Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane were given funzo questionnaires for the Buffalo Bills' 2017 media guide.
Favorite movie, best concert attended, biggest pet peeve, last book read and so forth.
The Q&A's were conducted separately, but they produced a striking parallel. In response to "biggest obstacle overcome," they gave the same answer.
"Breaking into the NFL without knowing anyone," Beane replied.
"Not having an NFL connection," McDermott said.
The self-made men trying to navigate the Bills out of their seemingly eternal darkness don't have fathers who secured precious NFL opportunities for them. They didn't play big-college, let alone professional, football. They received zero career handouts.
Yet each has earned his way into a select group of 32 football minds.
They completed menial tasks like washing uniforms and changing an executive's flat tire. They emerged from doe-eyed obscurity to be fought over by different departments inside their organizations, to earn sudden, prominent interim roles, to get teased and passed over, to prove all over again they're going nowhere but to the tops of their professions.
"We see it all over this league – all sorts of businesses – where people are handed their jobs, and we all know how they got in it," said Beane, the Bills' 13th general manager. "I take a lot of pride that I got here my own way."
Beane topped out in high school. McDermott was a walk-on safety at William and Mary. He was a superb Division I-AA player, but that opened no NFL doors.
"There's a lot of 'who you know' in this business," McDermott said, "and I don't think I skipped a step on the journey."
Even more remarkable about Buffalo's situation is that Beane, 41, and McDermott, 43, are starting out together.
Many successful GMs and head coaches have taken unorthodox career paths, but rarely do such overachieving outsiders obtain control in the same place at the same time.
"I can't think of any other examples," said Joe Banner, former Philadelphia Eagles president and Cleveland Browns CEO. "That doesn't mean there aren't any, but it means there are hardly any and possibly none."
Only four of the NFL's 32 GM-coach combinations consist of men of who didn't play Division I-A football or higher and weren't related to an NFL administrator, coach or player.
Now come the asterisks for the other three:
* Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff's father was a longtime Canadian Football League executive. The elder Dimitroff was a Cleveland Browns scout while Bill Belichick was their head coach and helped place his son in the organization. Dimitroff also was Falcons GM for seven years before one-time Division III defensive lineman Dan Quinn became coach.
* Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was a teammate of McDermott's at William and Mary. Tomlin won a Super Bowl before the Steelers promoted Kevin Colbert to GM. Tomlin's father, Ed, was a Baltimore Colts 10th-round draft pick in 1968 and played in the CFL, but Mike was closer to his stepfather and didn't benefit from any of his father's connections.
* New York Giants GM Jerry Reese was hired while coach Tom Coughlin essentially ran football operations. They won two Super Bowls together before Coughlin exited, giving way to offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, a coal miner's son who didn't play college football.
McDermott and Beane thus stand alone in today's NFL and in Bills history for breaking in together after breaking into the profession the hard way.
"It is unusual," said Super Bowl-winning coach Dick Vermeil, whose NFL coaching career began in 1969. "If they succeed, which I think they will, it will be considered even more unusual."
Rex Ryan's staff last year featured the type of nepotism and cronyism you'd have expected.
Twelve of their 24 coaches played Division I-A or higher; six were sons of current or former NFL coaches. There was a set of brothers and two sets of fathers and sons.
Of the 11 who didn't play at least Division I-A, five were NFL offspring, including Rex's twin brother Rob Ryan. One was college teammate and longtime lackey Jeff Weeks. Another was former NFL head coach Chris Palmer.
Sons of coaches often are gifted opportunities to enter the business.
Before the 2015 season, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer and his son, Zak, were charged with misdemeanor battery for allegedly assaulting two minors and threatening to kill their families if they went to police. The charges later were dropped when the sides reached an out-of-court agreement.
Rex Ryan hired Zak Kromer, who didn't play any college football, as an entry-level assistant. Zak Kromer now is a quality control coach with the Los Angeles Rams. His dad coaches the Rams' offensive line.
Careers from scratch
McDermott's father arranged a gig that granted access to the Eagles, but not in the same kind of way former NFL head coach Mike Shanahan could for his son, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, or Buddy Ryan did for his sons, or former 49ers executive John McVay could for his grandson, 31-year-old Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay.
Rich McDermott in the 1970s was a part-time defensive assistant at Division II West Chester University, where the Eagles held training camp and a 21-year-old Sean took summer classes in 1995.
West Chester's head coach used to work with Rich and helped Sean get a job – not with the Eagles, but merely near them in a fluorescent hat.
"I was the security guard that got stationed directly outside the Eagles locker room or on the field," Sean McDermott said. "I don't even know what I did. But there was Jon Gruden, Ray Rhodes, Emmitt Thomas, Danny Smith, all those guys that are legends of the game."
