The circumstances have never mattered. Regardless of whether it was by fate or choice, Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has always found himself traveling the toughest roads through his personal and professional life.
“If there’s an easy road, he’s taking the back road,” said Larry Tyger, one of Daboll’s longtime friends since their days as teammates on the St. Francis High School football team. “He’s going to do it the hard way.”
Go back to that very first breath he took. It was in a hospital in Welland, Ont., because the father Daboll never knew, who made no effort to be a part of son’s life and has since died, was from Canada. Soon after Daboll’s birth, his maternal grandparents took him and his mother into their West Seneca home to raise Brian as the son they never had. “When people say, ‘Where are you from?’ I say, ‘I’m from Buffalo,’ ” said Daboll, who didn’t become a U.S. citizen until he was about 12.
He’s the kind of Buffalo guy who remembers exactly where he was for “Wide Right” and “No Goal.” He was 16 when Scott Norwood lined up what would have been the winning kick in Super Bowl XXV. “I was sitting on a chair in my living room and I got up in the middle of the room like this (hunched over, his hands on his knees),” Daboll said. “I’m like, ‘Come on, man! Come on!’ And then it missed and I went, wham!” He thrust his fist in the air, re-creating that moment when he nearly punched a hole in the ceiling. His grandmother wasn’t pleased.
Go back to those childhood lessons from his his grandparents, Chris and Ruth Kirsten, about earning your way and never leaving it someone else to do what you can do for yourself. Daboll will never forget hearing his grandfather climb out of bed at 2:30 in the morning in the middle of a snowstorm to drive to the bulldozer he operated to clear the way for West Seneca school buses to make their rounds. Grandpa is 92 and still cuts his own lawn. Grandma is 83 and, even with a right hand that doesn’t function particularly well after she suffered a stroke last year, she still does her own laundry. “She’s stubborn,” Daboll said. Takes one to know one.
Go back to when Daboll was among the only seventh-graders on the junior varsity team at West Seneca East. At 85 or so pounds, about the only thing he did with any success as a running back was peel himself off the ground after the whistle. “I was just getting hammered," he said. "I was like a tackling dummy.” Of course, that only made Daboll more determined to be more like a hammer when he played forward on the West Seneca Wings travel hockey team. “Even though I was small, I could hit pretty good,” he said. The JV experience also drove him to make himself into a better player once he got to Frannies, where he was part of back-to-back Monsignor Martin championships and also served as a co-captain.
“He was just very intense,” said Pat Lally, another of Daboll’s former St. Francis teammates. “No one worked harder than him in the weight room or training that I ever saw. I was an offensive lineman/defensive lineman. Brian was a skinny little running back/wide receiver/defensive back. He would lift with me and my buddies, a skill player that wants to work out with the big guys because he’s going to try and squat and bench as much as us. He was just an absolute animal working out.”
“I loved athletics,” Daboll said. “I loved being part of a team, I loved pressure, I loved leading. And I tried to be the hardest worker there was, regardless of what it was. I had to be for my grandparents or else they’d get on my butt about it.”
Go back to the hundreds of letters he sent to Division 1A colleges in a relentless pursuit of a graduate-assistant coaching spot. Or the same effort he poured into becoming an NFL coach, a career that is about to enter its 18th season after a one-year stop to help the University of Alabama win another national championship.
It all paints a picture of someone who not only is obsessed with achievement, but won’t allow anything to prevent him from reaching that next goal — no matter how many obstacles might be in the way.
“Once I got into this business, I wanted to get back here,” Daboll said. “It’s a special place. I love this place.”
“I think Brian is going to excel here because he knows that in the NFL, there's no learning curve,” Tyger said. “It’s either now or never.”
“Some of my buddies say, ‘You live here now and we talk to you less than we did when you were at Miami,’” Daboll said. “And I'm like, ‘Guys, I have a lot to do right now. Let's focus on just one day at a time here.'”
Go back to all of those years, dating back to 2000, that he spent away from family and friends in Western New York to fulfill his NFL ambition. There were those first seven seasons with the New England Patriots as a defensive coaching assistant and a wide receivers coach, followed by the two years spent as quarterbacks coach of the New York Jets, the two as offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns, the one as OC of the Miami Dolphins, the one as OC of the Kansas City Chiefs, the four-year return stint with the Patriots as an offensive assistant and tight ends coach, and that one season as OC for the Crimson Tide.
