Thursday, May 6, 2010
Updated: May 8, 1:48 PM ET
Six easy steps to being an NFL coach
By Vivian Chum
Special to ESPN The Magazine
This man has a degree from Harvard Law School -- and now coaches for the Detroit Lions.
This article appears in the May 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
On the eve of the 2010 NFL draft, Daron Roberts bows his head in prayer inside his small Detroit home. As the assistant secondary coach for the Lions, a team whose defensive backs have struggled mightily over the past few seasons, he spends a lot of time beseeching God. Kneeling on the floor in his all-black Detroit Lions sweats, in his pristine but sparsely furnished living room, the 31-year-old Roberts has the look of a hyperorganized preacher -- fitting for the son of an East Texas Baptist minister and a retired elementary school principal. "Lord," he says, almost joyfully, "I pray our draft picks are as committed as we are to reviving the Detroit Lions."
Roberts' optimism, even about the Lions, should come as little surprise. His MO is to target seemingly impossible goals, then reach them in nothing flat. Less than four years ago, in 2006, Roberts decided he wanted to become a pro football coach. It was an unremarkable choice, to be sure, in all ways but one: At the time, he was a clerk at a large law firm, rounding the corner on a Harvard law degree, and he had no NFL connections or any kind of football résumé, except for the fact that he played in high school. (He earned his undergraduate degree in liberal arts and government at Texas before getting a master's in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.)
Roberts got the bug when he tagged along with a friend who was working as a counselor at Steve Spurrier's prep camp in South Carolina. He had long been a gridiron fanatic; in high school, he spent twice as many hours at football practice as he did studying. But working at Spurrier's camp, he began to entertain thoughts of becoming the next Jon Gruden (whose book, Do You Love Football?!, was a big hit with Roberts). Something inside the law student changed during those three days. "The best part was sitting with the campers at night," Roberts says. "Our talks would switch from zone technique to girlfriends. That's when I realized football is the most powerful conduit for reaching young men in America, and that I had to be a coach."
And that's when he resolved to trade one grueling career track for another. Instead of grinding away to make partner at a big firm, he would start from scratch with the clipboard brigade. "He is still young," says Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. "But he has the intelligence, talent and work ethic to make it to the top of anything that he tries."
Here's how Roberts went from aspiring lawyer to NFL assistant in little more than a year.
Roberts sent letters to every NFL team and 50 colleges in the hopes of landing an unpaid summer coaching internship after he finished law school in May 2007. "I thought I'd give the top teams the opportunity to tell me no," he says. And that's exactly what they all did -- with one notable exception.
Like most organizations, the Kansas City Chiefs received a truckload's worth of applications for their internship program. But Roberts' entry, and his utter lack of football experience, caught the eye of Herm Edwards, then the head coach. Edwards offered Roberts one of two internships available. "He was a guy who had the opportunity to advance his professional career in law," Edwards says, "and he was willing to go backward in football. That says passion to me."
Typically, NFL interns start right before training camp begins in July and slog through until it ends in August. By the time the preseason gets going, they have two options: beg to stay on with the team as an unpaid volunteer or head home. On the last day of training camp, Roberts worked up the courage to tell Edwards he was willing to do whatever it took to stick around. "He stood in front of me with all that schooling, saying he wanted to be a football coach," Edwards says. "I thought, Either there's something wrong with him, or he really does want to coach."
Edwards allowed him to stay, on the condition that he gain coaching experience by working with a local high school team at the same time. But the go-ahead from Edwards wasn't enough. Even though Roberts had walked away from a law career to handle menial tasks like stocking the team kitchen and ordering food for the players (never underestimate how much a 300-pound lineman loves his Cap'n Crunch), he still had to prove his intentions to the KC brass, who wouldn't let him travel with the team. When the Chiefs headed to Houston for their first game, Roberts flew on his own dime, then rented a car, met the team at its downtown hotel, attended Saturday night meetings and drove 15 miles to the cheapest motel he could find. (He had some savings from his summer jobs in law school and was also teaching two online courses, in government and economics, for Northeast Texas Community College. Even so, many of his meals consisted of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches finagled from the team kitchen at Arrowhead Stadium.) On game day, Roberts helped out on the sideline, then hopped a flight back to Kansas City. His bosses took notice. "For every game after that," Roberts says, "I flew with the team."
As a student at Mount Pleasant (Texas) High School, the 5'10" Roberts worked tirelessly to bulk up from 145 to 165 pounds and made first-team all-district as a strong safety his senior year. "He was a little bitty kid," says Randy McFarlin, one of Roberts' prep coaches. "By all accounts, he shouldn't have even been out on the field."
In Kansas City, Roberts rarely talked about his background. "I had some insecurities about having not played or coached before," he says. "That was a glaring omission on my résumé." Players who took the time to ask about his personal life usually ended up focusing on one thing: "Everybody was always surprised about his law background," says Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson. "They'd say, 'Are you serious? How'd you get into this?'"
Ultimately, Roberts' biggest hurdle wasn't winning over the players; it was convincing other coaches he could handle a gig in the pros. After Edwards took him on as a volunteer for the secondary coaches, Roberts knew he had to get veteran defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham on his side. "I don't believe there's any coach in the league who knows more about defensive strategy than Gun," Roberts says. "It was a no-brainer." But admitting his lack of experience to Cunningham, who had spent 39 years as a coach at the college and pro levels, was almost a nonstarter. "I told him to get the bleep out of my office," says Cunningham, who didn't even know Roberts' name until that point. "I said, 'Daron, I have enough problems without getting myself into deeper trouble by hiring you to coach and ruining your life.' "
Roberts prowls Jim Schwartz's sideline in Detroit.