Notice he didn't excitedly list any players. The Eagles that year had quarterback Randall Cunningham, running back Ricky Watters and nasty defenders Bill Romanowski, William Thomas, William Fuller and Andy Harmon.
"I knew what I wanted to do," McDermott said.
The exposure allowed him to observe Eagles coaches. He developed an affinity for Gruden, the offensive coordinator destined to become a young head coach.
But McDermott wouldn't make any connections as a student security guard. He merely did his job.
McDermott still was at William and Mary when he landed an Eagles internship – in the marketing department.
He graduated with a finance degree in 1998 and nearly accepted an offer to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers accounting firm. Instead, he joined William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock's staff as a graduate assistant.
After that season, McDermott wrangled a spot in the Eagles' scouting department.
"When we interviewed Sean," Banner said, "we had a debate about whether to put him in the cap management/football administrative side or the coaching side. And that was actually a tense discussion, more so than you really have with someone just starting.
"You just sensed somebody who's very driven and who sets goals and who finds ways to achieve them. Those people are hard to find. He has that written over his being."
That same year, Beane nudged his way into the NFL despite not playing any college football or receiving any handouts. A knee injury Beane's senior year quashed any chance of playing for a Division III program. His father sold trusses and masonry to homebuilders. His mother is a certified public accountant.
"When he told me he wanted to get into sports," Bob Beane said, "I didn't know what to tell him other than, 'You surely don't have any influence with me. I don't know how to get you there. But go for it. You got one shot going through the world.'
"He did it on his own."
Rejected for a Panthers internship in 1997, the University of North Carolina Wilmington senior found one with the Charlotte Touchdown Club, where he networked with Panthers assistant media relations director Bruce Speight.
"The thing that stood out to me was persistence," said Speight, now the New York Jets' senior director of media relations. "He kept calling me until he got in front of me to interview for an internship.
"I would come into work in the morning and hear this voicemail, 'Hello, this is Brandon Beane again ...' He wanted that internship."
Beane got one. He became a 1998 training camp intern. When a season intern dropped out in the player-programs department (financial, professional services for life after football), the Panthers added Beane for the rest of the year at $5.15 an hour.
McDermott and Beane tackled menial jobs with pride.
"I'm going to be seen and not heard and bust my butt like this is my only chance," Beane said of his approach. "I was going to try to overwork everybody, show I was willing to do any assignment. Nothing was too big or too small.
"I was self-aware of what I hadn't accomplished."
McDermott shook his head at the memory of being dispatched that winter to Philadelphia's treacherous Schuylkill Expressway to change Banner's flat tire.
Soon, though, Eagles coach Andy Reid snatched McDermott to be his personal assistant. McDermott chauffeured Reid's kids and delivered coffee to the staff, whatever grunt tasks were asked of him.
But Reid also began to groom McDermott for the defensive coaching staff.
"You could just tell by how he handled himself," Reid said, "that he was destined for great things."
Beane, meanwhile, was powering through similar drudgery for Carolina.
"By the middle of the season," Beane said, "I'd helped the equipment guys enough they started having me travel on the road with them. I folded towels. I washed laundry. I helped them load the truck."
While McDermott quickly earned Reid's admiration, Beane impressed Panthers GM Marty Hurney.
Top executives eventually lobbied for Beane's services within the front office. Jack Bushofsky, the Panthers' director of player personnel, had his eye on the eager youngster. Hurney had to fend off Bushofsky's advances.
"Jack tried to steal me away," Beane said, "but Marty said, 'No, he's staying in operations.'
"I was kind of torn there because I knew at some point I needed to get into personnel and scout players, but I was learning a lot about the business and the salary cap."
Eleven years after he spun the lug nuts off Banner's flat tire, McDermott was a rising defensive assistant when Reid in 2009 named him interim defensive coordinator to replace ailing legend Jim Johnson.
Fourteen years after doing the Panthers' laundry, Beane had risen to director of football operations when owner Jerry Richardson in 2012 fired Hurney and named Beane interim general manager.
Their ascensions, however, encountered turbulence.
Reid dismissed McDermott after two seasons as defensive coordinator. Richardson hired Dave Gettleman as Carolina's permanent GM, although Gettleman retained Beane and in 2015 promoted him to assistant GM.
McDermott joined the Panthers as their defensive coordinator two days later and, as their backgrounds would suggest, forged a connection with Beane.
"There's a respect that comes with that," Beane said. "We know no job was too small or too tiny on the depth chart. As I got to know Sean and the more I researched, I admired the same thing. He earned everything he got."
From the start
McDermott uses the phrase "equally yoked" when describing his working relationship with Beane.
McDermott got a 16-week head start on their quest to rejuvenate the Bills. The Pegulas hired McDermott in January, but waited until after the draft in late April to replace Doug Whaley with Beane.
