April 25, 2019
The former LaGrange Park resident and NFL ‘sack tasker’ is Fenwick’s newest inductee into the Chicago Catholic League Coaches’ Hall of Fame.
By Mark Vruno
Fenwick Fact: Highly acclaimed Defensive Line Coach John Teerlinck ’69 is the only Friars’ alumnus with three Super Bowl rings from the National Football League (NFL). Teerlinck knows how to creatively apply pressure — in a football context, that is.
Teaching elite athletes the proper techniques needed to effectively rush the passer is his specialty, and the coach excelled at the collegiate and highest professional level. Teerlinck has coached in 32 NFL playoff games, including six AFC Championship Games and four Super Bowls.
He is one of only 23 coaches to win a Super Bowl with more than one team: two back to back with the Denver Broncos (1997 and 1998) in the John Elway era and one with the Indianapolis Colts (2006) in the Peyton Manning era. (“Sorry, Bears fans,” jokes Teerlinck, whose family moved when he was eight years old from upstate New York to suburban LaGrange Park, IL.)
In recognition of his sideline accomplishments, this evening the Chicago Catholic League (CCL) will induct Teerlinck, its native son, into the 2019 Coaches Association HALL OF FAME class. Many football observers refer to Coach “Link” as the GOAT: the greatest defensive line coach of all time. The “John Teerlinck Award” is given annually to the best defensive line coach in the NFL.
“Coach Teerlinck has coached many former teammates of mine, and we have friends in common from throughout our professional careers,” says Gene Nudo, Fenwick’s present Head Coach, who was a coach and executive in the Arena Football League before joining the Friars in 2012. “It surprised me to learn that this great coach was an alum of Fenwick. He, like so many others, has done the ‘Shield’ proud with his many professional achievements,” which is what led Nudo to nominate Teerlinck for the CCL HOF honor.
When he played defensive line for Fenwick in the 1967 and ’68 seasons, the Fighting Friars’ varsity went a combined 10-5. After a 7-2 junior campaign, a 3-5 record as a senior was disappointing. The defensive unit gave up a respectable 15.5 points per game (ppg) in the autumn of 1968. However, an anemic offense could muster only nine touchdowns all year for a paltry average of 7.25 ppg. Teerlinck was an All-Conference selection and went on to become an All-American for the Western Illinois University (Macomb, IL) Leathernecks. “We used to get New York Giants games at Western and I’d watch No. 89, Fred Dryer, and copy his moves,” Teerlinck told Chicago Tribune writer Don Pierson in a 1992 article.
A member of Western Illinois University’s Hall of Fame (inducted in 2000), Teerlinck was a team co-captain and defensive MVP as a senior in 1973. He was the first WIU player ever to record four sacks in a single game and still remains one of only four Leathernecks to ever accomplish that feat.
Teaching the Art of the Sack
In 1974 he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers (fifth round, 101st overall pick) and started as a rookie. Teerlinck played four seasons, on the other side of ball from an offense led by future Pro Hall of Fame QB Dan Fouts, until a severe knee injury led to his early retirement as a player. “When I played for the Chargers, I’d get updates on Fenwick and Chicago three to four times a year from referee Jerry Markbreit, who coached in the Catholic League,” Teerlinck said. (Markbreit is a fellow CCL Hall of Famer.)
Some of football’s best quarterbacks feared many of the defensive linemen who trained under Teerlinck’s tutelage during nearly four decades spent coaching college and pro football. With four pro teams – the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings, Broncos and Colts — his players either set the record or came in second in total sacks.
Coach Teerlinck, who now is retired and recently celebrated his 68th birthday, stands 6’5” but many of his star speed rushers over the years were not quite as tall (see below). He coached 31 Pro Bowl (All-Star) players, including four defensive MVPs:
Michael Dean Perry, AFC Defensive Player of the Year (’89), Cleveland Browns. Out of Clemson, the Fridge’s younger, “little” brother, who is 6’1” and weighed 285 pounds, tallied 61 career sacks.
Chris Doleman, NFC Defensive POY (’92), Minnesota Vikings. At 6’5” 290 lbs., he was a tall one. Doleman played collegiately at Pittsburgh, then registered 150.5 sacks during his NFL career.
John Randle, Minnesota Vikings; NFL sack leader in ’97; 137.5 career sacks. Randle stood only 6’1” and struggled to get his weight up to 275 lbs. College(s): Trinity Valley Community College and Texas A&M University – Kingsville (Div. II).
Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts; 125.5 career sacks and a “patented” spin move. At 6’1” 270 lbs., he sprinted 120 feet in 4.48 seconds at the NFL Combine in 2002. The freakish athlete also could leap up to 40 inches vertically. College: Syracuse. (Freeney was a four-sport athlete in high school, playing football, basketball, baseball and soccer!)
During his tenure, Teerlinck coached seven players (Bubba Baker, Doleman, Freeney, Kevin Greene, Robert Mathis, Randle and Neil Smith) to reach 100 career sacks: the ultimate benchmark for a defensive lineman. Both Doleman and Randle have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (HOF). Teerlinck became only the ninth assistant coach selected to present a player at a HOF induction when he presented Randle in 2010.
His players remember their coach as an unconventional teacher who believed in their abilities and who also helped to motivate them to reach their potential. “John Teerlinck is kind of like Mr. Miyagi [the character in the ‘Karate Kid’ movies],” John Randle has said. “He’s very unorthodox: a different breed; rough around the edges. He tells you things that are funny, but they register if you just listen. That’s why he’s the guru.”
Here’s how Randle began his HOF acceptance speech in 2010: “First of all, I want to thank John Teerlinck for presenting me, motivating me, focusing me on the game that I love. I also want to say, John, thank you for saying I could excel and play in the National Football League, even though I wasn’t drafted, didn’t play for a major school. Also thank you for showing me what sometimes I didn’t see in myself.”
A Proud Friar
Before coaching in college and the pros, however, Teerlinck was just proud to be a Fenwick Friar. “Going to Fenwick was a big deal,” he recalled last week from his home in Indiana. Literally thousands of boys would take the admissions test in those days, he said. “Only three of nine [boys] from my school got in,” remembers the straight-A student from St. Louise de Marillac. “About 150 guys would try out for football in those days.” Youthful John is pictured among the 47 new Friars in his freshman Blackfriars yearbook (1965-66) photograph. (The team finished 3-2-1.)
Three years before, as an impressionable sixth-grader, Teerlinck attended the ’62 Chicago Prep Bowl between Fenwick and Public League champion Schurz. “Jim DiLullo [’63] scored five touchdowns. Mike Barry [the center, Class of 1964] was on that team,” Teerlinck recalls. “It was fantastic to see them out there wearing the black and white,” he says 56 years later. As they had all season long, “the black and white dominated.” Indeed, the Fighting Friars that year outscored opponents 317-32, according to statistics kept by the Chicago Catholic League (CCL).
DiLullo, the bruising, 197-lb. All-American fullback who played college ball at Notre Dame like Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner ’50 before him, ran for 224 yards – including a 97-yard scamper — on only 12 carries. The still undefeated Friars (10-0) shut out the Bulldogs from the Northwest Side, 40-0. The Prep Bowl was the premier high school football event in Illinois until the IHSA formed the state championship football playoffs in 1974. Some 91,327 other fans took in the game with young Teerlinck at Soldier Field on Saturday, December 1, 1962. (The next day at Wrigley Field, 49,043 fans saw the Chicago Bears lose to the New York Giants by a score of 26-24.) After his firsthand witness, being a Friar was a “done deal” for Teerlinck. “Back then, Fenwick didn’t have to recruit,” he explains. “The [quality of] football spoke for itself, and I wanted to be a part of that tradition.”
Adding to the mystique was the Friars’ young coach, John Jardine. In his six high-school seasons in Illinois (Oak Park), Coach Jardine’s record was 51-6-1: impressive enough to land him in the collegiate coaching ranks – first as an offensive line coach with Purdue, his alma mater, then at UCLA and Wisconsin, where he became the Badgers’ head coach in 1970. Meanwhile, Fenwick coaching legend-turned-Athletic Director Tony Lawless tapped Len Tyrrell as the school’s fifth head football coach heading into the fall of ’66.
“Playing in the [Chicago] Catholic League was an unbelievable honor for me,” says Teerlinck, who made the Fenwick varsity team as a sophomore but didn’t see much action due to a knee injury. During his junior season of 1967, “We were undefeated heading into week nine or 10,” he recalls. By then “Link” stood 6’3” tall, weighed 225 pounds and could run. His gridiron greatness was showing, but another lower-body injury sidelined him: This time his leg got stepped on and, subsequently, “there was an infection,” he remembers.
