Gridiron men

To many they are the “gods of fall.” From America’s biggest cities to the quietest stretches of heartland, NFL football players are exalted as elite heroes.

By all accounts, the NFL is a pressure-filled, body-punishing profession that demands total commitment, mountains of determination and an extraordinary blend of innate talent and physical acumen.

To those who’ve been there, the NFL is not glamorous. It is war. And even at the highest of highs, the game calls for a certain level of philosophical introspection.

We interviewed NFL veterans Brian Kinchen, Jimmy Williams, Stump Mitchell and Jerry Stovall about coaching and fostering a new generation of athletes in Baton Rouge.

The game may have changed, but their eyes remain firmly on the ball.

Brian Kinchen

Then: Deep snapper

Now: High-school coach

It’s 10 a.m. on a Tuesday in the middle of Brian Kinchen’s off-hour, but for a high-school football coach, there is no such thing as down time. Sitting in a hallway at Ascension Christian High School, Kinchen clicks through a series of spreadsheets and notes on a laptop. With hours of game footage running through his mind like a tailback up the middle, the second-year head coach and admitted perfectionist is using every spare minute to prep for Friday night’s big showdown with Dunham, where Kinchen coached middle school and served as an assistant to the varsity squad a few years ago.

The Baton Rouge native and All-SEC tight end at LSU is 46 now, but he doesn’t look a day over 35. Actually, he looks like Superman. This season, he might need to be.

College: LSU

1988: Drafted by the Miami Dolphins

1991-1995: Cleveland Browns

1996-1998: Baltimore Ravens

1999-2000: Carolina Panthers

2003: New England Patriots

Your first NFL paycheck?

$55,000

Surprising NFL perk?

The food was always good, and on our planes you could just order whatever and however much you wanted. But overall the best perk was just the treatment we received, the kindness from everyone we met simply because we were football players.

Most intimidating opponent?

I always hated playing Pittsburgh. They were just turds, jerks. Their outside linebacker, Kevin Greene, was a ’roid monster, and you’re going against someone who’s just not human. Of course, there was also Bill Romanowski.

Your best game ever?

At Carolina in 1996, with 10 catches for nearly 100 yards. “That game just felt like practice, just throwing balls to each other. Of course, the 2003 Super Bowl is my most memorable. That was surreal.”

With only 22 boys in uniform and a few out with injuries, playing both offense and defense is not optional. Kinchen’s Lions are little Davids facing a schedule loaded with Goliaths—bigger, faster teams like Southern Lab, White Castle and West St. John. But with 14 seasons in the NFL and a Super Bowl ring, Kinchen has been face-to-face and body-to-body with the biggest and the fastest in the world. Admitted steroid user and cheap-shot champion Bill Romanowski spit in his face. More than anything, Kinchen wants to teach his players to never fear the competition. Never back down.

Overlooked by local programs who he believes favor candidates with considerable high-school experience more than a former pro, Kinchen decided he wanted to build a new team instead of waiting to feel welcome at one of the area’s larger schools with more established programs. “It can be very territorial,” Kinchen says of the local coaching market. “Even with all the NFL experience, you feel handicapped.”

Searching online, Kinchen discovered Ascension Christian, a small private school that opened in 2007. He applied to be head coach and was quickly hired to do a lot more than that. Kinchen is the offensive coordinator, the defensive coordinator, the special teams coach, the team chaplain, the trainer and the guy who gets the ice.

Kinchen never considered a post-NFL coaching career. It evolved naturally after a stint teaching at Parkview Baptist and years spent training with his sons, who now play for LSU. He says he got few takeaways from his more businesslike NFL coaches and appreciates his own high-school coach, Willis Stelly at University Lab School, more than any other he had.

“He came in my junior year and treated me like everybody else,” Kinchen says, admitting he had grown used to special treatment as a star player. “Twenty years later, I realized, ‘Thank God Coach Stelly put me in my place.’ No player is above the team.”

Kinchen may not be stacked with stars at Ascension Christian, but statistics are not his focus right now. He is more interested in building brave hearts and strong wills to compete.

“My philosophy is simple,” Kinchen says. “As a Christian, I want to teach them to be the type of men God wants them to be. Commitment, hard work and accountability are the main things I want to convey every time we step on that field.”

Jimmy Williams

Then: Cornerback, punt returner

Now: High school coach, history teacher

In a recent middle-school chapel service, an eighth grader is standing on the stage, leading students through hand motions that accompany a song of praise. The undulations of her arms mimic the ocean.

