John Holecek’s winning percentage in armwrestling bouts against NFL Hall of Fame running backs isn’t anywhere close to the success rate (185-35, .841) he enjoyed in 17 seasons as Loyola Academy’s head football coach.
It’s at .000.
Chicago Bears great Walter Payton gripped Holecek’s right hand some 30 years ago and slammed it hard for the triumph, all while flashing a smile that temporarily blinded half the population of North America.
“My all-time favorite football player, absolutely, hands down,” Holecek says of the late icon. “I was 12 or 13 when Walter played for the 1985 Super Bowl champions. Loved those Bears. I was a linebacker in college (at the University of Illinois) when Walter, scheduled to appear later at an event on campus, walked up to me and my teammate Dana Howard and shouted, ‘Hey, tough guys!’
“Dana and I were known as the ‘H’ Boys,” he continues. “Walter asked us, ‘You want to armwrestle me?’”
Did they have a choice?
“I lasted between five and 15 seconds,” Holecek recalls. “Walter got me. Good thing Dana lost, too.”
Loyola Academy’s venerable football program suffered a major loss when Holecek, 50, informed the Wilmette-based Jesuit high school in December that he had decided to step down as coach, less than two weeks after guiding his Ramblers to the Class 8A state championship at Memorial Stadium—the same venue where he’d delivered resounding, pad-cracking, textbook tackles for the Fighting Illini from 1990-1994.
Holecek had also coached state-title squads in 2015 and 2018 and worked along the Ramblers’ sideline in four other state championship games since succeeding Carl Favaro in 2006.
“I’m going to relax, see what happens,” says Holecek, who got drafted in 1995 by the Buffalo Bills in the fifth round (144th overall pick) and played for the franchise for six seasons. “We have a place in Michigan; maybe I’ll spend a lot of time up there after my last day at Loyola in June. I’ll also have more time for family and friends.
“It’s going to be different for me, for sure. I’ve been involved in football, in one way or another, every summer and every fall since I was 7.”
Holecek played football and baseball and wrestled at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights. The lad could hit hard on diamonds, too. As a sophomore catcher on varsity, in a playoff game against Rich South High School, Holecek went 3-for-4 with a home run and a triple. The homer cleared the wall in dead center field and finally stopped rolling a month later, give or take a few hours.
But Big Ten football coaches coveted the skills and mindset of Holecek, the middle linebacker. He would focus on becoming the best gridder he could be, not the next Carlton Fisk. Holecek suited up for four bowl games at Illinois and ranks fifth in career tackles (436) at the school.
The 6-foot-2, 242-pound Holecek played for the Buffalo Bills, first under head coach Marv Levy and then under Wade Phillips, from 1995-2000 and joined the San Diego Chargers in 2001 and the Atlanta Falcons in 2002. He led the Bills in tackles (133) in 1998 and recorded a career-high 165 stops in 2000.
Two of Holecek’s most memorable professional highlights occurred in a game against the Miami Dolphins in 1999. Each involved future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, no less. Holecek sacked Marino, resulting in a fumble that was scooped up by a teammate and returned for a touchdown.
Holecek later picked off a Marino pass and returned the interception 35 yards.
Knee injuries and a busted right forearm ended his NFL career.
Holecek returned to his home state and served as a volunteer football assistant coach at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago for two seasons.
Loyola Academy then welcomed him with big maroon-and-gold arms.
“I never thought I’d become a high school football coach,” admits Holecek, a Glenview resident since 2008. “I sort of fell into it. But I loved it, loved coaching intelligent, determined football players at Loyola, and loved the camaraderie I had with my assistant coaches each year.”
Holecek almost had to hand the reins over to an assistant coach before his first game at Loyola, a home contest against York High School in 2006.
“I couldn’t get off my couch at home,” Holecek says. “I was sick. My wife (Patricia) told me to get checked out at the hospital. Found out I had meningitis. That was a stressful time for me, with three boys (Jake, Nick, and Luke), none older than 4, at home and my first Loyola football on my mind that week.”
Holecek made it to the Ramblers’ home stadium. But he had to coach from the press box because of his condition.
“I was thinking that everybody else must have been thinking, ‘What’s with this new guy? Why isn’t he on the sideline?’” Holecek says. “I wasn’t comfortable with who I was as a coach until my third or fourth season at Loyola.”
Holecek and his first crew survived York’s Dukes on that afternoon, taking an intentional safety late in a 30-29 victory.
“Fantastic game,” Holecek says.
Loyola Academy qualified for the state playoffs and went 7-4 in 2006. Holecek would never have to order his Ramblers to turn in their uniforms before the start of the postseason in any of the next 16 seasons either. Remarkable. Then there’s this: Loyola Academy lost a grand total of zero home games from 2012-2018.
Holecek’s 2015 club went 14-0, outscoring opponents by a combined 558-123. Average margin of victory: 40-9. Not fair. The Ramblers routed Marist’s RedHawks 41-0 in the state championship game.
“Students choose to attend Loyola because of the school’s great academics,” says Holecek, named USA Today “Coach of the Year” for the ALL-USA Illinois Football Team in 2018. “The athletic programs Loyola offers impress many of those same students. They like the way the two fit. Loyola students are respectful, and they’re men and women for others (St. Ignatius of Loyola’s fundamental belief).
“My biggest reward, as a coach, was each time I looked at a player and realized, yes, he gets it—he’s playing football for all the right reasons.”
Letters. Holecek gets plenty of them from former players.
“Some of the letters … they’re touching,” he says.
The coach’s eyes well up.
“One player wrote, ‘Thanks for taking a chance on me,’” he continues. “Another wrote, ‘When times get tough, I ask myself one question—What would Coach Holecek do?’”
Holecek revisits a lighter moment, this one involving his wife. They first met at the University of Illinois, where Patricia majored in dance and John doubled-majored in finance and football.
“She entered my dorm room one day and noticed my shoes on the floor, size 14,” Holecek says. “She said, ‘Those are huge. They look like trick skis’.”
Loyola Academy’s football program has some huge shoes to fill. They’re bigger than trick skis.
Picture a pair of canoes.