“I don’t know a lot about technology, but I’m a FaceTime junkie,” Daboll said when explaining how he attempted to fill the void between trips back home to see the two children from his first marriage and his wife, Beth, a nurse from Lancaster who also had two children when they met at a concert by the Strictly Hip, a Tragically Hip cover band. They have two children together. Daboll credits her for keeping things together in Western New York, while also logging countless miles to attend the vast majority of her husband’s home games.
A neck injury in the final game of Daboll’s junior season cut short a promising college career as a free safety at the University of Rochester. However, it did allow him to get a first small taste of what it was like to be a coach as a senior. To describe what Daboll did as actual coaching would be an overstatement — he threw passes to receivers in practice and pretty much any grunt work the coaches asked him to do — but it was enough to convince him that it could lead somewhere.
It also was enough, much to the chagrin of his grandmother, to cause him to scrap his original plan of using his economics degree for a job on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs or Bear Stearns.
“I said, ‘This is something that I want to do. I don’t really know how much I can make a living (from it), but I know I’m going to work my tail off. And I’ll probably be happy doing it,’ ” the 43-year-old Daboll recalled.
On a whim, while hanging out with a friend in Virginia Beach, Daboll made an unannounced visit to William & Mary to see if any jobs were available on the coaching staff of its Division 1AA football team. He wasn’t exactly dressed for success, wearing a T-shirt and cut-off shorts with his hat on backwards over what was then a fairly long mop of hair.
Nevertheless, Russ Huesman, the school’s defensive coordinator at the time, came away from a brief conversation with Daboll fairly impressed and made an offer.
“How much money am I getting paid?” Daboll asked.
“Nothing,” Huesman said. “It’s a volunteer position.”
Daboll took it, and both grandparents were actually supportive. They didn’t have much money, but they tried the best they could to send cash to help their grandson pay rent and put gas in his car. Daboll also took a part-time job as a towel boy at a golf course.
“The biggest thing I remember about Brian is he was a GO-getter,” said Huesman, now the head coach at Richmond. “I mean, he had no issue reaching out to anybody, he had no issue with any kind of work you asked him to do. He’s one of those guys that you knew was going to figure out a way to get it done and to keep moving in this profession.”
“When I got that job, I thought that was the best job you could have, I was ecstatic,” Daboll said of his time at William & Mary. “I know it didn’t pay anything, but coming from a Division III place and then going to a 20,000-plus-seat stadium, I’m like, ‘Man, this is great.’ ”
Part of his job was to help Huesman with the secondary. One was a starting safety named Sean McDermott.
“I respected him a great deal, because I was at a Division III place,” Daboll said. “But I took a lot of pride in how I came up, how tough I was with the mindset I had, the work ethic, and I saw that in Sean. He was a good player, but he was a worker, he was tough. He didn’t expect to get anything handed to him. I’d say (about him), ‘He probably could grow up in Buffalo.’ ”
William & Mary was a step on the way to bigger and better things. “I’d say I had high aspirations,” Daboll said. “And then I started saying, ‘OK, I’m going to try to get to the next level,’ which was 1A.”
Try is putting it mildly. Daboll began a letter-writing campaign that would put any political activism group to shame. He wrote to the head football coach at each of the nation’s 112 Division 1A programs. He nearly maxed out all of his limited financial resources in postage stamps alone.
The majority replied, with standard rejection letters that he saved and still has in a binder. Daboll received a couple of phone calls also turning him down.
His next tactic was to write to the offensive and defensive coordinators of each of the 112 schools. “I’m dipping into savings now,” he said. Again, more rejections.
Finally, Daboll compiled a list of the top 20 1A programs and called each, asking for the name of the assistant coach hiring graduate assistants. In most cases, he received the information. Then, Daboll would wait a week and dial the person directly, using the deepest and most authoritative voice he could to ask for him. He usually would be put through.
One day, he received a callback from Chris Cosh, who at the time was Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Michigan State.
“Hey, buddy,” Cosh told Daboll, “I’ve gotten four of your resumes on my desk in the last week. You’ve got to stop sending me letters.”
But his persistence paid off, with the door opening for Daboll to show he could be much more than a pest.
“He was a relentless worker,” said Cosh, now the defensive coordinator at Delaware. “Was in early, stayed late, team-oriented. And he was always prepared for everything you needed or wanted, whether it was a (film) cut-up or a sheet of paper that you were looking for. If you looked for something or needed something, he was ahead of you. He had it in his hand.”
