Rich Parrinello remembered the tears that welled in Brian Daboll’s eyes, the listless face, and the lack of words. The message came through anyway: Daboll’s career as a football player was finished.
It was 1995. Daboll was a junior free safety at the University of Rochester, a Division III school in New York, and Parrinello was the team’s coach. Daboll had suffered a neck injury after a helmet-to-helmet hit during a game against Union College, and he was later told that if he didn’t give up the sport, the next injury could be permanent.
“We’re all grateful that he was going to be OK,” Parrinello said this past week. “Being OK is a relative term in his case, because he wasn’t going to be able to continue playing the game that he really loved.”
Daboll asked if he could stay with the team as a volunteer coach, a kind of undergraduate assistant. He said he needed this. Sure, Parrinello told him. The coach knew what the game meant to Daboll.
More than 16 years later, it was that meeting that, in a twist, launched Daboll’s coaching career. In the years since, Daboll has risen through the ranks, fueled by good connections and an impressive football acumen, and was introduced last week as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator.
Many Chiefs fans know little about Daboll other than that he’s the latest member of the New England Patriots family to relocate to Kansas City, and that his career seems to have plateaued now that he’s a coordinator with a third team in four years.
Parrinello and others described Daboll, who’s now 36, as a man who finds solutions in adversity; leans on determination when the odds are stacked high. Others might have seen a neck injury as a chance to move on. In Daboll’s case, he could’ve focused only on finishing his economics degree at Rochester.
“He wasn’t big, I’ll tell you that much,” said Jerry Smith, who coached Daboll at St. Francis High near Buffalo, N.Y. “But he was very intense.”
Daboll broke a kid’s jaw once. Ran right through him, Smith remembered. Knocked several others out of games and made most everyone forget that he lacked exceptional size and speed.
He was persistent and determined. Daboll suffered a broken thumb during one game but stayed in and the Red Raiders won. A week later, when the team doctor wouldn’t clear Daboll to play, St. Francis lost its only game in two seasons. Daboll came back after that wearing a thick wrapping, and his team won its second consecutive state championship.
Smith said Daboll’s intensity came from a will to avoid disappointing his grandfather, Chris, who had taken in young Brian and his mother, a single parent. Brian saw his family working to pay his tuition to St. Francis, a private school, and didn’t ignore his own responsibility.
“They sacrificed a lot to let him stay there,” Smith said. “For that to happen, he was the type of guy who said, ‘I’m not wasting a dime of my obligation.’”
Smith said he saw the seeds of a young coach even then, when Daboll rounded up teammates for film study or made certain others were as committed to offseason training as he had been. The team seemed to come first, and that much didn’t change when Daboll went to Rochester.
In those days, Parrinello and defensive coordinator Chris Battaglia would hear all sorts of tales about what happened over weekends. A player might drink too much and feed someone their fist, but the versions that reached the coaches always seemed too tidy to believe. Many times, Parrinello and Battaglia said, it was Daboll who came forward with the truth, promising — and delivering — that the transgressions would be handled by the offending player’s teammates. And that it wouldn’t be repeated.
“He was sort of the guy that kept everybody out of trouble; make sure everybody was doing what they were supposed to do,” said Battaglia, who’s now a high school coach in New York. “He always had goals, and he always had leadership. He always knew what he wanted to do; what he wanted to be.”
Parrinello said he doesn’t think Daboll had aspirations of playing in the NFL. Instead, maybe the kid would ease into coaching someday. He was one of those players who darkened the film rooms at all hours, later asking his coaches not only what they were doing to stop the next opponent but why they had made their choice.
“A student of the game,” Battaglia said.
Then during the game against Union, Daboll lay on the turf after a collision and the men on Rochester’s sideline held their breath. He was helped from the field, and he wouldn’t play again. But he hadn’t yet fulfilled his obligation to the family back home; part of his deal was yet to be satisfied.
“When you’re really passionate about what you love,” Smith said, “you’ll do whatever needs to be done to make sure you do it well.”
