Some offered prayers. Karl Dorrell gave Chris Horton his shoulder. His shoulder and his word.
“He’d come up and talk to me,” Horton, the Baltimore Ravens’ special teams coordinator, said of Dorrell, his college coach at UCLA from 2004-07. “And it was probably a little tougher for me. I didn’t talk to my mom for maybe a couple days.”
This was August 2005, three kids ago. The Bruins’ preseason camp had been ratcheting down just as Hurricane Katrina was ramping up. Horton was a defensive back from New Orleans in those days, one of a half-dozen Louisiana natives on the UCLA roster.
Shortly after being sidelined with a right wrist dislocation in practice, Horton received word about Hurricane Katrina bearing down on his hometown. He knew his mother fled the storm. He knew his grandfather didn’t. He knew he was helpless, in the dark, half a country away. So did Dorrell and the rest of the Bruins coaching staff.
“At that point, all the phone towers and everything had been knocked down, so it was a while before I had a conversation with him,” Horton said of Dorrell, the first-year football coach of the CU Buffs.
“I think the coaching staff that we had, the type of leaders that they were, just made it easy. Everything was just really even.”
While Horton’s family life was turning upside down, Dorrell did what he could to keep the rest of it right side up. Take as much time, and as much space, as you want. Every door’s open. No topic’s off the table. Whatever you need.
“We had player development meetings for days where players got to know each other, got to know coaches,” said Horton, who’d grown up in the Crescent City’s 5th Ward. “That gave guys confidence in him to know that when we called on Coach, that this is not just our ‘coach.’ That made it a little bit easier for us. The guys in New Orleans, we knew if we needed anything, he would always be there.”
Horton lost his grandpa to that storm. But in Dorrell, he’d found a mentor, a friend, for life. A beacon. A rock.
“I really do think he’s the man for the (Buffs) job, given (the pandemic),” Horton said. “There’s not a lot of things that rattle him. And I think he’s just so even-keeled all the time that he’ll have those guys ready to play. He’ll know how to handle, how to adjust to situations.”
“It’s how you respond”
The only promise of the next seven months is that there are no promises, be it in football or life. The coronavirus is riding the crest of another wave, and we’re all paddling headlong into the storm.
As of last Friday afternoon, 32 college football games had either been postponed or canceled because of COVID-19, including six over the past eight days. The NFL is on the brink of either extending its regular season or canceling games outright. And the Pac-12, which had initially punted on fall football for this very reason, has committed to a limited schedule that launches Nov. 7 with no bye weeks. Or margin for error.
Ironic, isn’t it? Dorrell was hired under duress — Mel Tucker bailed on CU in the middle of a February night, from seemingly out of nowhere. And yet, months of chaos everywhere else in the world since have made Tucker’s successor look, more than ever, like the perfect pilot to help steer the Buffs through a pandemic. No matter how thick the fog. Or how choppy the seas.
“They say a team takes on the attitude of their coach. And that’s something I picked up from him,” noted former UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan, who played under Dorrell from 2004-07.
“Football is a game of adversity. It’s how you respond to issues. You’re going to get knocked down in a game. You’re going to get knocked down in a season. It’s how you respond. I don’t think that’s any more true than right now. I know that’s how coach is.”
Surviving 2020 demands flexibility. Planning. Patience. And a cool hand at the wheel when the rest of the neighborhood suddenly bursts into flames.
“Believe me,” Dorrell said with a chuckle. “Believe me, I may not show it outwardly, you know, (at) a lot of things that might frustrate me or upset me and all those things. I learned it from my mom and dad.”
Dad especially. John Dorrell was a chief petty officer on a Navy aircraft carrier. When your family moves all over the country, you learn how to adapt to new people, new towns, new environments. You’ve got to be fast on your feet. And twice as fast between the ears.
“And I spent quite a few days with (John), as you know, when he was in the Navy, (I saw) how he handled people that worked underneath him,” Dorrell noted. “And he was kind of a calm operator … whenever things got stressful, or even if things were great, he was always the same level in terms of his emotions as he approached his job.
“So I just learned that early on. And in this profession, particularly with this pandemic, you really have to have a mindset of controlling the things that you can control. You can’t worry about things that are out of your control.”
COVID-19 wiped out just about everything Dorrell had on the drawing board from mid-March through mid-July, including spring football, summer camps and the traditional start of a traditional autumn campaign. The more curveballs fate threw at the first-year Buffs coach, the more he kept fouling them off, digging in, waiting for the heater.
“And the next thing is, do the best with what you have,” Dorrell said.
“We knew from the very beginning when we couldn’t have spring practice, we were going to have some ebbs and flows of how the offseason was going to be, leading into summer and going into the year. So thank goodness my team understands that. And I think that experience of them being around me has helped them deal with some circumstances better, too.”
“I’m eternally grateful”
There’s a reason Dorrell’s coaching tree these days has more branches than Wells Fargo. It goes deeper than the movie nights at UCLA on the eve of game days. Or the pillow fights on the plane ride home after big Bruins road wins.
“We’d just kind of leave the place full of feathers,” Cowan recalled. “Looking back on it, I feel bad for the crew. We had some fun flights home, too.”
The 2005 Bruins, 10-2 and the apex of fun during Dorrell’s first tenure as a Pac-12 head coach, fielded a roster that featured 14 players, including Horton, who would eventually go on to appear in an at least one NFL regular-season game.
But the lineup of assistant coaches, in hindsight, was even more impressive, a list that includes current Syracuse coach Dino Babers (then UCLA’s wide receivers coach); former Buffs icon Eric Bieniemy (then running backs coach and recruiting coordinator); future NFL coach and ex-CU assistant Tom Cable (offensive coordinator/offensive line); another former CU great, Jon Embree (assistant head coach/tight ends); and CSU alum Brian Schneider (special teams/safeties).
“He’s a teacher,” Maurice Jones-Drew, then UCLA’s star tailback and now an NFL Network analyst, said of Dorrell. “I learned football (under him). I learned how to read coverages. I learned how to pick up blitzes and read defenses and understand all those things. He knows how to identify coaches that are teachers. EB. Jon Embree. Kyle Shanahan was a graduate assistant (at UCLA in 2003). Tom Cable was there. We had a lot of guys.”
And they groomed even more. Horton. Phil Rauscher, a former Broncos assistant and now assistant offensive line coach with the Vikings, played and coached under Dorrell in Westwood. Brian Callahan, another ex-Broncos assistant and currently the Bengals’ offensive coordinator, did the same.
“(Dorrell) fostered a very talented and successful crew of young coaches,” Callahan said. “He gave me my start in coaching, developed me as a young man and young coach. I’m eternally grateful for the investment he made in me as a player and person.”
That goes double for Horton, who made a point to seek out his mentor during the NFL Scouting Combine, every winter, once the former became an NFL assistant in 2014.
“We’ve had conversations about life,” Horton said. “I’m married. I’ve got three children now. It’s fun to have a coach like that, that has an interest in you and (interest) in more than just you as a football player, who’ll be concerned with what you’re doing in life. That’s really who he is: a great man.
“Without a doubt, he’ll be ready for whatever he needs to do to get his players through, whatever they need to do in order to be successful. In and out of the football world.”
Source: Read Full Article