Roberts was undeterred (shocker). "It was the best welcome to the league I could ever receive," he says. In a business that attracts overachievers, winning over a notorious workaholic would prove tough, so Roberts vowed to himself that he would always beat Cunningham to the office and never leave before the coach went home. And since Cunningham arrived at work around 5 a.m., that meant Roberts had to be at the stadium with coffee brewing and the copy machine warmed up by 4:30. "I was always afraid that my alarm clock wouldn't go off, and I'd get there at 6 instead of 4:30," Roberts says. "So I just lived at the stadium." That first season, he spent most nights sleeping on an inflatable twin-size mattress in a closet. Once again, his bosses took notice. On Jan. 14, 2008, the Chiefs offered Roberts a full-time job as a defensive quality control assistant responsible for breaking down game tape and drawing up playbooks. And when Cunningham left the Chiefs to become defensive coordinator for the Lions last season, he took Roberts with him. "When we hired him in KC, I thought he was crazy," Cunningham says. "But Daron knew my idiosyncrasies and still wanted to work with me. That made a big impact on me."
As a volunteer with the Chiefs, Roberts was tasked with clocking the hang times of opponents' kicks during pregame warmups. KC's special-teams coach would then use those times, factoring in wind direction, to determine the return lineup for the day. "I thought I was performing a covert operation," Roberts says. "I would have my timer hidden inside my coat pocket, and I would record on a little sheet what the time was."
One day, as Roberts was busy making top-secret notes on the Raiders' hang times, an Oakland special-teams assistant walked over to him. "He said, 'I don't know why you're trying to hide what you're doing, because everybody does it,' " Roberts recalls with a laugh. "I was like, 'Oh, okay.' "
Of course, most lessons in coaching don't come so easily. In Kansas City, Roberts also charted opponents' special-teams units. (It's standard practice for a staff to break down film of the next opponent's previous four games.) But as the budding young assistant soon found out, trying to read jersey numbers while players are running all over the screen can quickly make you cross-eyed. "I would stay up all night watching the same play over and over, trying to figure out if the guy I was looking at was No. 21 or 31," he says. "It's insane, but you can't be wrong about that stuff."
Then Roberts remembered how he learned about the game when he was a regular Joe sports fan without a potential job on the line: by reading the play-by-plays released on the NFL's website. He also discovered that the angles shot for television could sometimes be more useful than the footage filmed by the league. "Many coaches come from backgrounds in which they have been trained in all those techniques and shortcuts," Roberts says. "I had to figure everything out on my own."
Step 5: Embrace Your Inner Nerd
Football is a geek's game. "I've always believed that football players are a lot smarter than the general public gives them credit for," Roberts says with a slight edge to his voice. "The game of football is complex, and when I talk to players, I'm talking to experts."
In truth, Roberts' approach to football is a lot like that of a law student preparing for finals. When Detroit's defensive coaches meet, Roberts usually sits to the right of his guru, Cunningham, constantly drawing plays on unlined sheets of notebook paper with a black Pilot Precise V5 pen. He twists and turns in his leather chair, sometimes sitting up straight, other times slouching, always running his hand over his head in deep thought.
Gunther Cunningham, seen here with Roberts in KC, has been a mentor in this switch.
Alfonso Longoria, Roberts' best friend from childhood and a former high school coach in Texas, remembers the way Roberts drilled him during their time at Spurrier's camp.
At one point, after hours of going over plays together in a film room, Longoria handed Roberts off to Dave Wommack, then a member of Spurrier's staff (and most recently the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, where he was fired in January). Wommack responded to Roberts' enthusiasm by drawing up plays on a chalkboard and delving into the minutiae of the game. "Some of the schematics were too high-level for where Daron was at," Longoria says. "But in his eagerness to learn, he asked questions anyway."
Edwards praises Roberts for being "a stickler for detail." With the Chiefs, the young assistant carefully recorded observations from his day in order to decipher patterns that might affect player performances. "The same story lines come up," Roberts says. "Someone gets hurt. Someone else's mother passes away in the middle of the season. The important thing is to have a record of all of my impressions when things happen."
And, yes, he takes his share of ribbing. "We tease him daily," says Lions safety Louis Delmas. "We'll be in meetings, and every time we ask a question, we look back at him like we know he has the answer. No matter what type of question, he always has an answer. He's just that smart."
Step 6: Crack A Book, Or Two -- Or 100
Roberts insists he never read a book to teach himself how to coach. But when he wasn't poring over cases in law school, he read the football canon -- everything from Vince Lombardi biographies to books on the development of the pro game. "It was more of a history lesson than a self-help project," Roberts says. "I wanted to learn the challenges I'd face as a coach."
On the morning of the draft, his day begins well before dawn, just as it has since he started his new career. His wife, Hilary, pregnant with a son due in August, is still living in Kansas City with all their furniture. (The couple met in late 2008; she's a teacher and will finish out the school year before moving.) Three years after he started doing grunt work as a volunteer, Roberts wakes up alone every morning on an air mattress and still gets to the office early. "The race is not given to the swift or the strong but to he who endures to the end," Roberts says, quoting Scripture. He insists that the words are as much about Detroit's destiny as his own.
That's good news for Lions fans, because once Roberts sets his mind to something, it's as good as done.
Vivian Chum is an occasional contributor to ESPN The Magazine.