A longtime English teacher, she’d been diagnosed nine years earlier with breast cancer and by that late October game things had gotten “pretty tough” for her Brandon said.
Linda didn’t hold back when we spoke.
“I had three chemo treatments a week ago and I feel OK, but I don’t have much energy now,” she said quietly. “My cancer has metastasized to my liver and I know it’s kind of scary for my boys now. They know it can be brutal.
“But Brandon knows how much I look forward to Saturdays: Listening to what he’s doing out there on the field, hearing them say his name, knowing he’s on the Dean’s List at school, it makes me so proud.
“Saturdays I have a smile on my face.”
Less than four months later – on Valentine’s Day 2004 – Linda Staley passed away.
She was just 46 and left three sons and Bruce, her husband of 23 years.
After that emotional call back home following the Valpo game, Brandon had talked about his mom:
“You could never tell what she’s fighting through because… she never gives in, never gives up.”
“I draw on her strength every day. She’s my inspiration.”
Now, fast forward 17 years and 3 months to this past Thursday afternoon, and you heard Staley say almost the exact same thing about his mom when the Los Angeles Chargers formerly introduced him at press conference as their next head coach.
“She was an inspiration to me as a player and she is an inspiration to me as a coach and as a father and as a husband,” he said on the Zoom call. “There’s no possible way I would be here if it weren’t for her.”
Many football observers were surprised by what some called the “meteoric rise” of the 38-year-old coach.
He has been in the NFL just four years.
Five years ago he was an assistant coach at John Carroll University, the Division III school on Cleveland’s east side.
Before he was hired last Sunday to replace Anthony Lynn, he’d never been a head coach at any level.
The Chargers interviewed five other candidates, but Staley – who had spent the past season as the defensive coordinator on Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams staff and made the defense No. 1 in the NFL – was impressive in their interviews, said John Spanos, the president of football operations:
“He’s the son of a teacher and he’s the son of a coach. One of my favorite parts of the first time we sat down with Coach Staley was when he said, ‘People ask me what coaching tree I consider myself a part of.’
“This is a guy who coached with some great minds in football. He worked with Vic Fangio. He coached with Sean McVay. But he says, ‘I’m part of the Bruce and Linda Staley coaching tree. That’s my coaching tree.’
“And I think that says a lot about Brandon. It says a lot about his character, his values and who he is.”
Back in 2003, Linda talked to me about football and her family: “Football is important to our whole family. Actually, we’re pretty nuts about it.”
That October day had been proof.
While Linda was at home, Bruce was at Mercyhurst College where Brandon’s twin brother Jason was a linebacker. It was Parents Weekend so he belonged there, but he wanted to know everything that was happening with Brandon, too.
“My husband and I had a phone call going and when Dayton was on offense, I’d hold my phone up to the Internet broadcast so Bruce could listen on his cell phone,” she laughed. “I got pretty animated, so I don’t know what he actually heard.”
That spunk his mom showed that day was something Brandon would draw on four years later – in 2007 – when he was a grad assistant at Northern Illinois and a grapefruit-sized tumor was found on his right lung.
By then he’d lost his mom and aunt to breast cancer and his high school coach to the disease as well, but his dad had overcome thyroid cancer and would do the same (recently) with prostate cancer.
Brandon was diagnosed with lymphoma and when the season ended he returned to Cleveland to undergo chemotherapy. He returned to NIU for spring football, then went back home to finish his six months of chemo.
When the next season began, he drove regularly to Chicago for six weeks of radiation. His scheduled his treatments at 7 a.m. so he could get back to campus in time for afternoon practice.
“When I went through my cancer journey…I thought of it as a chance to really bring out the best in me,” he said Thursday. “I think when you get to the other side of it, there is an energy, a strength. There is a feeling you can do anything you dream of.
“And that’s just what I’ve been trying to do every day since.”
“I never would have been able to do it alone’
“He’s what I’d call a typical Dayton Flyers football player,” said Mike Kelly, who was UD’s celebrated head coach back then and today is an assistant athletics director at the school. “He came from a smaller school, was multi-talented and an outstanding student.”
After a stellar career at Perry High School, he was redshirted his first year at UD and the following season he was a backup. Finally, in his third year – that 2003 season – Staley won the starting job and guided the Flyers through a 9-2 campaign.