Daboll’s intensity remained. Parrinello recalled the end of one game, when he was watching the clock for the right moment for a timeout, and out of the corner of his eye saw Daboll, who in a fit of intensity had run onto the field and called the timeout himself. He hadn’t even graduated yet.
“I said: ‘Brian, you’ve got to take it easy, buddy,’” Parrinello said with a chuckle.
From there, Daboll began building bridges to different jobs. Parrinello vouched for Daboll with Jimmye Laycock, who offered the youngster a spot on his staff at William & Mary. Daboll was the team’s restricted-earnings coach, a term and lifestyle that’s now outdated, not because it didn’t test young coaches’ deepest desire to pursue the profession, but because their pay was so low it seemed cruel.
“Several thousand dollars,” Laycock estimated Daboll earning in 1997. “I don’t even know if it was up to five (thousand).”
The positions have since been discontinued, but Laycock said they helped to harden others who endured those meager existences, such as Minnesota defensive coordinator Alan Williams and Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Then Laycock and Parrinello called Nick Saban, who offered Daboll a position on his Michigan State staff. Later, Daboll took an entry-level job with the New England Patriots, whose coach was Bill Belichick, an friend and former colleague of Saban’s. The pay wasn’t much better.
“They call it 20-20,” Daboll said. “Twenty hours a day, a little less than 20 grand a year.”
He assisted defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who would later hire him for the Chiefs, and Daboll kept climbing the coaching ladder.
“We asked and demanded a lot,” Crennel said years later, “and he was able to handle all those situations.”
Daboll was promoted to wide receivers coach, spending seven seasons and winning three Super Bowls with the Patriots. After two seasons coaching the New York Jets’ quarterbacks, where he worked under former Patriots assistant Eric Mangini, Daboll followed Mangini to Cleveland, where he took his first job as an offensive coordinator in 2009.
Mangini said it was Daboll’s ability to connect with players, particularly offering guidance to quarterbacks on how to read defensive coverages, that pushed him up the NFL ladder. Mangini, who also coached the Jets, said Daboll’s background as a defensive back and his start as a defensive assistant offers a rare kind of insight.
“Sometimes (offensive coordinators) will know sort of superficially what to look for,” Mangini said. “He’s giving them the answers to the test.”
But it was there that Daboll ruffled some players, his intensity occasionally boiling over. He reportedly denigrated Browns quarterback Colt McCoy so loudly in 2010 that his teammates could hear Daboll’s voice come through the speaker in McCoy’s helmet.
Asked about it this past week, Daboll said: “I expect perfection.”
But that didn’t mean he hasn’t occasionally taken it too far.
“There’s certain times when you’re a coach,” Daboll said, “and sometimes emotion can get to you, and sometimes you step back and say, ‘Boy, I would rather (have) handled it that way than this way.’ But I think the job as a coach is to tell the players what to do, to show them how to do it, and really not accept any excuses.”
Daboll moved on to Miami to coordinate the Dolphins’ offense last year and now has been given another chance to oversee an offense with the Chiefs. His first test and top priority will be leaning on what Mangini said makes Daboll valuable: his ability to teach quarterbacks. Daboll helped turn Miami’s Matt Moore into a viable passer who threw last season for 2,497 yards in 13 games.
“What does politicking have to do with that?” Mangini said. “That’s results.”
In Kansas City, Daboll’s success will be tied to quarterback Matt Cassel, and vice versa. If one fails, it’s likely that the other will, too. It’s a high-pressure assignment. But those who knew Daboll in high school and college still believe in him. Parrinello said he wouldn’t count the determined kid out. It should help, he said, that Daboll will be surrounded by familiar faces — Crennel, general manager Scott Pioli and Cassel know Daboll from his time in New England — and those who he has won games with in the past.
“He has been relentless in pursuit of success,” Parrinello said. “…When there are other good people around him, like in the case of the New England Patriots, I think he will do his part to hold up that success.
“It’s been proven that when he’s in that situation, he’ll thrive, and he’ll be part of the answer.”