ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — They played football at its highest level — some for years, some for moments — and when playing was no longer an option, the game reeled them back in as coaches.
Some were drawn to college football, others to work for a former position coach or head coach in the NFL.
But some returned to the places that launched them, to high school football.
Starting with an NFL database that included the known 545 former NFL players who had coached youth or prep football over the past three decades or so, ESPN’s research discovered 169 former NFL players were varsity high school football head coaches during the 2021 season and 175 more were varsity high school assistants, including ESPN’s Matt Bowen.
Also among them is Zach Line, who played seven NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints before becoming the coach at Oxford (Michigan) High School, from which he graduated. A 15-year-old student at the school has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder in a shooting that killed four people and wounded seven others, including a teacher, last Tuesday.
One of Line’s players, sophomore Tate Myre, was among those killed. Line posted on social media in the days that followed that Myre “was and will always be a beaming light for Oxford. It’s hard to put into words what he meant to me.”
The worst kind of heartaches parents fear, the struggles of life, intermingled with sorrows and joys.
As former NFL quarterback and current high school head coach Jon Kitna put it in recent weeks: “You are in a position to help young people. Maybe you’re not ready for everything that might come to you, but in the end you’re dealing with happiness, struggle, daily needs — for some basic daily needs are a struggle long before it’s about football. Wins are great — we all love to win — but you discover there’s a lot more about life that has to be done if you’re really going to win.”
High school football is filled with former NFL players, from Pro Bowl players such as former Cowboys tight end Jason Witten and former Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who coached their first high school seasons this year in Texas and Alabama respectively; to former Dolphins and Chiefs cornerback Patrick Surtain, whose national powerhouse at American Heritage High School in Plantation, Florida, annually churns out a list of Division I prospects; to those whose NFL careers were far shorter than hoped before they found their real calling in the game.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Our research found more former NFL players who had coached at least one varsity season over the past decade, but had stepped down, retired from coaching or were between coaching jobs this past season. Several had moved into the college ranks. There are also likely some unaccounted-for NFL alumni who serve as volunteer coaches at their local high schools or where they might have one of their children on the team.
“High school was not on my radar,” former Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson said. “If you would have asked me a few years ago, I would have said I didn’t think about it. But then somebody asked me to do it and I thought about doing it. And after I thought about doing it, really thought about doing it, I really thought it was too good an opportunity to miss.”
Anderson just finished his first season as head coach for Monte Vista High School in Danville, California. He’s one of the newest NFL alumni coaching in the prep ranks. The standard might be Cherry Creek (Colorado) High School coach Dave Logan, who played 119 NFL games with Cleveland and Denver combined. Logan just won his 300th game as a varsity high school coach in November and won his 10th state title Saturday.
With so many former NFL players coaching high school football, we took a look at some of their stories, from coast to coast.
“Love it, there’s a responsibility I feel, I’ve got 25 kids on the team, iron man football, and we coach them in every way we can,” said longtime NFL kicker Nick Novak, who coached Maranatha Christian High School, in San Diego, this past season. “It’s been awesome.”
Jon Kitna, Burleson High School
Location: Burleson, Texas
NFL résumé: Signed as an undrafted rookie by the Seattle Seahawks in 1996 and spent that season on practice squad; 14 NFL seasons with Seattle, Cincinnati, Detroit and Dallas; 29,745 career passing yards, 169 career touchdowns; 141 NFL games.
Kitna was 23 when he graduated from Central Washington University. Thinking the NFL was a long shot, he applied for the head-coaching position where he had received his high school diploma: Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington.
“I didn’t get it, but I think even then, right out of college, I knew I wanted to be a coach,” Kitna said. “It just took a little bit more of NFL time than maybe I had expected.”
It took 141 NFL games, 14 seasons on an active roster and a Comeback Player of the Year award, but in 2012 a recently retired Kitna applied again to Lincoln and got his first head-coaching job. Shortly after he got the nod, he received confirmation he was on the right path.
“At the time I believe it was 83% of the kids at our school were from families at or below the poverty line,” Kitna said. “That first year we took them on a 7-on-7 trip, a one-day thing we had to drive an hour or so to get there. Took 42 kids on that trip, got back at 11:30 at night. When we got back, the [city] buses aren’t running, none of our kids drive, there were no parents to pick them up.