In 2004, the Flyers had added Kevin Hoyng from Coldwater. He’d go on to become the program’s all-time leader in career passing yards completions and touchdowns, but that season he and Staley split the starting duties.
Although he graduated after that season, Staley still has a year of eligibility left.
“He knew he was going to be in a serious battle with Kevin, but we probably would have played both of them again,” Kelly said. “Like any young man, he wanted the spot himself, but we couldn’t guarantee that.”
He decided to transfer to Mercyhurst, whose quarterbacks’ coach was former Flyers assistant Joe Lombardi, now the QB coach of the New Orleans Saints.
It hadn’t been easy for Staley to leave Dayton, especially because of the way people reached out to him when his mom died.
“We brought two busloads of players – maybe 50 or 60 guys – up to the funeral,” Kelly said. “It was a very emotional time for Brandon and his family.”
Staley reflected on that Thursday: “I never would have been able to do it alone.”
But in going to Mercyhurst, he became the starting quarterback, got to play with his brother and was a lot closer to his dad since Perry was just 70 minutes away from the Erie, Pa. campus.
His dad had been a longtime high school coach and that’s something that always intrigued Brandon.
“I started drinking coffee in the first grade and reading the sports page,” he laughed. “I wanted to be just like my dad.”
‘The best teacher I’ve ever seen’
During spring football drills in 2003, Staley registered the highest vertical jump on the UD team.
And in landing now with the Chargers, it’s evident he hasn’t lost his hops as a coach.
“I’ve been around for three decades coaching and every once in a while a young, bright guy who sees the game globally comes around,” Ed Donatell, the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator and a two-time Super Bowl winner, told the Denver Post. “(Staley) sees offense, defense, special teams and he knows how they work.
“It’s an extraordinary job of teaching (to get the Rams defense atop the NFL.) He’s a young, bright mind that sees it all and can communicate with people.”
After starting out as a defensive assistant at Northern Illinois, Staley became a defensive line and special teams coach at D-III St. Thomas University in Minnesota, then spent two seasons at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas and year as a grad assistant at Tennessee.
In 2013 he was hired as the defensive coordinator at John Carroll. He made a one-season detour to James Madison, then returned to John Carroll. In 2016, he planned to join JCU coach Tom Arth at Tennessee-Chattanooga when Vic Fangio of the Chicago Bears called.
Two seasons later he followed Fangio to Denver and last season he was hired by McVay, whose granddad, John McVay, had been the Flyers coach for eight season in the 1960s and ’70s and later, as San Francisco’s VP and director of football operations, helped lead the 49ers to five Super Bowl titles.
“I hardly know anything about professional football, but what amazes me is it’s such a tight knit group of people,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of networking.”
And the Dayton Flyers are now a part of that network.
When he was 30, Sean McVay – who went to Ascension School in Kettering – became the youngest head coach ever in the NFL. At 33, he was the youngest Super Bowl coach.
Part of his grandpa’s staff at UD was Jim Gruden, whose son Jon would be a back-up quarterback for Kelly’s UD teams in the 1980s and later won the Super Bowl as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach. He now coaches of the Las Vegas Raiders.
Before him, Chuck Noll, the former Flyers lineman of the 1950s, won four Super Bowls as the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach and is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jon Gruden now has Austin King, a former Flyers assistant, on his staff. And this evening former Flyers’ center Terry Heffernan will help coach the Buffalo Bills line in the AFC title game against Kansas City.
Thursday somebody noted to Staley that he’d now be facing fellow Flyer Gruden twice a year in the AFC West.
While he praised Gruden – “he’s as good of a football coach as there is ’' – he also got in a puckish tweak:
“We were both quarterbacks at Dayton, but I’ll tell you that I was a little better quarterback than he was.”
The Chargers hired him because of the way they believe he’ll relate to his players and Staley was quick to give props to his mom for that:
“She was the best teacher I’ve ever seen. She had an amazing ability to listen. People just felt they could be themselves with her. She could really bring out the best in them.
“I think seeing that up close when I was a kid, I saw the power in that. And certainly I’ve tried to embody a lot of that now as a coach.
“So even though my mom’s not here, she’s with me.”
Once he lifted her. Now she lifts him.