Former NFL players strive to break into coaching on ground floor

Steve Gregory played safety for the Chargers and Patriots and now is starting over in the NFL as a defensive assistant for the Lions. Detroit Lions

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Steve Gregory walks down the hall on the second floor of the Detroit Lions' practice facility and sees one of his colleagues coming toward him. Hank Fraley is a former NFL offensive lineman. He's about twice the size of Gregory, a former safety, and probably big enough at age 41 to still play.

Gregory doesn't care. Five years removed from the NFL, the occasional urge remains. He'll throw a quick stutter-step and try to blow past Fraley with a pass-rush move. Usually, Fraley does nothing, but every once in a while ...

"Hank pinned me up one day. He hit me," Gregory said. "I was like, 'God damn, Hank, you're pretty strong.' He's still got it a little bit."

For the two of them, who have made the transition from NFL veteran to low-level pro assistant coach, it's reliving their past while creating camaraderie in the present. Players retire. Roles change. Intensity turns into half-speed reenactments. But instincts don't die.

Once at the top of their profession, having their needs attended to in order to get them ready to play, they are now those attendants -- working their way up from the bottom again to try to reach the top of the coaching profession.

Four of the Lions' entry-level assistant coaches, ranging in age from their late 30s to early 40s, are former NFL veterans. Billy Yates played offensive line for eight seasons with the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns. Leon Washington was a running back/return specialist for nine seasons with the New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks, Patriots and Tennessee Titans. Gregory played eight years for the San Diego Chargers and Patriots, and Fraley put in 11 years as an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Browns and St. Louis Rams.

The in-season hours are long. The schedule is intense. The responsibilities range from running a position room to making photocopies of playbooks on whatever type of stock paper each position coach prefers.

In Detroit, they are tabbed "offensive assistant" or "defensive assistant." In other places, they are known as "quality control coaches." Occasionally, as with Fraley, there is a singular position attached: assistant offensive line coach.

No matter the title, the job reality is essentially the same: Help wherever possible while learning how to make the transition from player to coach.

"You go from a player, and I wouldn't say you're pampered, but you're a different status than when you're a bottom of the totem pole, doing the grunt work," said Jordan Kovacs, a defensive quality control coach in Cincinnati who spent parts of four seasons in the league. "I would just say it's very humbling, and as a player, you take those quality control coaches or those graduate assistant coaches for granted.

"There's a lot of work that goes in behind the scenes that, for no better words, is probably underappreciated."

In this job, there is a lot of staring at a screen. Watching film? Computer. Cutting up highlights? Computer. Drawing up plays? That’s done in an XOS or Visio program. Excel spreadsheets have become a coach's new friend, an easier way to consolidate, disseminate and digest information.

The tech has been streamlined, but the gig is essentially the same as it was a generation ago.

How much time is spent in the office depends on the time of year. During offseason workouts, a day could look normal to most, with somewhere between eight and 10 hours of work. In-season, the coaches could work close to 100 hours per week. That often means a consistent flow of energy drinks and caffeine. Fraley's drink of choice vacillates between Tim Horton's and Dunkin' coffee, either black or with creamer, depending on how he's feeling.

The consistently packed days start early and end late. Yates woke up at 3:30 a.m. most days last season and arrived at his Allen Park office by 4:30 a.m. Depending on the day -- and how much he might need to finish from the day before -- he either played catch-up, tried to get ahead or headed to the weight room for an early workout.

Post-workout, he was at his desk preparing. The job is both so close and so far from his previous life as an NFL player.

"It's a lot of the game-plan stuff that you have to make sure that everything is tightened up," Yates said. "So that way, when it's presented, that it's correct."

By 7:30 a.m., the rookies arrived. Yates was responsible for the defensive linemen, including Da'Shawn Hand. They met on their own, then attended position and team meetings. Practice. Post-practice film session. More meetings. Title aside, the assistants were on the field instructing and explaining, walking players through drills.

There were times during practice when Gregory and the team's secondary coach, Brian Stewart, split corners and safeties. By dividing the work and players, they could instruct faster while drilling home the message. In meetings, Gregory used his experience in the NFL -- and in head coach Matt Patricia's defense -- to explain concepts and techniques to current Lions players.

When the players left, the job returned to the scouting and preparation tasks every team needs. In Detroit, the assistants were given specific assignments in situational football. Yates studied opposing screens and draws along with offensive tendencies. Gregory looked at red zone and an opponent's play-action plan. Fraley, in part because of his prior experience with offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, did a little bit of everything. This will be Washington's first season.

With the scouting complete, they began preparing presentations, stuffing folders, drawing out play cards and printing them. They also formed their own game-plan opinions -- in Detroit, all potential strategies are welcome.

Gregory, Yates and Fraley often bounced ideas off each other while trying to learn each other's positions. As players, they might have wanted to know. Now, they have to know for opponent prep and career advancement. Yates will often yell to the next office to ask Gregory a question or have him look something over.

"I'm always inquisitive," Yates said. "I'm like, 'Hey, what do you think about this? Does this sound right?' If I type something up, I'm like, 'Read this, and tell me what you think as a player -- as a player, not a coach, but as a player.'

"Really, at the end of the day, we're trying to communicate to players, and everybody's on different levels, so you don't want to miss someone."

They remember what life was like -- getting ready for a game, competing to win and keep a job and a paycheck. They know what worked and what didn't. That knowledge blends into what they are learning every day from watching and participating themselves.

Fraley's time as a coach has been as circuitous as his playing days -- college to the NFL, back to college, then to the pros again. Twice, Fraley had his own offensive line room in college at San Jose State and UCLA. Twice, he left for low-level assistant jobs in the NFL to work with Davidson, first in Minnesota and now in Detroit.