Nonetheless, this is the first time since Tom Donahoe and Gregg Williams in 2001 the Bills entered a season with a new personnel chief and a new head coach.
On a hot summer morning at St. John Fisher College, the Bills wrapped up their last practice before the preseason opener.
The Buffalo News asked Beane how trust develops between a rookie GM and rookie coach, how consensus or compromise can be reached on difficult decisions when neither man owns an extensive body of work.
"We've been in stressful situations, working together in Carolina," Beane said. "There's times our front office didn't sign players the defense wanted.
"There's times he might think a player isn't good enough and we should get a guy who's better, and I would say, 'Sean, we have some plans in the works. You've just got to trust me.'
"There will be uncomfortable roster decisions. We both need to know we're going to be OK with a tough, candid conversation and walk away and get over our frustrations because we're both in it for the Buffalo Bills."
Three days later, the Bills traded top receiver Sammy Watkins and a sixth-round draft choice to the Los Angeles Rams for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a second-round pick. They also sent cornerback Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles for receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick.
At a news conference to discuss two trades that walloped the Bills' locker room and the fan base, McDermott was asked if he agreed with Beane's judgment.
"It's got to be the right situation for us to do something like this," McDermott said behind the lectern, "and I feel like we're moving in the right direction. I honestly believe that.
"I will end by saying this: I have the ultimate trust in Brandon and his staff."
A skeptic would wonder what else McDermott could say under the circumstances. Even if a head coach disagreed with a trade, he likely wouldn't rebuke his GM in public.
But from Banner's perspective, McDermott and Beane are off to an admirable start.
"People who come in to run a team, who are insecure either about themselves or the faith ownership has in them," Banner said, "love to make a whole bunch of bad short-term decisions to look better in the mindset they're trying to solidify their position."
Examples of that would be trading an extra first-round draft choice to select Watkins in a receiver-deep class or giving away two fourth-round picks to move up eight spots for linebacker Reggie Ragland or signing tight end Charles Clay to a massive offer sheet or embracing wrung-out running back Reggie Bush and absentee receiver Percy Harvin as some sort of offensive answers.
"Teams that have turned it around and sustained it are doing exactly what the Bills are doing right now," Banner continued. "They're taking a step back. They're doing a very honest evaluation of where their team is at and know their long-term goal is big success, not just incremental improvement.
"They're acting like they have a tremendous amount of confidence in themselves, and they feel they have the confidence of ownership to implement the plan they think will get them big success with an opportunity to sustain it."
Longshots hit bull's-eyes
The Eagles' human resources department receives about 1,100 applications within the first week whenever it posts a new internship opening.
The NFL's league office in Manhattan fields around 8,000 internship applications a year. NFL Media in Los Angeles receives another 1,000 and NFL Films in New Jersey 1,000 more.
Tens of thousands, maybe a hundred thousand hopefuls try to break into the NFL every year. The chance of being selected for that internship is tiny. Odds are against sticking for a full-time position.
The probability of ascending from intern to GM or head coach – especially without a relative to boost you or a playing career to plant you – is infinitesimal, and the unlikelihood becomes exponential that a GM and head coach attain those positions with the same team for the same season.
Beane and McDermott have raked their ways from the entry-level depths into positions of NFL power for Buffalo.
"Brandon may have had it in his mind," Speight said, "but in my mind there's no way you can project a PR intern to be an NFL general manager. You just never know what people can do when given an opportunity."
Said McDermott: "It's a life lesson that translates beyond football. You can share these things with your kids: Work hard, do things the right way and you have a chance."
Story topics: Aaron Kromer/ Andy Harmon/ Andy Reid/ Ben McAdoo/ bill belichick/ Bill Romanowski/ Brandon Beane/ Bruce Speight/ Buddy Ryan/ Charles Clay/ Chris Palmer/ Dan Quinn/ Dave Gettleman/ Dick Vermeil/ Doug Whaley/ E.J. Gaines/ Emmitt Thomas/ Gregg Williams/ Jack Bushofsky/ Jeff Weeks/ Jerry Reese/ Jerry Richardson/ Jimmye Laycock/ Joe Banner/ John McVay/ Jon Gruden/ Jordan Matthews/ Kevin Colbert/ Kyle Shanahan/ Marty Hurney/ Mike Tomlin/ Percy Harvin/ Randall Cunningham/ Ray Rhodes/ Reggie Bush/ Reggie Ragland/ Rex Ryan/ Ricky Watters/ Rob Ryan/ Ronald Darby/ Sammy Watkins/ Sean McDermott/ Sean McVay/ Thomas Dimitroff/ Tom Coughlin/ Tom Donahoe/ Zak Kromer