Positioned close to the action, Jimmy Williams leans his head back and grins, realizing he is sending his waves of mercy in the wrong direction.

Despite his blunder, the former cornerback and punt returner for the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks seems to be making a smooth transition to teaching seventh-grade American History and coaching high school football at Episcopal High School. Even his classroom bulletin board, decked out in cheerful red, white and blue, would make a seasoned scrapbooker proud.

College: Vanderbilt

2001: Drafted by the Buffalo Bills, but signed with the 49ers

2001-2004: San Francisco 49ers

2005-2006: Seattle Seahawks

2006-2008: Houston Texans (injured reserve)

Surprising NFL perk?

The NFL Player’s Card can get discounts and tickets or can let you skip lines (but not in L.A.).

Your most intimidating opponent?

Terrell Owens, who I had to practice against every day. I considered him the best in his position.

Your best game ever?

Chicago in 2002, when I was playing with the 49ers. As a team, it was with the Seahawks in 2005 against the Indianapolis Colts.

Your first NFL paycheck?

Signing bonus for the Buffalo Bills was $39,000 or so, after taxes.

Any nagging injuries?

Five major knee surgeries after two ACL tears, re-tearing and microfractures; eight concussions. [After the last knee surgery, a pulmonary embolism effectively ended his playing days.]

Williams is full of surprises.

He likes Broadway musicals. He speaks French and Japanese. He has a quiet, calm presence that puts people instantly at ease.

After retiring from the NFL, Williams earned a spot in the league’s internship program, landing a post on the Green Terror coaching staff at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md.

But now, working at his alma mater, he enjoys the purer form of the game, where he is defensive and special teams coordinator. Head Coach Travis Bourgeois describes Williams as a technician: he’s been absorbed in the game for so long he is able to break things down even more than other coaches would.

But Williams contributes more than football knowledge. “The energy and enthusiasm that he brings every day brings respect on every level,” Bourgeois says.

Like any good coach, Williams tries to teach life lessons along with game tactics. He emphasizes the importance of each player on the team. “Just because you’re not a starter,” he says, “doesn’t mean you don’t matter. You’re still contributing.”

The NFL is brutal. Your job is always on the line, so you sacrifice your body. When the gameday Toradol shots wear off, there’s agony.

But life after the NFL is difficult as well. Divorce and bankruptcy rates are staggering for former players, who earn big bucks in a matter of a few seasons. It can be hard to avoid crazy spending and to keep the big picture in mind, although the cash spigot will inevitably always shut off.

Pro football players become used to a disciplined, structured life and can flounder without it. Williams, recognizing this need, has avoided potential pitfalls.

He gives his energy to the Baton Rouge community in philanthropic ways as well as professional. In 2004, he and his wife Chandra created the Jimmy Williams Foundation to teach scholars the value of giving back to their community. The foundation gives scholarships in memory of Cora Lee “Auntee” Jones, the matriarch of the Williams family, to whom Williams gives credit for his own academic and athletic success.

In his years as an NFL cornerback and punt returner, Williams faced intense athletic pressure. No one succeeds there without dedication and tenacity.

It’s those very qualities that allow him to regroup, focus his attention on the girl on stage and get his waves of grace turned around.

Stump Mitchell

Then: Running back

Now: Southern University head coach

Southern University head football coach Stump Mitchell had a big-time NFL career as a running back because he was tough and driven and took care of business.

This is the message he tries to put forth to his Jaguars.

College: The Citadel

1981: Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals

1981-1989: St. Louis Cardinals

What game did you play with the most pain?

I had a cracked sternum against Kansas City. I got a shot at halftime and was able to play in the third quarter, but after that it was over. I sat out the next two games.

Who hit you?

I have no idea, but he should have been arrested.

Any nagging injuries?

My body.

Your first NFL paycheck?

$25,000.

Most intimidating opponent?

There were a host of linebackers who came out in ’81: Lawrence Taylor, Rickey Jackson, Hugh Green. But I would have to say Lawrence Taylor. He was a great football player.

Your best game ever?

Personally, it was against the Philadelphia Eagles when I ran for 179 yards, but for satisfaction it was against the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas when I was able to pick up two guys rushing and Neil Lomax was able to throw for a touchdown.

