The grandfather with five Super Bowl rings is on the phone.
John McVay is talking about the time in Atlanta several years ago when little Sean was standing on a practice field, watching the San Francisco 49ers go through drills the day before a game against the Falcons. The kid was so mesmerized by what was going on that he didn’t realize he was about to get flattened by a player.
“If you knew him as a kid, you just saw how he loved to be around the game,” John McVay, the former San Francisco general manager John McVay said from his home in northern California. “When we would come to Atlanta every year, his father, Tim, would come to practice and bring Sean with him, and he’d watch everything, taking it all in. One time one of our defensive tackles had to pick him up -- it looked like an eagle picking up his prey -- because a wide receiver was headed right toward Sean and was about to run him over.”
The Falcons open the playoffs in Los Angeles on Saturday night. Their opponent is the new darlings of the NFL’s postseason. The Rams, the same dumpster fire of a franchise that went 4-12 in its first season after returning from St. Louis, encountering all levels of turmoil, much centered on a spat involving former coach Jeff Fisher and the seeming excommunication of Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, went 11-5 this season and won the NFC West.
In December 2016, the Falcons leveled the Rams 42-14 in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
In January 2018, the Rams will be favored over the Falcons by six points.
It’s about both perception and reality. The Falcons have played as if they’re suffering periodic flu-like symptoms. The Rams have played as if they’ve been given a new reason to wake up in the morning. The biggest reason for their turnaround is Sean McVay, their wunderkind sideline general, who was hired as the NFL’s youngest head coach at the age of 30.
Rams and former Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree said of McVay: “He coaches with an edge, which is something that we needed. Once you met him, he didn’t seem like he was 30. He took control of the room. He had a presence about him.”
McVay is an Atlantan, although he grew up cheering far more for the 49ers (because of his grandfather’s employer) than the Falcons.
“It was family over local ties,” he said.
He was born in Marietta, was a star quarterback at Marist for four years, then played at Miami of Ohio. He had thoughts of going into broadcasting, business or sales after graduation, according to his father. He even did an internship his senior year at the San Francisco television station where Tim was the general manager.
“Then Jon Gruden (who was with Tampa Bay) told him, ‘When you graduate, I’ve got a job for you,’” said Tim, who recently retired from WSB-TV.
That was in 2008. A coaching career was born at 22. A meteoric rise began soon after.
The McVays and the Grudens had long been intertwined, going back to when John McVay coached at Dayton (1972-73) and one of his assistants was Jim Gruden (father of Jon, who’s soon to be the Raiders’ coach again, and Jay, the current Washington coach). Sean worked for Jon in Tampa and later with Jay in Washington. His rise has been meteoric. His immediate success, staggering.
(Interesting aside: Jim Gruden coached at Notre Dame later in his career. In 1979, Bill Walsh and John McVay were uncertain whether the struggling 49ers should spend their third-round draft pick on Fighting Irish quarterback Joe Montana. So McVay phoned Gruden. “He said, ‘Just take him,’” McVay said. That worked out pretty well.)
Three generations of McVays -- Sean, Tim and John -- were together at a Rams game for the first time last week since Sean’s hiring. It’s a football family -- Tim and his two brothers both played college football -- and it all filters down from John.
I feel old when I cover coaches who I remember covering as college players. I’m now writing about a coach whose grandfather I covered in San Francisco. McVay was the veteran football man behind the scenes who made it all work for the 49ers during Bill Walsh’s coaching days.
Sean partly credits his grandfather with his ability to see the big picture as a head coach at such a young age.
“You don’t realize until you get into a role like this how much you consciously or subconsciously picked up from him,” he said. “He always had a way of answering questions if there was something I was curious about. He talked about the things that he believed in.”
From granddad: “I don’t even know that it was a case of him always asking questions. He just sort of absorbed everything around him from a young age since he grew up with the game. One of the things we did discuss was Bill Walsh’s book. He would mention little bits and pieces he had picked. He’s a workaholic. When I visited him, he was up by 4 a.m. and out the door by 5.”
From dad: “He would ride the team bus with Terrell Owens and Steve Young, and he just took it all in. You could tell he wanted to be one of them.”
The grind is paying off.
“Really until you take a step back, you can’t fully appreciate the journey,” Sean McVay said. “What’s been fun about it is, you’re doing it with people you enjoy being around.”
This week, he coaches his first playoff game against his hometown team, which went to the Super Bowl last season. But he doesn’t look overmatched.
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