“We got all the kids in cars, split the group up among the coaches, and I was dropping my last kid off from my car at 1:30 in the morning, my son [Jordan] was sleeping in the front seat, I’m looking at him as a ninth grader, my son, and we had dropped all these young men off, I just broke down in tears. These young men didn’t have a lot of people in their lives who had a vested interest in them. The lights were off when I dropped them off, sometimes they pounded on the door until someone let them in. It was just a realization that I wanted to help, do what I could do, to get them to college, to get the academic piece even if football wasn’t going to be their long-term thing. To help people chase dreams.”
Kitna, who also coached at an Arizona prep school, Waxahachie (Texas) High School and spent a year as Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach, just finished his second season at Burleson. He said he had offers to remain in the NFL after he was not retained by Mike McCarthy on the Cowboys’ staff, but high school football was what was next.
His youngest son, Jamison, is a freshman and all four of his children and his wife, Jennifer, have been involved in his coaching career.
“Sure, if I could coach Dak Prescott for the rest of my life, maybe I would stay in the league,” Kitna said. “Maybe when my youngest graduates from high school, maybe that’s something I would do again, but we really like what we do. … These young people, they have a lot coming at them … some of these kids have to go through hell just to get to school every day. Maybe they’re working to put food on the table, or taking care of their siblings because their mom works nights, or they don’t know where the next meal is coming from, and here we are asking them on top of all that to give us incredible effort on the field, be focused in the meeting room, to get straight A’s, have the best character in school. I’ve learned you have to have compassion, have grace-giving in that, help them, be there for them. But down the road when they send you pictures of their baby, invite you to their wedding. That’s the money in this; that’s the ultimate reward.”
Reggie White Jr., Milford Mill Academy
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
NFL résumé: NFL sixth-round pick by Chargers (1992); played in Super Bowl XXIX; 4.5 career sacks, 6 forced fumbles; 38 NFL games.
Start with the name, because many of his players start there, too.
“I get mail for Hall of Fame Reggie White all the time, so does my dad, who lives not too far from me,” White said with a hearty laugh. “I wonder how big of fans they can be, the man passed on some time ago, but I’ll often have a student who says, ‘Coach, Coach, I just Googled you but only the other Reggie came up.’
“My dad, God bless my dad, he’s 84, he comes to every game and maybe six weeks ago we’re at an away game, he comes down to the sideline during the game and says, ‘You got some mail.’ I’m like I’m getting ready to call ‘over, Cover 3,’ but thanks very much and you can probably set it on the bench. Yes, he brought the mail on the sidelines.”
White, whose father was a steelworker, has been at Milford Mill for 19 seasons and graduated from the school. He teaches Algebra I and put together an 8-1 season in 2021 that had the Millers as the No. 1 playoff seed in their region.
“I went to school here, this school system, we’re here in the Baltimore public schools, it’s family and that’s how I was treated by my coaches,” White said. “It made me want to be the person helping someone find their way, to achieve, get to college.”
COVID-19 wiped out the playoffs in 2020 after an abbreviated season, and White said the windup into the 2021 season/school year became a little more at times about checking in on students’ and players’ day-to-day situations more than conditioning drills.
White has 44 players on the varsity this season, and “we’ve been a little closer to normal.” He became one of only 25 active coaches in Maryland to win his 100th game back in 2016, but he does confess the years have brought him to a different way of looking at things.
“I’ve got my first son of a kid I coached on the team now, and if you ask me what brings joy after all these years, I can’t lie — the younger me would have said wins, I loved wins,” White said. “I think now it’s success stories. They come back and tell you, when you were wondering if they were listening, they heard what you said. Doesn’t mean I still don’t tell them that just because you say you want it, doesn’t mean you get it, spots are earned Monday through Thursday. That’s always.”
C.J. Anderson, Monte Vista High School
Location: Danville, California
NFL résumé: Made Broncos roster as undrafted rookie (2013); one Pro Bowl, started Super Bowl 50; 3,497 career rushing yards; 71 NFL games.
After his NFL career, Anderson spent a year as an offensive assistant at his alma mater, Cal, before Monte Vista came calling. The 30-year-old had already decided coaching was his next chapter, but saw himself on a college sideline.
