HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – As the last of the sun dropped below the pines, the 9- and 10-year-olds sitting on tackling dummies listened to the older guy in the FedEx Racing cap they knew only as "Coach." They sat as patiently as kids possibly can, trying to hold their heads still inside the bobbling Redskins helmets. They sat there as Coach lectured on the proper positioning of the wide receiver and tight end, and popped up when Coach told them it was time to go run a few more plays. Coach didn't raise his voice, didn't mock them or call them out, and for the kids, that was good enough.
Their dads, though … their dads knew the truth.
"Coach" is Joe Gibbs, the legendary three-time Super Bowl champion coach. He's once again patrolling the sideline, and watching him diagram plays for kids is like watching Eric Clapton give guitar lessons.
Joe Gibbs is one of those rare men who has reached the mountaintop in not one, but two hyper-competitive sports. He took the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl four times and went 3-1 in the big game, knocking off the Dolphins, Broncos and Bills. Then he hung up the whistle and created Joe Gibbs Racing, where he's won three championships in NASCAR's elite series. This year, with only eight races remaining, the top two cars in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship are JGR teams.
Indeed, on this particular Monday evening, he's barely 15 hours removed from a NASCAR celebration in Chicago, where JGR's Matt Kenseth won the first race of the Chase. Yet here's Gibbs, alongside his sons J.D. and Coy, coaching youngsters on the finer points of handoffs and snap counts.
"These are kids in fourth and fifth grade, they have no idea what he did," J.D. Gibbs, now president of JGR, says of his father. "It's just great to see him engage with these kids."
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So what brought Gibbs back to the field? One word: family. He's got quite a few grandsons, and as they reach football age, Gibbs spends a few seasons giving them some lessons from the master.
"I love coaching my grandkids, but I love working with my two sons. J.D. is the head coach and I'm the assistant, you believe that?" Joe Gibbs says with a chuckle. And then, for a moment, the talk turns serious.
"I missed so much of them growing up," Gibbs says in a quieter voice. "I really messed up there. So I like working with J.D. and Coy. I'm trying not to do the same thing again. With J.D. and Coy, I missed so much. With the grandkids, I try to do something special with them every week."
"He does too much," J.D. chimes in. "He spoils them!"
The Gibbs grandkids aren't the only ones getting spoiled; their teammates on the Redskins are getting an unparalleled football education too. As a side benefit, their dads are getting an unexpected brush with football royalty.
"I was a huge [Washington] Redskins fan growing up, so when I found out my son was on Joe's team, I called everyone I knew," says Shawn Copeland, a Charlotte attorney. "All it takes is a few minutes to see how much he loves coaching, and how much he loves each of these kids. It's like they're his own sons."
This is a church league, full pads and what passes for tackling amongst 9-year-olds. Games are on Saturdays, which means the Gibbs men generally coach and then go jump on a plane to head to wherever Sunday's NASCAR race is running. And while there's some similarity to Gibbs' former gig – everybody always wants to know how much more time there's left in practice – there are some marked differences, too.
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"Our very first game, we had a big kid, looked great in practice at offensive guard and defensive line," Gibbs recalls. "He was a stud. We were thinking he was going to be awesome. Two plays in, he comes running off the field and goes to J.D. I figured he'd broke a chin strap or something. Two plays later, he comes running off the field again, and this time I caught him."
Gibbs asked the lad what the problem was.
"Coach," he said, "they're hitting me in places where I don't have pads."
"Daniel," Gibbs replied. "See that bench over there? You can go sit there for the rest of the game … or you can go hit them where they don't have pads."
J.D. laughs that the first day Joe came out of retirement to coach, his whiteboard plays were going right over the heads of the fourth-graders. "So we broke it down, made it a little simpler, and everybody has more fun."
A couple of years back, the grandson of Dan Reeves, Gibbs' old coaching rival from Super Bowl XXII, played on the team. So opposing coaches that year had to look across the field and see Joe Gibbs and Dan Reeves on the sideline. It wasn't even close to a fair fight.
This year, the Redskins are 3-1, their loss a 14-13 defeat in their first game. "We got outcoached," says a laughing Gibbs.
The level of preparation that the Gibbs men put into football is breathtaking. No joke: They actually scout opposing teams to suss out little Dylan or Chase's tendencies.
"No. 2, No. 15 and No. 18 are their big guys," J.D. says of their upcoming opponent. "Watch No. 2. He's small, but he's fast." Maybe the kids are paying attention; probably they aren't. Either way, it's a perfect moment.
At one point during the team meeting, Gibbs praises Copeland's son, saying he's a "true student of the game." Copeland grins and whispers, "At his rehearsal dinner, I'm going to be telling the story of how Joe Gibbs said my son is a student of the game."
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Youth football is at a crossroads now, with many parents concerned about the impact of concussions and helmet-to-helmet contact at a young age. Gibbs is aware of the concerns, but does his best to ensure that his kids have the best possible knowledge going into a hit.
"What you make sure you do with kids is you don't ever get them more than 3 yards apart for any kind of contact," Gibbs said. "Generally, it takes care of itself for kids this age, because they're not coming in there heavy. The thing we work on the most, blocking and tackling, is head-up. Always keep your head up."
"I wasn't allowed to play football until seventh grade," recalls J.D., who carried the nickname "Son Of" through high school. "[My dad] knew there were some crazy coaches. I asked him, 'Dad, how come you're OK with these kids playing in fourth and fifth grade?' He says, 'Because I'm coaching.' "
"At this age, you're not sure who's going to be a star," Joe says. "You're trying to get everyone to enjoy it, to take something good away from it, to understand what team sports are all about: sacrificing, working together for a goal."
As the players pack up their gear and wait for carpools to arrive, they wander over to Joe and J.D. for a final pep talk. One kid announces his plans to move up a division next year. Another asks Joe to watch him run a wind sprint.
"If you run like that in the game, we're going to be awesome," Gibbs says. "I haven't seen you run like that in a game! You were great!"
"That's just 'cause I'm not that good at turning," the kid replies, and heads off to a waiting minivan.
For Gibbs, the experience is more rewarding than any individual moment. "Just watching them improve is so much fun," he says. "We have a couple little guys here that are playing so much differently. Seeing them have a good experience, making tackles – it's fun to see them have a good time and have a good experience."
"Where do these kids go from here?" Copeland wonders. "Next year, they're going to be 9 years old, and they're going to ask their coach, 'How many Super Bowls have you won?' It's all downhill from here."