His is a coaching career that started in 2012, less than a year after he decided he was finished playing. He received a call with an offer to be the offensive line coach at non-scholarship FCS University of San Diego. He left his wife and children in New Jersey, packed up a 30-foot Fleetwood Class A RV and drove to San Diego with his dad and a friend. He parked at Campland on the Bay and lived in the RV for a year.

"Had to do all the recruiting, everything, and really I learned how to game plan," Fraley said. "That's the biggest thing in coaching. You're reading all the CliffsNotes as a player. You're getting everything handed to you. As a coach, I had to learn truly how to game plan it and how to install to guys and how should it go.

"My first year coaching, I had to learn."

After one year, Fraley was hired at San Jose State. The RV made the trip north, and the family came, too, which meant townhouse living and selling the motor home. One year later, in 2014, the Vikings hired Fraley. The Fraleys sold their New Jersey home and have been nomads since: Minnesota for three seasons, Los Angeles for one, now Detroit for two. Fraley's NFL pay allowed him to make decisions in coaching that he believed were right for him.

He still considers leaving San Jose State for the Vikings his best move. It got him to the NFL, the place many coaches -- especially ones who played in the league -- want to be, even if it means worse pay, menial tasks and longer hours.

For his colleagues, the transition was similar. Gregory worked at Syracuse in 2015 as a special-teams quality control coach before landing with the Lions last year. Yates was a strength-and-conditioning coach at Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Bowling Green from 2013 to 2017 before moving to a coaching spot in Detroit. Washington had internships in Atlanta and Jacksonville -- shorter stints designed to give former players a chance to see if they really want to coach -- and a short-term job coaching his son's middle school team in North Carolina before landing his gig this year.

They also know there's a path out. They can look at coaches across the league young and old, including Buffalo Bills receivers coach Chad Hall. He spent two years as an offensive assistant in Buffalo after a four-year NFL career and then was promoted to receivers coach in Buffalo in 2019.

"Most people, even ex-players, have to find a way to start in college, and usually it's not even Division I. They have to find a way, unless they are some star, and find a way to get there," Hall said. "Every coach is trying to find a way to get to the NFL, so I was super grateful, and all I knew is that I needed my foot in the door, and then I knew I was going to outwork everybody, just like I have in my whole previous part of my life.

"I knew if I got my foot in the door, I would learn as much as I could and just start rolling. ... I was so grateful to have the opportunity to start in the NFL. Talking to other coaches, it's the hardest league to get into."

They all knew that at some point they wanted to coach. They wanted to stay involved in football and find an outlet to present all the knowledge they accumulated throughout their careers.

But they had to start at the bottom -- as in most professions -- to accomplish it.

"It can be the grunt work, which is good. I think that's what good coaches have to do and do all that grinding," Fraley said. "I kind of say it's the equivalent, a little bit, of being a GA in college, if you've talked to those guys. On the other hand, no job is too small or too big to get your hand in there to help out.

"You just jump up, whatever's available or needs to be done for the team's sake."

Washington is closer to his playing days than the other coaches. The 36-year-old retired in 2014 and still has recognition from some players for his on-field work -- mostly his 99 rating as a returner in Madden. He's still transitioning from player to coach and can be spotted during individual running back drills at the back of the line, going through steps behind Kerryon Johnson and Zach Zenner like he used to as a player. He also fields questions from younger players about their diets and keeping their bodies in shape.

The former-player tag offers these coaches instant credibility in NFL locker rooms. They lived it. They understand what's expected from a ground level.

"It's an advancement of the game," Gregory said. "It's one thing to understand the X's and O's of the game. It's another thing to understand the X's and O's and actually have been an X or O, if that makes sense."

His history gives him a breadth of knowledge to pull from if a current player has a question. He can recall something from running Patricia's scheme or from his days as a player.

NFL experience helped Gregory last season, his first working an NFL sideline, as he adjusted. He almost busted his lip on a player's face mask last season while giving a pregame chest bump, similar to what was his routine as a player.

"I just got a little jacked up," Gregory said. "One of the guys, I'm like, 'C'mon baby, let's go, let's win this thing.' Then I almost busted my lip up on his face mask. I'm like, 'Oh yeah, I don't have a helmet on.'"

He still has the energy; it's channeled into coaching now. He felt it for the first time in Week 3 last season, when the defensive coaches made a late-game adjustment to seal a win against New England. On the fly in the game, they added a package they hadn't installed during the week. On the sideline, he had to explain what they were doing. Gregory said they hadn't worked on the package in training camp either because it was a combination of concepts.

The defense worked. The players understood. The Lions, for the first time under Patricia, won -- beating his old team to boot. That's when Gregory felt the adrenaline jolt he used to get as a player. It's a different type of thinking, a more strategic way of looking at the game.

Even as a coach just coming up, with a range of responsibilities, he has begun to understand his role. In many ways, the point of the job is to learn and transition. It's to gain an appreciation for a job most players don't realize exists and likely won't understand unless they end up doing it themselves.

"When you did think about it, it was, 'Who in the hell has to do all this crap?'" Kovacs said of the player's perspective. "But yeah, you definitely, having done it, you have much better appreciation for those guys. ... and it is just about being organized and having a system and being as detailed as you can, and everyone is on the same page.

"Once you do that, it's nothing. You just have to be disciplined and stay on top of things. As a player, I never really thought about how somebody had to go in, and it might just be one guy typing in all those things."

He -- and the rest of those like him in the league -- know all about this job now. Because they are the ones doing it.