Chris Babyar’s NFL career was relatively young – just two seasons removed from helping the University of Illinois Fighting Illini advance to the Rose Bowl – when he broke his ankle in a preseason game for the Denver Broncos.
As far as injuries go Babyar’s broken ankle was minor, especially when compared to the previous knee and wrist injuries that had required surgery. Naturally a comeback was in order, and Babyar did suit up again. However, his body didn’t respond. Perhaps his 6’5, 298 pound frame was shrewdly reacting to video that Babyar had seen of fellow offensive lineman Jim Otto. In it, the former Oakland Raider is permanently hobbled by the injuries he’d sustained during his 15-year Hall of Fame career, which included 210 consecutive regular season starts.
“Everything could have been fixed and I could’ve played years. But the quality of life? That was the big question,” said Babyar, who, in addition to having his knees scoped four times, has undergone surgery to put a plate and six pins in his ankle and replace a bone in his wrist.
“So it was basically about what quality of life do I want to have down the road? I said, ‘You know what? I’ll take it. I had a great experience playing in the NFL and in college, but there are more important things,’’ he said.
Among those more important things for the retiring Babyar was family. Married to his high school sweetheart and the father of three, the Huntley resident now has that and then some.
His post NFL career has Babyar teaching young football players various blocking techniques in his Red Zone Blocking Clinics, which are conducted in Huntley. Among those who have participated are current and former Huntley High players Addison Erb, who’ll be heading to Drake University on a scholarship this fall, and Mike Yocius, an offensive lineman at New Mexico State.
"We equip youth through college-level offensive linemen with the advantages they need to become superior champions,” said Babyar, who also assists former students.
“Every once in a while when (Yocius) has problems or he can’t figure something out, he gives me a call and says, ‘Okay, this is what I’m doing and this is how I’m doing it. What am I doing wrong?’ And I’ll correct it for him,” Babyar said.
Babyar is also active in local youth football programs, serving as a part-time coach for the Cary Trojans in the preseason while filling a variety of coaching roles with the Huntley Mustangs during the regular season. Last year the Mustangs’ Featherweight Pac10 team advanced to the league’s Super Bowl where they were defeated by Buffalo Grove.
“We were the first Pac10 Featherweight team to make it to the Super Bowl for the Huntley Mustangs,” Babyar said.
Large or small, Babyar’s students learn from his 35-plus years on the gridiron, which includes playing the offensive lineman, defensive lineman, and at quarterback for Lake Park High School (Roselle) before manning the o-line exclusively for Illini head coach Mike White.
In Champaign, passing was the preferred offensive behind future first round pick Tony Eason (1983, New England Patriots) and then future second-rounder Jack Trudeau (1986, Indianapolis Colts). Both quarterbacks still hold school passing records. Asked to protect the slingers, Babyar proved a steady and versatile blocker, earning Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors in 1982 as a left guard before switching to right guard in 1983 and ’84 and being named to the First Team All-Big Ten squad each season.
Additionally, Babyar was selected to the East-West Shrine, Blue-Gray Football Classic and Senior Bowl games, capping a postseason career that included a Liberty Bowl appearance in ’82 and the Rose Bowl in ’84. In the former, the Illini, who were making their first Bowl appearance in 19 years, squared off against the University of Alabama and legendary coach Bear Bryant.
“That was cool to meet him and being involved with the very last game that he coached,” said Babyar, whose Illini lost to the Crimson Tide 21-15.
After the Buffalo Bills drafted him in the 10th round of the 1985 NFL Draft (nine rounds after the team took defensive end Bruce Smith first overall), Babyar had adjustments to make and not all were pleasant. On the heels of helping the Illini (9-0, 10-2 overall) reach the Rose Bowl, Babyar was relegated to special teams and backup duty for the Bills who finished the year with a 2-14 record, tied with Tampa Bay for the league’s worst record. The following year was somewhat better (4-12), but both seasons still rank among the franchise’s worst.
“When you go through something like that,” Babyar said, “It teaches you to work harder for what you want and that’s what I always instill in my kids. I could do all the teaching I want, but it’s really up to the kids, individually, of how much they want to do it.”
Fortunately for Babyar, the coach responsible for Buffalo’s offensive line was one of game’s best. Center Jim Ringo played for 15 years in the NFL, winning two Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers and earning Pro Bowl honors 10 times. The Hall of Famer is also credited with assembling The Electric Company, a group of linemen who helped O.J. Simpson break rushing records in the mid 1970s.
“It was a great experience,” said Babyar, who was dealt to Denver after two seasons in Buffalo. “(Ringo) was a wealth of knowledge. He taught me how to re-invent myself as an offensive lineman because when you make the jump from college to the pros it’s a faster game. He had all the perfect drills, and a lot of the drills that I use I learned from him. He was good with youth, too. He took the rookies and the younger guys and really taught us how to play again.”
Babyar says one of the most common mistakes any lineman makes is with their first step.
“A lot of kids, when they get into a stance – which most of the time is an improper stance – they have a hard time taking that first step, “Babyar said. “It’s all over the place. What we train at Red Zone Blocking is taking a proper first step, getting positive yards in your first step, and making that a short, quick position step so that they can pretty go and do anything with it.”
Given Babyar’s background, proper blocking technique to avoid injury is emphasized as well.
“(Parents) should know that (their kids) will be taught the proper techniques,” Babyar said. “We try to teach it so that kids will avoid injury during the season. If you have the proper techniques you’re less likely to get injured because your feet are moving, your hands are moving, everything’s moving. Nothing is staying still. And they should know they’re going to get a quality practice for their money.”
Red Zone Blocking Clinics are $15 for each 90-minute session, and although there is no minimum on the number of sessions required, Babyar recommends several sessions in order to get the most out of them.