McDaniels is only 33 but a football veteran
CANTON, Ohio – Here in the land of rich Midwest soil and high school football majesty, Josh McDaniels was toughened to handle one of the greatest quarterback-coach spats in NFL history.McDaniels could never have known this, of course, as he played quarterback in a demanding town for a legendary high school coach who happened to be his father. Playing for Dad meant proving every day to everybody else that a starting position was something earned, not inherited.In starting his first head coaching job with the Denver Broncos, McDaniels’ preference would have been to use his fertile background on more menial tasks, such as rebuilding the organization.But to revisit McDaniels’ youth, to see the millions of dollars poured into the local prep football programs in northern Ohio, to understand the grave pressure that accompanies upscale accommodations and the expectations from those who funded them, is to realize former Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler never had a chance.It may not be easily detectable, but there is a tough skin covering the boyish looks of the Broncos’ 33-year-old head coach, who this week leads the team into training camp. Rookies, quarterbacks and injured players reported Monday.”People out there will never understand the pressure Josh was under his whole high school career,” said Jack Rose, who coached against McDaniels’ McKinley High School at Massillon Washington High School. “The people of McKinley were tough to play for. I’m going to tell you right now, that Cutler guy never went through what Josh McDaniels went through in high school. He was really a good player, had a great winning record at McKinley, and people were always (complaining) about him.”It toughened him. It made him stronger for what he’s facing today. How he handled it back then, it’s not surprising how he handled what’s been going on out there now.”Tough? When Josh was in fifth grade, he and his brother Ben, in the second grade, didn’t just ride the bus to school. They had a police car following. And once the McDaniels boys stepped inside the hallways, the police would secure the school behind them. Police felt they had to take such precautions after McDaniels’ father, Thom, received a death-threat letter that made mention of kidnapping his boys. Later in his coaching career, the family would occasionally wake up to find menacing signs in the yard demanding that Thom be fired.All this hostility for a coach who would go 197-63 in 23 years of high school coaching.”I wasn’t the most well-liked person in Canton,” Josh McDaniels said. “I was a coach’s son who played quarterback. It was tough at times.”The greatest misconception of the NFL offseason was the belief that McDaniels was untrained to handle Cutler’s uncooperative behavior. Rarely, if ever, has a kid coach been more conditioned to handle such a monumental crisis that, despite some periodic bouts of contention, ended decisively with Cutler traded to the Chicago Bears.”Of all the things people have taught me regarding life lessons or anything that would benefit me, I don’t think anything helped me learn more about life than football,” McDaniels said. “You go through so many different things: adversity, how to handle adversity, how to handle success, how to lead, how to be a teammate, how to communicate. . . . And I saw a tremendous amount of negativity too. In this town, if you don’t win, it’s terrible.”
nd sandals, McDaniels never appeared more relaxed as he sat on his parents’ living room sofa. Since he was hired to replace Mike Shanahan as Broncos coach Jan. 11, McDaniels had worked from dawn to well past dinner, six or seven days a week, for five months, to transform the organization into his own image.He overhauled the coaching staff; implemented his shotgun-driven offense; switched the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 system; signed more than a dozen free agents; briefly delved into trade talks for Matt Cassel, his former quarterback with the New England Patriots; executed an even bigger trade involving Cutler; ran his new team through a series of offseason practices; and attempted to soothe the contract protest of Brandon Marshall by holding regular conversations with the receiver’s agent.Once the regular season starts, McDaniels says, he will get to his office about 5 or 5:30 in the morning and leave about 10 or 11 at night. Thursdays, he’ll depart about 9 or 9:30.”I’m not sleeping in the office,” said McDaniels, who has two children with his wife, Laura. “I don’t want to start that practice.”In late June, it was time to get away with his family and clear a mind that constantly is in gear. Although he’s young and looks even younger, McDaniels has a presence that exudes authority. He is confident and serious-minded, although like practically everyone inside an athletic arena, he can bust the chops of his friends and associates.”What I love about him, and what I don’t necessarily love, is sometimes he can be so serious,” said longtime friend Matt Cunningham. “It’s hard to get him to let that down, to let loose. When we go on vacation, he’ll let go a little bit, but he’s the first one to bed, the first one up in the morning. He’s never been a big partier or anything. But he does have a sense of humor. He is very fun-loving.”McDaniels had just returned from his annual family vacation in Florida and was spending a few days at his folks’ house, which is up a class from the large A-frame house near downtown Canton where Thom and Christine raised their boys.”I never had a car in high school, and I never had a car in college,” Josh said. “I wasn’t much of a run-around.”A new football, though, was something else. Every Christmas morning, the McDaniels boys knew they could count on a new ball with their name monogrammed on the side. The joy of the once-a-year present only magnified.”I would run down in the middle of the night on Christmas morning, grab that, go right back up to bed,” McDaniels said. “That’s what I slept with until Laura came around.”Football, and more specifically McKinley High School football, was at the center and the tips of the McDaniels universe. When Thom was in the early stages of building the Bulldogs into a football powerhouse, young Josh was often standing nearby, holding the headset cord or a ball or a copy of the play chart. Ben would be there too, although he was more apt to be off to the side, playing with the blocking dummies.”Some of our first memories are going to two-a- days (practices),” said Ben, who grew up to quarterback McKinley to back-to-back state titles. “That’s really where it starts. Because two-a-days were so much fun for us as kids. If we weren’t doing the right things at home, punishment was not getting to go to two-a-days. And that was a big deal.”Like most boys, the McDanielses would have their spirited games of football, basketball and baseball in the backyard.One-on-one games to three became games to five, and then 10, especially if Josh was behind. Which wasn’t often.”I think in 27 years of coaching, he was the most intelligent point guard I ever had,” said Mike Patton, who was McDaniels’ ninth-grade basketball coach and eighth-grade social studies teacher. “When I had him in class, if he missed a question on the test, as a teacher you would look at the question to see if there was something wrong with it.”So competitive were the McDaniels boys, they took keeping score to a holy extreme.”In church, during that point in the service where you would extend a sign of peace to the people around you?” Thom McDaniels said. “Here I am with my three kids, and we would compete to see who could shake the most hands. It was nuts.”Lord knows there are no wallflowers among the McDaniels clan.”We would go four, five and six rows away from us,” Ben said. “If you didn’t get double-digit handshakes, you weren’t trying hard enough.”
