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Inside the Bills: 'Salute to Service' month has special meaning for assistant coach Chad Hall

Jay Skurski

Relentless is the best way to describe Chad Hall.

The Buffalo Bills’ 31-year-old offensive assistant coach is in his first season on the job. He landed it the same way he carved out a four-year playing career as a 5-foot-8 wide receiver with the Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs.

With persistence.

Hall first met Bills coach Sean McDermott in 2010, when they were together with the Eagles. McDermott was serving as Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator, while Hall was an undrafted free agent trying to chase down a dream.

“He just really busted his butt to make the club,” McDermott recalled this week. “He stuck with it. You saw the work ethic, you saw the quality of the person when things were going well and when things weren't going well he kept at it, kept at it. ... That speaks volumes about a person.”

Hall made the Eagles, which is impressive in itself. But there’s much more to it than that. He signed with the team while he was on active duty in the U.S. Air Force. After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Hall became a 2nd lieutenant with the 388th Fighter Wing's 421st Aircraft Maintenance Unit at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.

Hall didn’t grow up in a military family.

"About the only thing I remember about the military is 9/11," he said. "I remember exactly where I was  – 10th grade English class. The teacher just stopped everything, brought the TV in and put it on the screen. That was my first experience that I remember. You remember the whole nation coming together, which was inspiring."

Hall was a three-sport star at Wesleyan School in suburban Atlanta. As a senior, he passed for 626 yards and rushed for 1,027 as the Wolves’ quarterback. He also was the starting point guard in basketball and the baseball team’s lead-off hitter. Despite Hall’s decorated high school career, scholarship offers didn’t pour in.

Vanderbilt wanted him as a cornerback, but eventually pulled his offer. That left the service academies. The patriotism Hall felt after Sept. 11, coupled with his determination to play Division-I football, led him to the Air Force Academy.

“He’s been proving himself for years,” said Will Jackson, Hall’s high school football coach, to the Gwinnett Daily Post in May, when Hall was inducted into the Gwinnett Sports Hall of Fame. “He’ll make everybody on your team better every day. He’s cocky as the dickens in competition, but he’s as humble as they come away from it.”

“My parents always instilled in me the best education I could get,” Hall said. “And so out of the three academies, I visited Air Force and I liked it the best … so I ended up out there. They recruited me as a quarterback. I didn't really have any family in the military or anything like that, so it was kind of just a jump. But Air Force Academy, Division I, it was one of the best academic schools in the nation.”

At the time Hall enrolled, doing so came with a five-year active-duty commitment.

“I knew what I was getting into. I knew I was going to graduate in four years and then I was going to deploy to Afghanistan,” Hall said. “That was in the cards, and I knew that going in.

“I'm a big team guy, and the military is almost like the biggest team there is. You've got these different branches of service all fighting the same fight. Everyone is depending on each other every day.”

Hall was a Heisman Trophy contender during his senior season at Air Force, when he piled up 1,478 yards and 15 touchdowns as a running back, along with 524 receiving yards and a touchdown. He went undrafted, though, with teams undoubtedly knowing that Hall had a service commitment to honor.

Before he started his job, he had tryouts with his hometown Falcons and, fittingly, the Bills.

“I remember saying to one of the coaches, can I go over there and run routes?” Hall said of his brief time in Buffalo. “They said I looked really good at receiver. That kind of opened my eyes.”

Before he could keep chasing an NFL job, though, active duty called.

“Day One you come in and I had a squadron of 130 troops I was in charge of,” Hall said. "We were on F-16s, so everything to do with F-16s. I was in the back shop at first, off the flight line, so any of the planes that are really broke … we're fixing. And then my second year, I got to the flight line, and that's when we're flying every day. We're getting all the planes ready every day. Pilots are coming down, so we've got to have the planes down. I mean, it's everything. From the fuel system to the wheels to the bomb shop, everything has to be perfect. That was 300 troops. I mean, you grow up fast.”

Typical days lasted 10 to 12 hours. All the while, Hall was training for an opportunity he wasn’t sure he’d ever get.

“Two years out of football, I didn't know what was going to happen,” he said. “If I was even going to get a shot. But that's all I did. I worked, ate, slept and trained. Every day for two years. I was the biggest 22-year-old loser there was.”

While Hall was serving, he went to the University of Utah to participate in the school’s pro day. After an explosive performance, the Eagles offered him a contract the next day.

“We saw his quickness, toughness and hands just like we saw on the game tapes from college,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said at the time. “We researched players who have been successful with similar measurements and found that it isn’t size but skill that’s the most important thing.”

Hall was able to convert his five-year commitment to two years of active duty and then reserve service. He remains in the Individual Ready Reserve, which according to him means "if we go to World War III, anyone basically who serves can be called back."

From the time Hall signed in March 2010 until he got off active duty in June, he had to grind.

“I'd fly into Philly on Sunday night. We’d practice Monday through Thursday, then I’d go right to the airport for a flight back to Utah,” Hall said. “I’d go straight to work, Thursday night Friday, Saturday, Sunday then get on a plane. I did that for three months.”

“The whole thing is remarkable,” Jackson told Hall’s hometown paper. “It speaks to his determination and willingness to prepare. Every place, he’s left an impression. … Even finding a crack in the door to play college or coaching in the NFL, there’s a trail of people in his wake that are excited about his chances.”

Hall squeezed four years out of his playing career, finishing with 15 catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns. After being cut by Jacksonville in 2014, he had tryouts with Tampa Bay and Detroit, but couldn't land another job. Thinking his playing days were over, he took a job with a venture capitalist firm.

Football, however, proved too difficult to quit. So Hall dug out his rolodex about a year ago and started emailing every coach he knew. That included McDermott.

“He got right back to me,” Hall said. “He was like, ‘Chad, I really respected everything you did on the field, and as a person. If there's anything I can do for you, I'll help you. I'll keep you in mind.’ ”

When McDermott was hired by the Bills, Hall was relentless.

“I was calling, texting, emailing every day,” he said. “Just plugging. Finally he gave me a call, and it worked out.”

“I knew Chad enough,” McDermott said. “I was kind of in the market for several young coaches that I thought we could put into a pipeline and invest our resources and time, and certainly they would help us from an energy standpoint while they were learning. And obviously his first-hand experience of playing in the NFL is invaluable to us.”

Hall primarily works with the Bills’ wide receivers. At 31, he’s younger than some of the players on the team, but views that as a positive.

“They'll come to me for personal stuff,” Hall said. “I’m approachable. I know even more than I did when I was a player. I thought I was a smart player, which I definitely wasn't after I've gone through this. … It's a unique relationship because it's not just coach-player. I can relate to them.”

Hall also works closely with offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, trying to learn “anything and everything” he can to grasp the big picture.

“He's hungry for knowledge,” McDermott said. “That's refreshing to see, when young guys pay their dues. Certainly he wants to get to the top quickly, but he also wants to pay his dues and get their right way and have a good foundation.”

During November, the NFL holds its “Salute to Service” campaign, which honors veterans, active duty service members and their families. At halftime of Sunday’s game between the Bills and Los Angeles Chargers, the home team will recognize 11 World War II veterans on the field.

“They deserve everything that they're receiving,” Hall said of the country’s veterans and active-duty service members. “We’re talking about making sacrifices on the field. I mean, they're sacrificing they're lives when they go overseas. That flag, that's what makes them go. Every time they see that flag, that's what they're fighting for. This great country, this country of freedom.

“They deserve every unique opportunity they can get when they're back home with their families. All the respect for them and their families.”

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