contract with the Phoenix Cardinals before the 1993 season.
The move wasn’t so shocking for Cecil who was returning to the state where he played college ball.
The signing was meant to improve the Cardinal defense and the team as a whole.
Phoenix had ended the ‘92 season 4-12.
Cecil would help the club improve, but not by much as the team went 7-9 in 1993.
Along the way, Cecil gained even more fame during the Cardinals September 12 game against the Washington Redskins.
At one point in the game, Redskins tight end Ron Middleton caught a pass and was immediately de-cleated by Cecil.
The hit was so vicious that Middleton’s helmet flew off his head with the chin strap still attached.
Hey @DsuddeathNT … all these fools forgetting’ about Chuck Cecil.
— Shea Van Hoy (@SheaVanHoy) January 2, 2021
Cecil’s play ended a Washington scoring threat and the Cards eventually won the game 17-10.
While the fans went nuts, the rest of the sports world could not witness the near beheading.
Deeming the play too brutal, the NFL banned video of the replay nationwide.
The hit was even more incredible when one considered that Cecil weighed around 185 pounds at the time.
Middleton played at 260 plus pounds.
Cecil was fined $30,000 by the league for the play, which was the largest non-suspension fine ever given to an NFL player.
Not long after, Cecil was profiled by Sports Illustrated in an article that appeared on the October 11 issue.
On the cover of the magazine, the title asked, “Is Chuck Cecil Too Vicious for the NFL?”
@senorjessroot Meet Former Phoenix Cardinals safety Chuck Cecil at the Free Agent Sports store inside Paradise Valley Mall Saturday February 8 from 2pm – 3pm https://t.co/HmLPAdFlSi pic.twitter.com/0DbKpSnZ33
— Jeff Thalblum (@JThalblum) February 8, 2020
In the article, Cecil was asked about the Middleton tackle.
“Why me?” Cecil said then. “They single me out for something being done league-wide 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.”
Both Washington head coach Richie Petitbon and Middleton himself defended Cecil after the league fine was announced.
“That’s football, man. This game is not played in short pants,” said Petitbon.
“It was just a great lick,” Middleton said. “That’s the nature of the game. Guys dream of licks like that.”
Former Bills General Manager (and later Panthers and Colts GM) was the NFL’s Vice President for Football Development at the time and one of the league executives who levied the fine on Cecil. Polian penalized Cecil because, in Polian’s view of the play, Cecil led with the crown of his helmet, which is a spearing penalty.
The fine was actually a result of two such plays by Cecil during the Washington game.
The first play happened earlier when Cecil also laid out Redskins running back Ricky Ervins.
“Cecil speared running back Ricky Ervins and tight end Ron Middleton of the Redskins,” Polian told the media. “On each play, Cecil used the top of his helmet to strike intended receivers in the upper body.”
Cecil believed that he had tackled both players correctly, by looking at his opponents and driving through them for the tackle.
When Polian was told that Cecil disagreed with Polian’s assessment of the plays he responded, “Well, he’s totally wrong then. …Are we saving him from himself?” Polian then asked. “Perhaps.”
— Robert Spielvogel (@RPSpiels) June 21, 2012
The article also mentioned previous Cecil blows that left opponents comatose, including Patriots receiver Stanley Morgan, Bears receiver Anthony Morgan, and Vikings receivers Jake Reed and Joe Johnson.
Representatives from the NFL felt that they had to give Cecil a large enough fine in hopes that he would curtail the way he hit opponents and send a message that such tackles would not be tolerated.
“With repeat offenders you step up the fine to get them to stop,” said 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.”
As it turns out, the titanic hits delivered by Cecil were nothing new.
He had given out his fair share of helmet rattling tackles in college and in high school.
He kept asking me when we’d have hitting drills,” recalled Cecil’s high school coach Rey Hernandez in the SI article. “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.”
Shortly after arriving in Green Bay, Cecil crushed fellow Packers players during practice.
He was eventually warned by the coaching staff not to play so hard during practice.
“The next man who hits somebody and makes him miss practice will get the maximum fine of $1,500! Did you hear that, Chuck?” said former Packers coach Lindy Infante.
By the end of the SI article, it was clear that Cecil was exasperated by his fine and worried about his future in football.
“Football has always been the foundation of my life,” Cecil said. “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.”
Cecil also explained the thrill of playing the way he did and why he enjoyed making game changing plays.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “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.”
During the ‘93 season, Cecil started seven games and had 61 total tackles but did not have a single interception.
Although he had signed with Phoenix for three years, the team released Cecil in August of 1994.
Last Hurrah with the Oilers, then Retirement
After his surprise release by the Cards, Cecil remained unsigned throughout the 1994 season.
