As a student at Harvard University, Bears tight end Ben Braunecker majored in molecular and cell biology and studied infectious diseases. When his football career is over, he plans to attend medical school and eventually work for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Given his background, Braunecker's phone has been blowing up in recent days with friends, relatives and teammates seeking information about the coronavirus that has brought life throughout the world to a screeching halt.
Braunecker, a core special-teams player who's entering his fifth season with the Bears, has also made two appearances on WSCR 670 AM radio shows this week to share his knowledge.
"It's been interesting and troubling for me as well," Braunecker said Monday morning on the Mully & Haugh Show. "I always thought that a global pandemic [was] somewhat of an inevitability. But still whenever it comes about in this way and kind of shuts down the world almost, it still seems surreal to some extent. So I'm just trying to get through it with the rest of everybody else."
Before COVID-19 became a pandemic, Braunecker concedes that he didn't expect it to become such a serious global crisis.
"I was more along the dismissive side of things initially," Braunecker said. "And I think that that was almost a little bit natural because we had seen harmful, infectious pathogens come onto the world stage like Zika or Ebola. We get over those things. So I thought this just might be another Zika, where we're going to talk about it for a couple months and then we're going to beat it down and everything's going to continue on normally.
"I'm sad to say I underestimated how infectious it was, how good it was at circling the globe and causing harm to so many people. So I'll take this as a lesson moving forward and hopefully other people do as well. I think that in our super-connected society, this is something that we have to look out for, to be ready for, to be prepared for.
"We're fortunate in a sense that this could be something a little bit more dangerous. I'm not underplaying coronavirus at all, but it could be worse. So maybe this is a little bit of a warning sign that, 'Hey, in the future we need to be more prepared to deal with something like this.'"
Braunecker grew up in Ferdinand, Ind., a small town in the southern part of the state. He was a three-sport star at Forest Park High School, where he excelled in football, basketball and track and field, qualifying for the state finals in shotput and discuss.
When Braunecker arrived at Harvard, he knew that he wanted to study infectious diseases. During an appearance on the Bears All-Access Radio Show Wednesday night, he explained what steered him in that direction.
"I think just first off was a general fascination with viruses, bacteria, parasites, all sorts of pathogens but especially viruses," Braunecker said. "And then, two, I felt it was something in the future that is going to be very useful, very prevalent. Just look at the past couple of years. Hardly a year goes by without some sort of outbreak—not anything on this scale in recent memory—but back to Zika, Ebola, H1N1, so I just thought it was, one, something that I just had an inherent fascination with, and two, that it would be useful to have down the road."
With NFL facilities as well as workout gyms closed throughout the country, staying in shape has become a difficult challenge for the league's players. Braunecker has devised a unique new regimen that includes picking up large rocks and lifting furniture.
"I'm just trying to get as creative as possible," Braunecker said. "I'm doing a lot of running, a lot of sprinting and really focusing on mobility, stretching a lot. I can't go to a gym and load up a bar and squat or do any type of heavy resistance training right now.
"I have taken to picking up furniture, moving it around a little bit, or picking up rocks—anything heavy I can find to challenge my muscles and keep them in shape."
Braunecker lifts one end of couches and beds—including the mattress and bedframe—as part of his routine. "Anything I can wrap my arms around I can pick up pretty well," he said. "I like [lifting] reclining chairs. Those are pretty good. It's just like dead-lifting."