“I get a great satisfaction in letting these guys know it’s not all about size, but it’s more about determination,” says Mitchell, now in his second season on The Bluff. “It’s about the will to get it done and doing what needs to be done. It’s about getting these young guys to understand that we have a lot of pro scouts coming in here, and that’s an advantage for them, but now they have to understand that working hard is what it takes.”

Mitchell, whose real name is Lyvonia, stands about five feet and nine inches tall. He was a ninth-round pick in the 1981 NFL draft out of The Citadel. Mitchell played his entire career for the Cardinals, retiring in 1989 after gaining more than 10,000 all-purpose yards.

“With myself, it was all about being the underdog but yet getting it accomplished,” Mitchell says. “Being the underdog in someone else’s eyes, but not necessarily in your own vision. Don’t play down to other people’s expectations of you.”

He said that attitude can transfer to his players, and he cited as an example one of last year’s Jaguars.

“We had (defensive end) Jordan Miller, and he’s now on the practice squad for the Chicago Bears. And I think we had a lot to do with that in terms of getting Jordan Miller to change the way he worked and to understand that no NFL team is going to come in and look at your whole team.

They’re coming in and looking at individuals that they can add to their squad who can make them better than they were before.”

Jerry Stovall

Then: Running back

Now: CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Sports Foundation

For nine years Jerry Stovall woke up every morning wondering if he was dreaming.

That was life in the NFL for the former West Monroe and LSU star, no matter how challenging those days with the St. Louis Cardinals could be physically and mentally. Then again, reaching the pinnacle of his sport was the natural end of a process that also helped Stovall transition into the business world after stints as a coach and athletic director.

“The NFL was a culmination of a lot of things I’d already been exposed to and benefited from for a long time in my life,” says Stovall, now 70 and the president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Sports Foundation. “Because of the people I grew up around, so many great people from the ‘Greatest Generation,’ I’ve always been able to rely on a determination because of a focus and belief that you’re always going to involved with something bigger than yourself.”

The runner-up in the 1962 Heisman Trophy vote by a scant 89 points to Oregon State’s Terry Baker, Stovall was an All-American running back when the Cardinals snared him with the second pick of the 1963 NFL draft. As good as Stovall was then as a 21-year-old finely tuned athlete, he had to go through the same rude awakening that pro athletes do today.

College: LSU

1963: Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals

1963-1971: St. Louis Cardinals

What game did you play with the most pain?

Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke leveled me on a kickoff return in a late-season game once and ruptured my sternum. He hit me in the middle of the chest and knocked me out. I tried to keep playing but I couldn’t breathe. They had to cut my jersey off me.

Any nagging injuries?

My left knee. I sit down and feel comfortable, and when I stand up, I snap, crackle and pop. I’ve got fingers that don’t close the way they’re supposed to.

Your first NFL paycheck?

I can’t recall the first paycheck, but my first contract was $100,000 for three years.

Surprising NFL perk?

Membership in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Most intimidating opponent?

Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers. From a physical standpoint, they were incredible.

Your pre-game routine?

I taped a small cross my wife gave me into my helmet and touched it before every game.

“When you get to that level, you can’t just fall back on the skills you already have,” Stovall says. “Everybody is as good as you, and a lot are better than you. You have to add increased skills to the skill level you have to help you get better. You learn so much more so quickly.”

As that learning curve developed, though, Stovall stuck to some familiar tenets learned in West Monroe and Baton Rouge.

“You always go back to those things that mean so much in whatever you do in life: character, honesty and integrity,” Stovall says. “Those things are always there and don’t change. Whatever you do when you keep those things is a refinement of your body of work.”

That body of work for Stovall was nine seasons as one of the top safeties in the league. He was selected to the NFL Pro Bowl in 1966, 1967 and 1969 and finished his career with 18 interceptions in 97 games. Stovall credits St. Louis defensive coordinator Chuck Drulis for helping make the transition as smooth as possible.

“He gave me skills that I never thought about it,” Stovall says. “He gave me information about hard work and diligence and studying, and those are things I’ve used every day of my life since then.”

These kind of things paved his path to success—a path he has followed in his role with the foundation.

“You’ve got to know what to do, you’ve got to know how to do it, and the third thing is the glue that holds it together: you’ve got to be willing to do whatever it takes to be successful,” he says. “You begin to call on the same principles as a businessman as you did as a player. You learn how to focus on the assets you have and what you can do to make them the most effective.”

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