He was briefly signed and released by Cleveland in the 1995 offseason.
Houston then signed Cecil as the 1995 season got underway and he started 13 games.
As the Oilers limped through a 7-9 season, Cecil collected 60 total tackles and three interceptions.
During the third quarter of a game against the Vikings on October 8, Cecil picked off former Oilers quarterback Warren Moon and returned the interception for a touchdown.
Happy birthday to former #Oilers SS Chuck Cecil, who turns 55 today. Cecil spent one season in Houston, 1995, which was also the final season of his career. He had 3 INTs and still delivered some big hits, his trademark throughout his career #LuvYaBlue 2️⃣6️⃣ pic.twitter.com/F9AYhESrYV
— 𝕃𝕦𝕧 𝕐𝕒 𝔹𝕝𝕦𝕖 (@BudsOilers) November 8, 2019
Cecil’s playing style and thunderous hits eventually took its toll on his body.
He retired from the game in February of 1996 after repeated concussions and injuries.
In seven seasons, he had 461 total tackles, 16 interceptions, and the touchdown return in ‘95.
Cecil also made the Pro Bowl after the 1992 season.
Cecil’s Second Act as a Coach
Cecil spent a few years away from the gridiron after leaving the NFL.
In 1999, he was hired to be a television analyst for University of Arizona football games.
Cecil continued in that role through the 2000 season.
By 2001, Cecil decided to get into coaching, something that he had considered after retiring in 1996.
“I wanted to take my time before I went back to the game,” he said in a 2019 interview. “I loved it and respected my coaches and what they did for me. I needed to be really ready. I can remember talking to other players who had become coaches too early after playing — and they still wanted to play. I never wanted to be that guy standing on the sidelines longing to put on pads. I’m not sure that feeling ever goes away, but I got to a place where I was mature enough to positively make the transition and add value as a coach.”
Cecil’s former Oiler coach, Jeff Fisher, was still with the organization (though the team had since moved to Nashville and been renamed the Titans) and gave Cecil his first opportunity to break into the ranks.
For three years, Cecil paid his dues as a defensive quality control assistant.
In 2004, he was promoted to work with safeties and nickel backs.
By 2007, Cecil was coaching the entire Titans defensive secondary.
The College Football Hall of Fame came calling in 2010 and added Cecil to their illustrious group.
Cecil had already become a member of the University of Arizona’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.
In 2009, Cecil was promoted to defensive coordinator of the Titans. His fiery demeanor from his playing days was still evident on the sidelines.
During the ‘09 and 2010 seasons, Tennessee had one of the better defenses in the NFL.
The 2009 unit finished with an 11th overall ranking, an eighth overall ranking in interceptions with 20 and second overall ranking in picks returned for touchdowns with four.
In Cecil’s last three years with the organization, the Titans secondary ranked third overall behind Green Bay and Baltimore with 62 total interceptions.
On October 3, 2010, Cecil was fined by the league once again.
This time, it was a $40,000 penalty due to Cecil’s middle finger salute to officials during a game against the Denver Broncos.
Cecil had vehemently disagreed with a call against one of his players and made the zebras aware of his displeasure.
The gesture was made during a live broadcast of the game, which drew the ire of NFL executives.
— Tom Phillips (@TomPhillips2) October 28, 2019
Cecil was not retained by Tennessee after the 2010 season.
By 2012, he was back on the sidelines with the LA Rams.
The 2012 Rams defense improved from 26th in the league to 14th partly due to Cecil’s tutelage.
Los Angeles’ secondary was ranked second overall in 2014 for fewest passing touchdowns in the league.
In the summer of 2017, Cecil accepted a position with his alma mater and became a special advisor to the Wildcat football staff.
Late in the 2019 season, he stepped in as interim defensive coordinator for Arizona.
It was announced in late 2020 that Cecil would be joining new Wildcat head coach Jedd Fisch’s staff as the safeties coach.
— The Wildcaster (@TheWildcaster) December 31, 2020
“I am very proud to add another college football hall of famer to our staff who bleeds blue and red,” said Head Coach Jedd Fisch in December. “Chuck is well known and widely respected throughout the NFL as well as the Tucson community. His addition to our coaching staff will bring decades of elite coaching and playing experience, collegiately and professionally. I know he will have a tremendous impact on our student-athletes by showing them what they can achieve on the field, in the classroom and in the community.”
Life for Cecil (who is married to author and columnist Carrie Gerlach Cecil and with whom they have a daughter) is good and the future looks even better.
“Physically I have aches and pains like anyone who played sports their whole life, but nothing to complain about, as I can still play golf,” he said in 2019.