Mentor – men*tor (noun): Experienced adviser and supporter. Somebody, usually older and more experienced, who advises and guides a younger, less experienced person. [adviser, counselor, guide, tutor, teacher, guru]
Those of us fortunate enough to have had mentors in our lives understand the importance of their profound influence on our personal and professional growth. This week’s Super Bowl Sunday reminds me once again of the two most influential men on my own career in professional football – Jerry Frei and Jack Elway.
Gerald L. “Jerry” Frei (June 3, 1924 – February 16, 2001)
Jerry Frei was a Wisconsin native and former member of the Badgers’ 1942 National Championship team, where he blocked as an offensive guard for Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch. Jerry’s football career was suddenly interrupted after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He joined the United States Army Air Corps during World War II and flew reconnaissance missions over the Pacific theatre, returning to finish out his college eligibility after the war ended.
In 1967 he took over as head coach of the University of Oregon, coaching NFL greats Dan Fouts and Ahmad Rashad. On his staff were future NFL head coaches John Robinson, George Seifert and Gunther Cunningham. Jerry coached on 3 NFL teams (Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears) and then returned to Denver where he eventually transitioned into the club’s Personnel Department and later became Director of College Scouting.
John Albert “Jack” Elway, Sr. (May 30, 1931 – April 15, 2001)
Jack Elway established his own illustrious career as a college football coach, but is probably best known as the father of Bronco Hall of Fame QB, John Elway. Jack was born in Hoquiam, Washington and went on to play QB for Washington State University before a knee injury abruptly ended his career. His interest turned to coaching and his fist job was as a teacher & coach at Port Angeles High School in Washington. His career path took him through Grays Harbor College, the University of Montana, and Washington State University before serving as the head coach of Cal State-Northridge, San Jose State University, and Stanford University.
Jack transitioned into the professional ranks as head coach of the Frankfurt Galaxy in the World League of American Football, then came to the Broncos Personnel Department in 1993 and was later Director of Pro Scouting for 5 seasons before his retirement in 1999.
Professional Football’s “Odd Couple”
There was a lot of “Oscar Madison and Felix Unger” in Jack and Jerry. Though the farthest thing from “odd” both had their own style and approach to evaluating football talent and both seemed to take a liking to a 30 year old, former Air Force Academy graduate, looking to make his way into professional football. In a world that tries to force things into “black and white” as far as football talent is concerned, Jerry always encouraged me to find the things a player could do and not necessarily focus on everything he couldn’t. “Somebody’s gotta play.” Jerry’s thoughts on evaluating a young college player focused on a broad interpretation of ALL his skills. He taught me never to rely on just one aspect of the process, “There’s more to playing football than just running a 40 yard dash.”
Jack’s guidance was frequently delivered in a bit more of a “curmudgeon-like” manner. “Partner, let me tell ya…” and I immediately knew I’d better pay attention (pencil down, eyes up). Jack’s opinions were mostly staunch and set. He ultimately knew that a player could have all the skills and intangibles, but if he didn’t produce on the field he wasn’t much good to your football team.
Advice and Counsel
Tutoring under “The Odd Couple” made me a broad & open minded evaluator demanding results come game time. I was taught how to properly meld my coaching past into the eyes of a personnel man, always emphasizing the importance of hard work but taking time to enjoy the fact that this was after all “football”.
I won two Super Bowl rings alongside Jerry Frei and Jack Elway. I’m just sorry that neither lived to see me become General Manager of the Denver Broncos in 2002
Aspiring young men (and women) have reached out to me and asked, “How do I get started?” Seems every one has their sights set on becoming a GM right away. My answer has always been NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK, and through this process find you a mentor. Take time to seek out advice and counsel, be willing to listen and learn. Life’s a journey, not a destination, and the person you are (or hope to become) is not the title you hold.
The goal of The Football Educator is just that – Pass on the things that Jerry and Jack taught me over the years, and maybe a few more things I learned along the way. “Partner, let me tell ya…somebody’s gotta play.”