“I’ve never really been a big birthday guy,” Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay said this week. He turned 33 years old on Thursday, but insisted all celebrations were on hold as he prepared for his first Super Bowl. “A good birthday present would be: Let’s take care of business over the next couple of weeks.”
McVay, who will become the youngest head coach in Super Bowl history, allowed himself one birthday memory. He was 14. It was Jan. 30, 2000. The then-St. Louis Rams played the Titans at the Georgia Dome in Super Bowl XXXIV. Steve McNair and Kurt Warner were the quarterbacks. McVay detailed the conditions on the way in from the family’s house in the East Cobb suburb of Atlanta, just outside the Interstate 285 perimeter.
“I remember it was real icy then,” he said. “It was a problem for us to get there.”
His grandfather, John, the Giants’ head coach from 1976-78 and also a former 49ers front office man, had gifted his family the tickets. McVay rattled off the highlights that stayed with him: Eddie George’s rushes, Marshall Faulk’s versatility, Torry Holt’s slants and McNair’s derring-do. It all stayed with McVay as he transitioned from a seventh-grade team that scored one touchdown and went winless to a quarterback running the triple-option on a state championship team at Marist School in Atlanta.
“Our grandpa got us tickets,” said McVay, who used to attend 49ers games and walkthroughs when San Francisco made its annual cross-country trip to play the Falcons in the NFC West during McVay’s childhood. “That was a good birthday present for me.”
McVay made his way into the world in Kettering, Ohio. He was Tim and Cindy McVay’s firstborn, a towhead who toddled around the house. The family moved around as required by his father’s sales role with Cox Television, a media group headquartered in Atlanta. The McVays moved there when Sean was 6, spent two years in the area then re-routed to Pittsburgh, where Sean learned hockey. His father’s work took the family back to Atlanta after two years, and they stayed put for eight years. In that span, Sean played tennis and took to soccer as a forward. Never shying from contact, his parents followed the ball to find their son on field.
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“You know how when you play soccer as a kid and there’s one or two of the kids that are just flat-out faster than the others?” Tim said. “Well, Sean was one of those. He’d fly in, take a header, fly in too fast, break a nose.”
It wasn’t long before he was handing off the ball as a quarterback. By sophomore year in high school, he platooned as a defensive back for the varsity, communicating well, shouting out what he saw, “Watch the bootleg!” or, “Power off tackle!” The offense ran the triple-option, and McVay earned the trust of head coach Alan Chadwick and offensive coordinator Paul Etheridge. McVay had to make the reads, set up blockers, deke defenders and pump-fake on the run to keep cornerbacks guessing his next decision. He threw for 1,000 yards and rushed for another 1,000 in back-to-back seasons. Coaches took note of his leadership — upbeat, positive, energetic and highly engaged — as well as the film study he logged, both with them and at home with his father Tim, a former defensive back at Indiana.
“I don’t think he did any [school] homework,” Chadwick said.
Sean passed all mettle tests as Marist advanced through the high school playoffs his senior year. In the state quarterfinal, it was fourth down by the goal line when McVay made his case to run “Wham Naked.” Marist trailed Shaw High by five with a few minutes on the clock. Chadwick called time out and discussed the upcoming play with Etheridge and McVay by the sideline. Blessed with a bootlegger’s guile, McVay wanted to fake the handoff to tailback Chris “Chili” Davis, hide the ball from the defense’s view, roll out and run the ball, sans blockers in front of him.
“Nobody’s going to be there,” he told the coaches. “Trust me.”
When McVay executed it, defenders swarmed Davis, who didn’t have the ball. McVay turned the corner and walked the ball into the end zone. They went on to win the Class 4A state championship. It was a team victory, but individual accolades followed as well. McVay was named state offensive player of the year. He beat out wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who went on to Georgia Tech and later the Detroit Lions.
“We always kid Sean that it was probably because we won the state title,” Chadwick said. “Calvin’s team went out earlier in the playoffs.”
McVay matriculated to Miami (Ohio), where his grandfather and uncle, also John, had played. Known as “The Cradle of Coaches” for its reputation as the place where the likes of Earl Blaik, Paul Brown, Weeb Ewbank, Sid Gillman, Ara Parseghian and Bo Schembechler gained experienced in the profession. Considered too short for quarterback at the Division I level, McVay slipped into the slot receiver role and found peers regarding football families. Former Dolphins coach Don Shula’s grandson, Chris, was also on the team, as was Parseghian’s great nephew, Nathan.
Family ties led McVay straight to the NFL after graduation. His grandfather had hired Jon Gruden’s father, Jimmy, as an assistant coach at Dayton. Jon Gruden then hired Sean as his assistant receivers coach with the Buccaneers in 2008, when Sean was 22. McVay absorbed Gruden’s workaholic tendencies and tried beating the boss to the office. A few years later, Sean worked under Jon’s brother Jay Gruden with the Redskins, working his way up from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator. At 30, the Rams hired him to be head coach.
Etheridge, the offensive coordinator back at Marist, laughs about the rise. He remembers visiting McVay in Washington and asking what time they would ride into the team’s facility the next day. Etheridge figured he would go in with McVay.
“I don’t think you want to do that,” McVay said.
“Why not?” Etheridge said.
“I’m in at 4:30 a.m.,” McVay said.
“When do you go to bed?” Etheridge said.
“8:30 p.m.,” McVay said.
“Who are you, my grandfather?” Etheridge said.
There are all kinds of crossing patterns McVay makes with various individuals in the game. One collegiate link was with a Kent State quarterback named Julian Edelman during McVay’s Miami (Ohio) days. The Patriots wideout, who has won two Super Bowls as Tom Brady’s top target, competed against McVay’s Miami teams twice.
“He’s a stud,” Edelman said. “He’s my age and he’s leading an organization to a Super Bowl. It’s unbelievable, and it’s a testament to how much he knows the game, how hard he works. I love seeing it. He’s a MAC guy.”
Etheridge offers his best explanation for how McVay has accomplished as much as he has before his 15-year high school reunion.
“He’s a cyborg,” he says.
The McVays are now on their third tour in Atlanta, having moved back from the San Francisco area in recent years. Tim is retired now, but he remains active, particularly when around his son’s players and coaching staff. Sean joked he was sure his father was looking around for someone to chest-bump after the Rams won the NFC Championship in New Orleans last week.
“I loved being around a team, in a locker room,” he says. “I’m the first guy with a high-five and a hug, but I also have the sense to keep the hell out of the way.”
Ticket requests continue to come from all over as kickoff approaches. Chadwick noted a former player of his acquired a few tickets to the Super Bowl.
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“I asked him who he was taking,” Chadwick said. “He’s taking his damn wife. I told him she won’t appreciate it as much as I would!”
Sean McVay has trained his attention on the game plan and making sure his Rams “compete with a quieted mind and a confidence that is earned.”
He knows familiar faces will be in the stands. In 2017, Marist honored him by inducting him into the Blue & Gold Athletics Circle. Each honoree receives a commemorative plaque and a “free athletic ticket for life” to any Marist home game.
McVay spoke fondly this week about his Georgia days. He also talked about first impressions and the earliest lessons he learned back at Marist. His words reminded supporters back home of what he used to do as a player.
“It’s never too soon to be able to make a big impact in a big-time game,” he said.