Not much remains of the place where Brian Daboll’s NFL career began.
The building, old Foxborough Stadium, was torn down, and with it went the tiny office the size of a closet where he broke down film on a bulky television set that ate up about half of the volume of the room.
The players? They’re all gone, some doing other things like coaching or broadcasting, some enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and one conspicuously still quarterbacking and collecting championship rings … only now down in Florida.
As for the coach, Bill Belichick, who let him in the league’s door in the first place and gave Daboll his first full-time job in football, he’s still there, remarkably, nearly a quarter of a century since he put together his first Patriots staff and included a defensive quality control assistant who had played in the secondary at Division III Rochester and just completed two years as a graduate assistant at Michigan State. But back then Belichick wasn’t the greatest coach in history, he was a failed experiment by the Browns and a stab in the dark by the Patriots who would lose 14 of his first 20 games with Daboll toiling several rungs below him.
But as the Giants’ preseason opener at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night has drawn closer, Daboll has begun to realize just how significant and special it will be to make his debut as a head coach in the same town and against the same team where his dreams of reaching this pinnacle of his profession began in 2000.
“There are a lot of things that go into planning for your first preseason game, your first game,” Daboll told Newsday this week. “The meetings, the play time, where we’re staying, the travel, there are so many things that come up.”
The symmetry of it all, though, had to be pointed out to him by others.
“My wife brought it up to me the last couple of days,” he said. “I was like ‘Oh yeah, that’s pretty cool.’ I’d be excited regardless of who we were playing but it’s kind of come full circle in 22 years to have my first game against the organization that gave me my first opportunity.”
Daboll said he remembers his first NFL game with the Patriots in 2000 when they faced the 49ers in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. Two years later he remembers his first game as a position coach, which was also the first game at newly built Gillette Stadium in 2002 when he was in charge of the wide receivers.
Now he’ll have another first to add to the library.
“I can’t tell you the feeling I’ll have stepping on the field for the first time as a head coach,” he admitted. “I’m grateful for it. It’ll probably hit me at some point. National anthem, warmups, I’m not sure. But I’m trying to do the best job I can and do the things I need to do to be the leader of this team… I don’t take this lightly. I’m constantly learning and trying to do the best job I can do and trying to be the best leader with the help of a lot of other people. Certainly it will be a special memory to have.”
Daboll said it will be bittersweet, too. His grandparents, Ruth and Chris Kirsten, who raised him in western New York, both died last fall when he was coaching in Buffalo but he vividly remembers their joy and excitement when he got that first opportunity with the Patriots. They had no idea what a quality control coach was or what one did, they just knew they loved their grandson.
“I remember the day the Patriots called me and offered me the job,” Daboll said. “I was the only kid in my family who went to school and getting a job in the National Football League, I just remember how proud they were then. You remember the good memories we had, obviously winning five Super Bowls and them being there for those. They probably would have gotten more of a kick out of this than me to be honest with you.”
There were times when Daboll wasn’t certain this day would come. Sitting in that cramped space in Foxborough Stadium as a 25-year-old he hadn’t quite come to dream about being a head coach, but as he progressed early in his career – and saw other coaches make their way up the ladder – he began wanting it for himself.
“There was a point in the middle part of my career that I had it on my mind a lot, particularly watching friends get opportunities to be a head coach,” he said.
Such an opportunity eluded him, though. He was offensive coordinator in Cleveland, Miami, Kansas City before Buffalo. He spent time with the Jets as quarterback coach for Brett Favre and Chad Pennington under Eric Mangini. He went back to the Patriots to coach tight ends, went all the way back to the college game to coach at Alabama, and nearly brought the Bills to the Super Bowl during his tenure in Buffalo before this Giants job presented itself to him.
He didn’t think this way at the time, but looking back now he can’t help but wonder if the younger Brian Daboll might not have been as well-suited, had the right temperament and experience, to be a successful head coach in the NFL.
“I am thankful for my failures as much as some of the successes I have had,” he said. “You prepare all your life, all your career, when you are trying to get a job like this.”
At age 47 he’s getting his first chance to see what he can do with it.
You can tell Thursday’s game is important because Daboll won’t be alone on Thursday. Beth, his wife, attends every home game but Thursday will be the first time in their marriage that she will be there in person for a road preseason game. Daboll’s daughter will be there, too, along with a few close friends and former neighbors he got to know living in Buffalo. The Giants-Patriots preseason opener certain isn’t THAT big of a draw on its own, but Daboll’s first game as head coach certainly is for that audience.
Though a bit hesitant to admit it, It is for him, too.
“I want to go out there and coach well,” he said. “It’s not the AFC Championship Game, NFC Championship, Super Bowl, it’s none of that. I understand that. But I think if you take pride in your work you always want to do well. If you are competitive, that’s how I think you should approach it.”
That’s how he has approached it since he first arrived in the NFL.
“I didn’t care about how much I was going to get paid or anything like that, I was just so thankful to be in the NFL,” he said of that early job with the Patriots. “I was just happy to be there and contribute and do anything I could… Just a young guy starting out and so thankful, thankful to Bill and the Kraft family and their organization for giving the opportunity to me. There are a lot of special memories that my wife and I had there in Foxborough.”
Thursday will produce the latest.