Attached to McKinley High School, where Josh finished fourth academically in his class, is Fawcett Stadium, a 22,500-seat facility.A mere 7 miles away, at Massillon, is Paul Brown Memorial Stadium, where 19,000 customers have been known to gather during fall weekends, a facility augmented by a $6 million, 80,000-square-foot indoor practice field.Texas can have its Friday night lights. In northern Ohio, monuments to high school football stand permanently erect to admire any day of the year.”There are so many small communities in Ohio that the football stadium is the beginning of the identity of that community,” Thom said. “Not just the big-time programs, but in a lot of the small-school programs, the stadium is where that community’s identity begins.”Nothing in northern Ohio, however, embodies the life-consuming experience of high school football as Massillon vs. McKinley. There may be nothing else like it in the country. When they met for the 100th time in 1994, Sports Illustrated was there to chronicle the rivalry with a long feature story.It happened to be McDaniels’ senior year, and the 42-41 final score speaks to how well he performed at quarterback. That one-point difference inMassillon’s victory, however, can be attributed to McDaniels’ missing an extra point in overtime.Mark Thewes, now McDaniels’ right-hand man on all Broncos matters not related to coaching, and Thom McDaniels were talking about the 100th game in Thom’s living room when Josh piped up from a back room off the kitchen.”Wide right,” Josh announced.That one moment of shame so affected Josh McDaniels that he led McKinley past Massillon in the state playoffs a couple weeks later, connecting with Thewes on a game-winning touchdown.Although he received letters from NCAA Division I schools that expressed interest in him as a kicker, McDaniels took all 5-foot-9, 150-something pounds of himself to Division III John Carroll University near Cleveland, where he became a starting receiver. He got his first coaching gig as a graduate assistant to Nick Saban at Michigan State University in 1999. He met his wife, Laura, the next year. He caught on with the New England coaching staff at an entry-level position in the same 2001 season that the Patriots began Super Bowl dominance.And now McDaniels is leading the Broncos. That missed extra point against Massillon? It’s as if it was the best thing that ever happened to him.”You see it all in the movies, the kid who struck out with the bases loaded in the ninth,” said J.R. Rinaldi, the Milwaukee Brewers’ minor-league equipment director who got his start as Thom McDaniels’ equipment man. “Here’s a kid that missed an extra point in probably the biggest game in American high school history, and he’s done nothing but rebound from it. He’s excelled ever since.”
At 3 Brothers Corner Tavern, the patrons are mixed on the success of their native son. The surprise is on which side the feelings fall.”Good football player, great guy,” said Brian Finnicum, whose father was a 28-year season ticket holder at Massillon. “Real good quarterback. I haven’t heard a bad thing about him.”Finnicum’s good friend, Sean Sanford, is a McKinley alum.”I would say 80 to 90 percent of the people I talk to, there’s jealousy in what Josh has accomplished,” Sanford said. “You’d think everyone around here would be proud of him, but anytime someone’s successful, there’s jealousy.”Strange how society works. McDaniels’ opponents, who view from an objective distance, honor him with respect. The people supposedly on his side feel pangs of resentment.Call it the lottery-winner syndrome: Why him and not us?”I grew up that way,” McDaniels said. “People cried nepotism every time I was on the field. But I played for a lot of coaches before I played for my father, and I started for everybody. He wasn’t the first person who all the sudden put me in the starting lineup.”Even for a coach and father accustomed to living under pressure of an intense local spotlight, the Cutler controversy crimped Thom McDaniels’ nerve endings. A father will suffer for his son as the boy endures scathing criticism. Then again, as a coach, Thom understands how tough times often create better times.”At first I was concerned,” Thom McDaniels said. “But then at one particular point I remember telling Josh: ‘You know what? The honeymoon’s over.’ Sometimes the season doesn’t work out the way you want it to because you’ve been on a honeymoon too dadgum long. Now, it was, ‘OK, now you can go about doing your job.’ “The hangover effect from the Cutler controversy was McDaniels’ integrity being impugned. Cutler demanded a trade, then later said he never wanted a trade.Yet it was McDaniels’ virtue that has been questioned.”It was frustrating to watch Josh get somewhat vilified for that,” said Broncos chief operating officer Joe Ellis, who helped owner Pat Bowlen in the coaching search that landed McDaniels. “Because I know his communication, and any effort he made to communicate with the other party was straightforward and very clear. I would defend him to the end on how he approached it. I’ll tell you right now, if you have a problem withJosh McDaniels’ honesty, then that’s your problem, not his.”McDaniels said he has no regrets with how it all turned out. He likes his new quarterback, Kyle Orton. He likes his team. He was prepared from an early age to handle the onerous challenge that was the Cutler saga.”Everybody who’s close to me and everybody who either depends on me, or I depend on them, knows they can trust me,” he said. “And that’s what’s important.”
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