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Coach with cerebral palsy teaches the best of them

Discussion in 'BBS Hangout' started by Mr. Brightside, Jan 8, 2006.

  1. Mr. Brightside

    Mr. Brightside Contributing Member

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    http://www.roanoke.com/sports/etc/wb/47326

    An unlikely path to the NFL

    Cerebral Palsy hasn't kept Doug Blevins from coaching NFL kickers, including Adam Vinatieri.


    By Jim Reedy
    The Roanoke Times






    ABINGDON -- Fade in on our heroes -- though not yet our heroes, just two guys on a wintry football field in Abingdon in late 1995.

    One, a recent college graduate with NFL dreams, pushes the other onto the field in a wheelchair. He kicks field goals while his companion, nearly 10 years his senior, offers instruction and occasional praise.

    Try to plant your foot an inch farther left. Keep your hips square as you come through. Nice ball, Adam.

    Adam backs up and tries some long kicks. His coach tells him to pretend he's kicking to win the Super Bowl.

    The footballs sail through the uprights.

    A decade later, Adam Vinatieri's resume includes some of the most dramatic field goals in the history of the NFL -- kicks that helped the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl championships in the past four years and perhaps clinched Vinatieri a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

    Tonight, he and the Patriots will open the NFL playoffs against Jacksonville, and Doug Blevins, his coach all those years ago, will watch on television from his favorite chair.

    "We laugh about that now, because people think we're making it up," Blevins said of their Super Bowl fantasies. "It's kind of a dream scenario."

    Blevins, 42, knows something about dreams coming true. He has cerebral palsy, a muscular disorder that has kept him confined to a wheelchair for most of his life.

    Yet years of study and an eye for the smallest details have afforded him a more than comfortable lifestyle and made him one of the most sought-after and respected kicking coaches in the world. Through jobs with the Patriots, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings, as well as his own robust consulting firm, Blevins has coached a dozen NFL kickers and punters, including Pro Bowlers such as Vinatieri, David Akers of the Philadelphia Eagles and Shayne Graham of the Cincinnati Bengals.

    High school and college kickers clamor for his expertise and individual instruction, visiting him in Abingdon or attending one of several camps he conducts throughout the year across the country.

    It's a story worthy of Hollywood -- and it might soon be, if negotiations with ESPN or another suitor prove fruitful.

    Still, the obvious question persists. Blevins has heard it his whole life. How can someone who has never kicked a football train some of the best kickers in the world?

    "Ever heard of Mozart? He was deaf," said Graham, who starred at Pulaski County High School and Virginia Tech.

    Historical errors aside -- Beethoven was deaf, not Mozart -- Graham has a point.

    Spend five or 10 minutes with Blevins, "and you just know," said Xavier Beitia, a former kicker at Florida State University who spent the past year living and training in Abingdon, as Vinatieri and others before him had done.

    His disability "becomes a moot point because you know he's helping you."

    'Completely indomitable'

    Abingdon didn't know what to do with Doug Blevins at first.

    Though he was in no way mentally impaired, the local school system figured he couldn't handle the rigors of a mainstream education and arranged for tutors to visit him at home.

    Linda Blevins fought for years to get her son into a classroom, but it wasn't until fifth grade that Blevins joined his peers at Abingdon Elementary School. His mother carried him in from the car every morning and carried him out every afternoon.

    His father, Willis, shared with him a love of the Dallas Cowboys. He went outside on crutches to join the neighborhood kids for backyard football -- at least until he broke his kneecap the summer before seventh grade.

    More often Blevins observed from the sidelines, serving as a team manager in youth leagues and for the Abingdon High School football team. He began to see the game as a coach, figuring that if his body would not allow him to be out on the field, his brain nevertheless might lead to a future in sports.

    "Cerebral palsy, in my way of thinking, is the Cadillac of handicaps," Blevins said. "It really is. Because you know, it could be a lot worse. Mine is not that significant. I have no speech impairment. I drive. I have assistance doing a number of things, but not all the time. I feed myself. ... I consider myself lucky, to be honest with you."

    He was a high school sophomore in 1978, he said, when he resolved to become an NFL coach. He looked for a niche and settled on kicking, a critical but little understood part of the game.

    "I realized I had to have a specialty and be the best at it -- not pretty good, but be the best at it -- in order to be given a fair shot," Blevins said. "And that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think that we've gotten away from that in this country -- that desire, that competitiveness to be the best. ...

    "Too many people, I think, today have this expectation of being handed something. ... It's that victim mentality: 'I deserve something because of my situation.' I despise that."

