Last year when Tony Brown's knees told him it was time to end to his near-10-year NFL career, he had to think about what he wanted to do next. He hadn't even considered coaching until then, but because he did, those involved with East Hamilton's football program are grateful.
The former defensive tackle is back in his home town of Chattanooga and facing his post-playing days the same way he faced centers and guards for so many years -- with 100 percent commitment to the job. As defensive line coach for the Hurricanes, who host Dobyns-Bennett tonight at 7:30, he's learning how to be a mentor to the next generation.
"It's been great," Brown said. "I knew myself and knew I wanted to do something where I would stay upbeat. That's when I decided to get into high school coaching. That way I would have a chance to pass along the things I learned along the way."
Brown spent most of his pro career playing for the Tennessee Titans. But rather than trying to land a coaching job in the Titans' home of Nashville or in Memphis, where he played in college, he chose to return to Chattanooga to be close to family.
East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood said a mutual friend put him in touch with Brown last spring. Gatewood said the interview turned into an hourlong conversation. Evidently it was mutually satisfying, and so have things been since with those two and defensive coordinator Steve Garland.
"He's been very open to learning what we do, and we're open to learning from him," Gatewood said. "He has a great relationship with the kids. He really understands how to get the most out of them. He does a great job of connecting with them and he shows them they way the game is supposed to be played, which is full speed and going all out."
Senior defensive end Quinn Griffith has become one of Brown's prize pupils. Griffith said he couldn't help but notice Brown when he first began appearing around campus.
"I just remember last year during baseball season and seeing this big guy walking around," Griffith said. "Nobody knew who he was. I met him the first day of spring football practice, and we've hit it off since."
Brown played tight end, linebacker and even safety for City High School in the late 1990s. The University of Memphis recruited him as a linebacker. He made the change to defensive end there during his sophomore year.
East Hamilton plays three across its defensive front with Griffith and Bailey Lenoir at ends and fellow senior Cordell Sands at noseguard. Senior Gavin Crow fills in at nose and senior Drew Templeton and junior end John Schussler rotate in regularly at ends.
"I just fell into a good situation," Brown said. "A lot of these guys played last year, and we're just building on that. They may not be the most athletic, but they're smart and they want to be leaders. They'll stay late after practice and do whatever it takes to get better. The way they are says a lot about their upbringing."
Last Friday the 'Canes played at Signal Mountain in Brown's first game on staff.
"I hadn't been involved in a Friday night game since '98," he said. "I've been at the pro level, the college level, but in high school there's a different kind of atmosphere. I felt it all over again that Friday night."
Griffith said the things Brown has helped him with the most are how to best use his hands and how to take advantage of the speed he has, particularly in pass-rushing situations. Putting those tips to work, he helped East Hamilton beat the Eagles 14-12.
"Quinn has made great strides working with Coach Brown, learning what he's teaching and implementing what he's teaching," Gatewood said.
Brown will get the chance to experience a home game this week, albeit against the 10th-ranked team in the Associated Press Class 6A poll. But the 'Canes are ranked No. 4 in 5A.
Brown may miss playing, but he seems happy just getting the chance to be on a sideline again. And he said his new job is even more rewarding than he thought it would be.
"He's humble," Gatewood said. "He cares about the kids. That's the biggest thing. He cares about what they're doing and what they are as young men."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.