On Saturday afternoon, somewhere between the banks of the Mississippi and Lake Ponchartrain, an old ball coach will settle into his recliner and behold a ghost from a decade past. There will be a computer on his lap, and a notepad on the armrest to his right, and a multitude of observations running through his head. This is how Rick Gaille watches football. Because Rick Gaille is a football coach. And while a coach might leave the sidelines, the sidelines themselves never leave.
Eleven years ago, a couple of months before the Eagles' last home playoff win, Gaille stood on one of those sidelines and gazed across the freshly cut turf at a man who, on Saturday afternoon, will arrive at Lincoln Financial Field looking to snap that decade-plus drought. Doug Pederson stood much as he does today, his preternaturally silver head of hair glowing in magnificent contrast to his perpetually youthful face in the fluorescent Delta night. One year after accepting the head coaching position at Shreveport's Calvary Baptist High, the former NFL journeyman quarterback had guided his team to the Class 2A semifinals of the Louisiana state football playoffs, where he squared off against a powerhouse squad from the opposite corner of the state.
At the time, Gaille was already a lifer, one of those proud Louisiana natives who populate the state's coaching ranks, a broad-framed man with wispy white hair and a head that looks as if it would require all of one's effort to roll,
At 56 years old, he'd long ago made peace with the aspirations his opponent had just begun to entertain. Football is a game of sacrifice, but so is life, and the trade is sometimes one for the other. After a three-year stint as a 30-something-year-old assistant at Tulane in the early '80s, Gaille had confronted a decision that we all must someday entertain: continue to chase some hypothetical existence, or learn to enjoy the one you already own.
"You can carve yourself out a nice life coaching high school in Louisiana," he says now. "You can make it your life's work."
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Most people understood that Pederson had a different end-game in mind when he accepted the head coaching position at Calvary Baptist in 2006. In his 10 years in the NFL, he'd established more than enough relationships to break into that level's coaching ranks. There'd already been a report that the long-time Packers backup and one-time Eagles starter had already turned down an offer to coach the quarterbacks for the 49ers. Surely, some irresistible offer would come.
As it was, Calvary Baptist was hardly Milan High. Located in Shreveport, a post-industrial city that is a shorter drive from Dallas than Baton Rouge or New Orleans, the program had formed two years earlier after a messy shake-up at national powerhouse Evangel Christian, which at the time was well-known as the base of operations for assistant coach Johnny Booty and a long succession of blue-chip quarterbacks, his sons Josh and John David among them. After the schism, Johnny left Evangel and started a program at Calvary Baptist, where he hired Pederson as its first head coach. To the surprise of virtually no one, the new program ascended quickly through the ranks, accompanied by the usual grumbles about any private school attracting talent.
By the time he arrived at the stadium that December day in 2007, Gaille was well aware of the prevailing narrative. St. James was a public school, located in the fertile soil of Louisiana's river parishes, the one-time heartland of the state's plantation economy, now home to a stretch of rural communities along the east bank of the Mississippi that includes the self-proclaimed Andouille sausage capital of the world. When he'd accepted the job 15 year earlier, he had set out to build a program that acknowledged the reality of the talent cycle to which he was beholden. While installing a version of the Delaware Wing T that he'd learned straight from Tubby Raymond, he stressed the fundamentals. Blocking. Tackling. Angles of pursuit. The privates might have access to more resources, and a broader pool of talent, but high school games were still won and lost based on a team's ability to execute.
"You sometimes have to teach them how to put their pants on right," Gaille says, "which way the shoulder pads go, and which way the thigh pads go so you don't pinch yourself."
Yet when he turned on the tape to begin his preparations for Pederson's Calvary Baptist team, he couldn't help but be impressed. The Cavaliers ran a shotgun spread offense — "Before shotgun spread was cool," Gaille says — and they executed its concepts with a perfectionist's precision.
"There was no doubt they were a well-coached team," he says. "That doesn't always come out on video, but in looking at them it certainly did. What well-coached means is you can teach the skills that players need to accomplish what you want to have done. It's not just telling them what you want them to do."
Gaille's film study confirmed what he'd heard from his contacts up in Shreveport. Pederson wasn't some upshot carpet-bagger with one eye on the NFL. He was a serious high school coach.
"Doug wanted to find out whether he wanted to coach or not," Gaille says. "And, to his credit, instead of calling in a favor with somebody in the NFL, he took the job at Calvary Baptist. He was in on the ground floor, and he found out what coaching was all about. That says something. At this level, if there's a grass field that's not marked, guess who has to do it? The uniforms have to get washed by someone after the game. Doug discovered in his time at Calvary that this was something he really wanted to do."
Once the pregame interviews had ended and the live television set had been cleared from the sidelines, Gaille's Wildcats couldn't be stopped. They scored on four of their first five possessions, then held on tight for a 35-14 win that earned them a trip to New Orleans for a championship game in the Super Dome.
Fate is a fickle beast, of course. Pederson would spend one more season at Calvary Baptist before joining Andy Reid's staff in Philadelphia, the first step in a meteoric rise that now sees him as a No. 1 seed in the playoffs and a leading NFL Coach of the Year candidate. Gaille, meanwhile, has followed him throughout. After losing in the 2007 state championship, he spent four more seasons at St. James before setting off into retirement.
But he remains a football junkie, with a subscription to the NFL's All-22 coaching films, and a soft spot for a coach whose roots he knows well. When he watches the Eagles play, he can't help but see traces of Pederson's coaching past. At the high school level, football is first and foremost an assignment game. But the importance of that detail never goes away.
"There is a shortage, especially in the NFL, of people who can really teach individual skills," Gaille said. "That's why they move around so much. It's like everybody is trying to seek a place where they have players who can do what you want them to do and not necessarily teach them and improve the player. That's all a pro player wants: how can you make me better so I can make more money? And if you can prove that, you can be a 31-year-old head coach, you can be an 80-year-old defensive coordinator. If you can't, then you become an itinerant farmer."
Gaille is 67 years old, and, truth be told, he's up against his stiffest opponent yet. Diagnosed early last year with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, he spends his days relying on his faith for the spirit that has long defined him. Yet, God willing, he'll be in front of that television on Saturday afternoon, watching as a camera zooms in on a man whose roots strike close to home.
"You've gotta love somebody who will get in there with teenagers and spend all day with them, as goofy as teenagers are," he says. "I'm not gonna tell you anything you don't know — Doug's got class, he cares about people, and it's evident that he does. That's not a false notion. Nothing is too big or too small for him to be able to engage in. He has a very good sense of what is important and what isn't important. He'll do the important things within an inch of his life. You've got to do the important things exactly the right way. I think that's going to bode well for him in the playoffs."
While an Eagles loss might mean a home game for Louisiana's Saints, Gaille makes one thing clear: he won't be rooting for the Falcons.