    Blevins learned everything he could about kicking, and got a break in 1982 when Edwin Hardison, an administrator at Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon, helped him gain admission to the University of Tennessee and a spot as a student assistant on the staff of the legendary Johnny Majors.

    "He was remarkable in every way," Hardison said of Blevins. "Extremely ambitious ... about where he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. Completely indomitable."

    After two years at Tennessee, he worked as a volunteer assistant at Emory & Henry and a student assistant at East Tennessee State University. Blevins began to work with local kickers, building a base of knowledge. He was working as the coordinator of handicapped student services at Southwest Virginia Community College in 1993 when a colleague at the school recommended him to a friend whose team needed kicking advice: New York Jets general manager Dick Steinberg.

    Steinberg was initially skeptical, but he corresponded with Blevins through the fall as the younger man compiled comprehensive weekly analyses of the Jets kicking game. Blevins came on board the next year as a full-time kicking consultant, but he and the rest of the coaching staff were dismissed along with head coach Pete Carroll after a lackluster season.

    "He really had a passion for it," said Jaguars vice president of player personnel James Harris, who was then Steinberg's assistant general manager. "He really loved what he was doing. He loved working with the kickers."

    Blevins returned to Abingdon. The best way to get noticed, he decided, was to develop a star kicker who could stand as living proof of his coaching ability.

    The breakthrough

    Vinatieri first contacted Blevins in 1995 on the advice of Jets punter Brian Hansen, a fellow South Dakota native Vinatieri met at a kicking camp.

    Blevins watched Vinatieri kick on tape, corresponded with him through his final semester at South Dakota State University and invited the young man to train with him in Abingdon.

    An ability to see in real time what others could only see frame-by-frame on tape gave Blevins a clue that Vinatieri "had the potential to be special."

    Vinatieri worked part-time jobs as a cab driver, waiter and bartender in Abingdon as he and his new coach worked nearly every day to perfect his kicking motion.

    "We ate, slept and drank football," Vinatieri told Sports Illustrated for a story about Blevins in 2004. "We were like two kids on the outside looking in."

    Blevins was able to get Vinatieri a job the following spring with the Amsterdam Admirals of the World League, now NFL Europe. That led to a contract with the Patriots that summer.

    As Vinatieri established himself in New England, Blevins cemented his place as a kicking guru, coaching full time with the Dolphins for six seasons and sending a half-dozen other kickers to the NFL.

    In February 2002, he watched with the rest of America as Vinatieri beat the St. Louis Rams with a 48-yard field goal on the last play of Super Bowl XXXVI -- the last of three remarkable kicks he made that postseason.

    'My next Adam'

    On a brisk but pleasant December afternoon, Blevins is on the job at Latture Field, where he coached Vinatieri and many others.

    He takes Xavier Beitia and former East Carolina University kicker Cameron Broadwell through their paces as he zips around, using his right hand to work the joystick of his motorized chair.

    He coaxes and corrects Beitia, Broadwell and running back James Walley. Blevins branched out into sports management last year and Walley, who played at Southern Mississippi and Indiana State, is among his first nonkicker clients.

    Beitia, 23, is his best pupil now. "X is my next Adam," Blevins says.

    Beitia's old form was good enough to make him a four-year starter at Florida State, but it wasn't going to get him an NFL job. Over the past year, they have broken down and completely rebuilt Beitia's kicking motion, making him more consistent and powerful.

    Now, Beitia says, NFL coaches tell him he looks like "a completely different kicker."

    Blevins hopes his career will take him to still higher places. His current goals are no less ambitious than the ones that got him here.

    He wants to have relationships with most if not all of the kickers and punters in the NFL, either coaching them or representing them through his nascent sports agency, Doug Blevins Sports Management.

    He sorely wants to be a college or professional head coach, though he is skeptical that a team would hire someone with his disability.

    Today, though, Blevins is happy to be in Abingdon, as always, with his kickers. They chat about a kicking job that might come open with the Dallas Cowboys and joke about a recent "Saturday Night Live" sketch that poked fun at New York Giants kicker Jay Feely.

    "Watch my extension here, Doug," Beitia says as he lines up for an attempt.

    He kicks. It looks good to the untrained eye.

    "Aw, you bent your knee," Blevins says. "Hit it well, though."

    In 10 years, everything has changed for Doug Blevins. And nothing has changed.

    The football sails through the uprights.

    "Nice ball, X."

    Staff writer Randy King contributed to this report.
     

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