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Van Pelt completes soft landing

Late in his career, Alex Van Pelt and his wife, Brooke, had the talk. When his NFL playing days were through, maybe he'd consider a job in the real world, some 9-to-5 situation that gave him more time with his family. But Van Pelt couldn't say what sort of job he had in mind.

"I don't know," Van Pelt said. "I never got that far."

Deep down, Van Pelt knew he could never be happy outside football. Aside from family, it was his one abiding passion in life, the thing that had engaged his mind, body and soul since he was a boy. Brooke, who had known him since their college days at Pittsburgh, understood it even better than he did.

So when his Buffalo Bills career ended two years ago this month, Van Pelt had his mind set. It was football or nothing. He took a job as the Bills' radio analyst. Anyone who heard Van Pelt on radio knew he had a rare insight into the game, the intuitive feel of a man who understood things on a different level.

Van Pelt had the mind of a quarterback, and a coach. In fact, for the last two years he worked as a volunteer for the Bills, breaking down film on his own. Last spring, he served as the quarterbacks coach for the Frankfurt Galaxy of NFL Europe.

The more coaching he did, the more Van Pelt enjoyed it. In January, when Turner Gill became the new University at Buffalo coach, one of his first moves was hiring Van Pelt to coach the quarterbacks and run his passing game. Van Pelt threw himself into the job, working long hours as a recruiter and offensive architect.

Barely a month later, though, new Bills coach Dick Jauron offered him a position under offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who had admired Van Pelt during a previous coaching stint in Buffalo.

"I felt he was one of those special guys that the team, the coaches, everybody, fed off," Fairchild said. "He's going to be very successful in anything he wants to do. I hope I'm smart enough to get more guys like that around me."

Van Pelt hated turning his back on Gill and UB. He says it was one of the most difficult decisions he ever made. But this was a chance to coach offense on the NFL level, in Buffalo, with his old team. He couldn't refuse.

"It really was tough," said Van Pelt, 35. "I've never bonded that quickly with a bunch of people, ever. UB is a special place. The people were great about it. Turner was great. He understood it was something I needed to do professionally."

Van Pelt's main responsibility will be quality control. He will break down film, analyze opposing defenses, examine their coverages and tendencies, and recommend ways to attack them. He won't be limited to film work. Van Pelt will help Turk Schonert with the quarterbacks, and he'll have an equal voice in offensive meetings.

So far, the hours have been reasonable. Van Pelt has had plenty of time for his wife and three children -- ages 6, 4 and 8 months. But he knows what lies ahead, the impossibly long hours that NFL assistant coaches spend preparing their teams for a season, and the exhausting grind of the 16 games.

"There's a lot more that goes into it than I thought," he said. "You always hear about them being there for 18 hours. People ask, 'What could they possibly be doing?' Well, there's stuff to do for 18 hours, believe me."

Of course, it hardly seems like work when it's a labor of love. He is excited about learning Fairchild's wide-open offense, one of the few in which he hasn't played. He hopes to be an offensive coordinator himself some day, and it'll help to have been exposed to every system imaginable.

"I love this game," he said. "I love what it brings out of players. I love everything about it. I love it. I've lived it, and it's all I know. I really couldn't see myself doing anything else."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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