“I went for the Adams State job [in Alamosa, Colorado], didn’t get it, but Aristotle Thompson [Cal’s running backs coach] knew somebody who had turned down the Monte Vista job and he asked me if I was interested,” Anderson said. “And away I went … next thing I know I’m talking to players who probably went home and Googled me.”
Anderson, who played seven NFL seasons after making the Denver roster as an undrafted rookie in 2013, said he has evolved into an “old-school guy” with an old-school approach to conditioning, effort and some “tough love.”
But he has embraced how his players consume information and his substantial contact list. He has used FaceTime on a tablet or his phone to have former teammates such as Aqib Talib, Demaryius Thomas and Hall of Famer Champ Bailey make a point to his players.
He says he often finds himself repeating the words once spoken to him by former coaches he calls mentors, such as Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, Dolphins co-offensive coordinator Eric Studesville or former Broncos and Texans coach Gary Kubiak.
“Sometimes if a player’s career ends and it’s outside of his terms, it can be hard to come back to the game and give more to it, but a player like C.J., a self-made guy who had a good career, can see coaching in a different light, maybe so he can help kids, his future is in coaching,” Joseph said. “Guys like C.J. as players, they will ask you questions, they will ask you the whys. And those guys make you a better coach because you just can’t show up and say, ‘Because I said so.’ And I think they remember that when they’re coaching.”
Anderson’s team finished 7-3 and made the playoffs this season.
“I would tell people, ‘Embrace all that comes with it, relationship with your players, the parents, the community,'” Anderson said. “My high school coaches changed my life, in terms of structure and discipline. If you get a couple kids to holler at you like 20 years from now, well, that would be amazing.”
Rodney Lossow, South High School
NFL résumé: 10th-round pick by Patriots (1988); practice squad with Patriots, Rams; time with Calgary Stampeders (CFL) and Orlando Thunder (WLAF); 0 NFL games.
Lossow perhaps speaks for many players who discovered they loved football more than it loved them.
“In some ways, I think it’s how some of us come back to football,” Lossow said. “I’ll be real with you, I wasn’t exactly loving football when my playing days were done, the business aspect of it, that you’re done playing long before you thought you would be or just that almost no part of the decision is yours.”
Lossow has spent almost three decades coaching, first at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, then at area youth football programs and then at South High School. He recently announced at the team’s football banquet that this season, after a 4-5 finish, would be his last.
“I’ll keep teaching, I’ll stay invested in the game,” Lossow said. “I hope we can make it so people don’t have to worry about where the next dollar is going to come from or the next helmet, that is my goal.”
Lossow said he appreciated and pursued wins with as much zeal as any coach, but he said he has always tried to help his players look beyond the game. South is blocks from where George Floyd was murdered in May of 2020, and many of the students, many of his players, have been greatly affected.
“There are three of our high schools here that are in the neighborhood where the murder was and the protests that followed,” Lossow said. “At the time we were all on Zoom because of COVID, so I knew our young men were going to be out in it. I wanted them to use their voice to be heard and I wanted to hear from our young people who would just speak truth.
“As a man, as coaches, we needed to hear and really ask ourselves, what are you going to do in your program? How are you going to make change? It was important for our players, our students, to be able to address the race issues they face, and for us as coaches to ask ourselves, ‘What are key, essential things that would help them find their hearts, souls and identity?'”
Lossow’s youngest of three sons, Elijah, just finished his senior season, another reason for the longtime coach “to step away.” But in the end he feels comfortable in the knowledge he discovered what the game means to him “and what it’s given to me.”
“A couple years ago, we lost, 73-0, to [Minneapolis] Southwest with a group of young sophomores just trying to play against a bigger, more experienced team, and it all just racks your soul as you stand there through that and try to help them,” Lossow said. “But then you think — and I told my coaches this too — if your whole purpose is solely to win football games, there are other places you can coach. But what’s our purpose here? Our purpose is to help these young men grow. And I work with two young coaches who are incredible young people as well, and I said to myself, when I feel like it’s time to reroute myself and the coaches are ready they’ll take it and they’ll find their niche in it all and keep their purpose on things greater than winning a football game.”