Led offensively by senior QB Dominic Mancini ’68, who would go on to play running back at UCLA, Fenwick was “the No. 1 seed heading into the post-season and got knocked off by Mt. Carmel,” Teerlinck reports matter-of-factly. He got healthy for his senior campaign in 1968, but talent-wise, “the [team] cupboard was bare,” he adds.
He notes that he has never in his life been as tired as after Fenwick practice sessions at the Priory (House of Studies). “Our practices were off the charts, even compared to college and the professional level,” he says. “Our coaches worked us hard.”
Due to some family issues, his once-stellar grades began to suffer in high school. “There were things going on at home … that I had to take care of,” Teerlinck shares. “Maybe I didn’t get a book report or two turned in on time. I had some social issues, some off-the-field stuff.”
He also had “a shoebox full of letters [from colleges] and went on campus visits, but there were no [scholarship] offers,” he goes on to explain. As a result, his path to WIU ran first through Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, IA, which boasted one of the best junior-college football teams in the country. With his 26 ACT score and his Fenwick academic experience, college studies were a “a breeze” for big Link. On the field he started every game, “but it was a ‘meat market.’ No one from Iowa went there,” he says. “It was all guys with bad grades or who were in trouble – or both…. I was done with football and went to work at the Jessop Steel plant in Broadview.”
Then, fate intervened, or maybe it was the football gods. Teerlinck took a phone call at home from a coach at the University of Arizona who had recruited him out of Fenwick. “This guy was taking a job at Western Illinois. I didn’t even know where Macomb was,” he laughs,” … but “I decided to give the game of football one more shot.” The rest, as they say, is historic.
Today, Teerlinck reports that he and Sue, his high-school sweetheart and wife of 48 years, are enjoying retirement with their five kids, five grandchildren and “an adorable black lab.” He spends his free time hunting, fishing and cheering for the Chicago White Sox. He still sees some of his old Fenwick teammates. “There are eight to 10 of us who get together about two times a year,” he says. “All these guys are successes, living in places like Oak Brook, Downers Grove and Westchester. When I was still coaching, they’d come to Bears’ games if we were playing in Chicago.”
And for all the young, Fenwick defensive linemen heading into the ’19 season this coming fall, Coach Link has one, simple question: “What have you done today to get to the quarterback?”
Teerlinck’s Coaching Path
After his playing career ended, Teerlinck transitioned into college coaching, earning a master’s degree at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, IL, while serving as a defensive assistant for the 1978 NCAA Division II National Champion Panthers. (The offensive coordinator of that team was EIU alumnus and Franklin Park/East Leyden native Mike Shanahan, under whom “Link” would coach in Denver two decades later.)
“Link is a great coach, mentor and friend,” praises Rick Shipbaugh, a defensive lineman-turned-linebacker during Teerlinck’s early coaching days at EIU. “When I was stabbed in Burbank in the spring of ’79, he got me back to Eastern right away,” remembers Shipbaugh, an alumnus of Reavis High School. “Coach always had a workman-like attitude.”
Teerlinck moved on to the University of Illinois, then migrated to the USFL and the NFL (see below). Starting with the Browns in 1989 during the Bernie Kosar era, he tutored Perry to the League MVP Award. His D-line coach tenure expanded to the Vikings, where he developed Hall of Famers Randle and Doleman.
Teerlinck finished his coaching career in 2011 with the Indianapolis Colts, where he mentored future HOF defensive ends Freeney and Mathis and earned his third championship ring at Super Bowl XLI. “I went out with [team vice chairman Bill] Polian and Peyton [Manning],” he quips. He also coached for the original Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions.
- 1977 Iowa Lakes Junior College (Estherville, IA)
- 1978-79 Eastern Illinois University (Defensive Assistant Coach)
- 1980-82 University of Illinois (Assistant)
- 1983-84 Chicago Blitz (USFL)
- 1985-86 Arizona Wranglers/Outlaws (USFL)
- 1989-90 Cleveland Browns (Defensive Line)
- 1991 Los Angeles Rams (DL)
- 1992-94 Minnesota Vikings (DL)
- 1995-96 Detroit Lions (DL)
- 1997–2001 Denver Broncos (DL)
- 2002–2012 Indianapolis Colts (DL)