That sort of attention to detail, as well as the ability to gain Saban’s admiration and trust, served Daboll well when it came to finding a job in the NFL. Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Saban had worked together while Belichick was the Browns’ head coach, so Saban’s recommendation of Daboll for a spot on the New England staff carried plenty of weight.
Of course, Daboll still had to perform well in his interview, first one on one with Belichick, and then with several members of the Patriots’ coaching staff. Back before digital technology, film breakdowns were drawn and written on paper. Daboll was told to watch a game film and provide a detailed report on each play that included jersey numbers, formations, line splits, stunts, and the type of coverage that was used. It was a grueling exercise that he was required to finish in two hours. As he watched the film, he chewed on a pencil — so hard that he snapped a fake front tooth.
“That was before I had to sit down with (three assistants), so I’m trying to cover my mouth as I’m talking about some of the terminology I knew from being with Nick,” Daboll said. The Patriots told him they would be in touch.
Not long after returning to West Seneca, Daboll received an early morning phone call after being up late the night before.
“Is Brian there?”
“This is Eric Mangini from the Patriots. We’ve talked about it and we want to offer you the position as a defensive assistant.”
Daboll was certain it was one of his friends pulling a prank, so he hung up.
The phone rang again.
“This is really Eric Mangini,” the voice at the other end said.
“Yeah, well what color tie was I wearing during the interview?”
“Oh, man. Sorry.”
The offer stood and Daboll was on the next flight to Boston.
Besides being part of five Super Bowl victories, Daboll’s two stints with the Patriots taught him the value of being meticulous in everything he did. Some of that came from getting a few of Bill Belichick’s dreaded yellow sticky notes attached to his film breakdowns. “He’d be like, ‘The X receiver is 86, not 88,’ ” Daboll said. “It was from the fourth quarter of a preseason game and this was before HD. You’d be straining your eyes to look at the screen. And he’d be like, ‘Know the league!’ ”
His vast coaching education, which began with Jerry Smith and John Scibetta at St. Francis, has given him plenty of material to use with the Bills.
“I think you’ve got to be organized,” Daboll said. “You’ve got to be passionate. You’ve got to have good character. You’ve got to be able to teach what you want (from the players). You have to demand from the players what you’re going to demand of yourself. And they have to see that. No excuses. Tell them what to do, show them how to do it. Be detailed.
“And you’ve got to end up caring about your guys, too. I think that’s really important. Players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And you've got to be yourself. I don’t think trying to be somebody else is the way to go. I’ve had the privilege to learn from some very successful people that are great mentors, but at the end of the day you've got to be yourself with these guys.”
For Daboll, it means being extremely passionate and, at times, highly emotional. He’ll celebrate success, but he’ll also make sure a player knows when he has made a mistake. Bills tight end Charles Clay was a rookie with the Dolphins in 2011, Daboll’s one year as their offensive coordinator. Clay recalls making a mistake on a pass play in practice and fretting about it because he knew that usually meant Daboll wouldn’t call it in a game.
“I told him, ‘Hey, don’t give up on me, man,’ ” Clay said. “And he called it in the game and I ended up scoring on it. I remember coming back and he was the first person there on the sideline to chest-bump me. I remember the energy he brought in practice every single day, in meetings, on game days. It just never changed, and it’s something that’s highly contagious and something that I can see our guys feed off of during offseason workouts."
"I was listening to (Bills rookie quarterback) Josh Allen talk a couple of weeks back about Brian's enthusiasm, saying he's a high-motor guy," Tyger said. "Brian's been like that since he was 16 years old."
Daboll’s current job could pose challenges beyond the obvious ones that come with looking to improve a pathetic passing game and mold a raw, rough-edged rookie into a franchise quarterback. There’s the matter of putting his children through something they’ve never experienced — being in the same city where criticism of their father will be far easier for them to hear.
On Jan. 13, moments after Daboll agreed to join McDermott’s staff, one of the first calls he made was to his his teenage son, Christian, pointing out there was a distinct possibility that high school life could become more difficult if the Bills struggle. Through most of Daboll’s previous 18 seasons of coaching, 17 in the NFL, Christian and Daboll’s daughter, Haven, have been in Western New York. He called her next with a similar message.
“This is going to be different for them,” Daboll said. “It’s going to be different for my entire family. I’ve trained myself to go through how I have to go through things. They haven’t yet. So that’s a different deal for them.”
Yet another tough road to travel.