‘It’s like the family business:’ How coaching has bonded Detroit Lions staff

Detroit Free Press

Anthony Lynn landed his first coaching job 24 years ago, while he was still playing in the NFL.

A running back with the Denver Broncos in 1997-99, Lynn spent three seasons coaching his son D’Anton’s pee wee football team, where he learned quickly coaching runs in the family.

“We were in the middle of a game and he was my quarterback,” Lynn told the Free Press earlier this month. “He comes over to me, he goes, ‘Dad.’ He draws a play in the dirt at 7 years old, and I was like, ‘That actually makes sense.’ What 7-year-old can draw a play in the dirt? So I told his mom, I was like, ‘He could be a hell of a coach.’”

Lynn jumped headfirst into coaching immediately after his playing career. He landed an assistant special teams job with the Broncos in 2000 and spent time as a running backs coach with five teams and assistant head coach with two before becoming head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017.

Now in his first season as Detroit Lions offensive coordinator, Lynn watched his son follow him into coaching seven years ago.

After D’Anton failed a physical in the CFL that ended his playing career, he ignored his dad’s suggestions to pursue a career on Wall Street — or do anything outside of football — and took a scouting internship with the New York Jets.

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That led to an assistant coaching position the next season alongside his father with the Buffalo Bills, and now D’Anton is in his first season as secondary coach with the Baltimore Ravens.

For the Lynns and several other members of the Lions staff, coaching has become a family affair, something passed on from generation to generation, across different levels and through different sports.

It has bonded brothers, brought fathers and sons together, and in Anthony Lynn’s case, been a way to honor his mother.

“My mom was my (first) coach,” Lynn said. “She wanted to be a high school basketball coach. My mom was an all-state basketball player, and my dad goes to the military. He comes home and him and my mom hooked up, my mom is pregnant with me. A senior in high school. And she had scholarship offers and every school told her that they would honor her scholarship if she had an abortion. And she pretty much told them to go to hell and she had me and she became my coach, my personal coach. And because she always wanted to coach, that was her passion, I think that’s why I kind of eventually became a coach, cause I wanted to honor her.”

D’Anton became a coach not necessarily to honor his father, but because it was what he knew.

During Anthony’s playing days, D’Anton sometimes took his father’s playbook and spent hours copying plays and sometimes designing plays of his own.

When his dad got into coaching, D’Anton spent summers at training camp, tagging along his father’s side, serving as a ball boy and doing odd jobs like the time he helped the grounds crew spread mulch at the Cleveland Browns practice facility.

“I know for me, that’s why I enjoyed it cause I got to pack up my bags,” D’Anton said. “They stayed in the dorms, so I got to stay in the dorms with my dad. I was around him all the time and even when we weren’t hanging out, it was just being around him. Like, they might be doing an offensive drill and I might be responsible for putting the ball on the hash and getting the ball after the play. Just being around him, it felt like quality time.”

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The Lynns spent more quality time together in recent years, including in 2017, when D’Anton was a defensive assistant on his father’s staff in LA.

D’Anton left after one season to become assistant secondary coach with the Houston Texans, and the two have played against each other two of the past three years, with D’Anton’s teams winning both games.

In September, D’Anton was in the coaches booth at Ford Field when the Ravens beat the Lions on Justin Tucker’s record-setting 66-yard field goal. He and other Ravens coaches celebrated wildly after the kick as they made their way to the elevator, but D’Anton stopped mid-celebration when he saw his father and other Lions assistants walk by.

“They’re high-fiving and laughing and they get on the elevator and we’re going to the elevator and he looks over and he sees me and he just kind of stops,” Anthony said, straightening up in his chair. “I open the door and I was like, ‘It’s OK. Guy kicked a 66-yarder to set an NFL record to win the damn game, y’all can celebrate.’”

Aubrey and Garner Pleasant

While D’Anton Lynn knew he wanted to be a coach from the time he was little, Aubrey Pleasant had no plans to follow his father, Garner, into the profession.

Pleasant figured he’d teach, be an athletic director or maybe work in the business side of sports — and then he got his first taste of coaching when he returned home to Flint after his playing career at Wisconsin ended.

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Garner, a longtime football, basketball and track coach in the Flint area, was coaching football at Grand Blanc at the time, and one of his assistants had just stepped down to spend more time with his baseball-playing sons. Grand Blanc had seven-on-seven games at Linden, and Garner asked Aubrey if he’d come along and help.

“He finally decided to go with me, reluctantly,” Garner said. “We kept it real simple in the back and he took care of guys in the back, I took care of the linebackers and, boy, we had three games and we did really well. And when it was over I looked at him and I said, ‘Man, are you OK?’ He said, ‘Man, I feel like I’m still playing out there.’ I don’t know if that was the moment he decided, OK, but prior to that I don’t think he wanted any part of it.”

Like the children of many coaches, Aubrey grew up in the gyms, football fields and tracks that were his father’s second home.

Garner played football and basketball at Langston (Oklahoma) University and after graduation returned home to Flint, where he spent one season coaching basketball at Flint Northwestern. He left there for a graduate assistant job at Central State University, then returned home again when Aubrey was born.

“I’ve seen pictures of me from like 3 all the way until maybe my sophomore or freshman year in high school, I was always involved with his teams,” Aubrey said. “Every day after school I was with him. At one point in time, he was coaching middle school girls basketball, middle school boys basketball. Girls high school basketball. Men’s high school basketball. Football. Track and field.”

Known around Flint as “Little Pleasant,” Aubrey was a ball boy for his father’s basketball and football teams, including the great Flint Northern teams that featured Mateen Cleaves and Antonio Smith.

He honed his skills in football and basketball by imitating the All-American players his father coached, and he learned the interpersonal skills that have made him a well-respected secondary coach with the Lions by watching his father interact with kids.

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“I think there is a side of being a coach’s son that you’re able to see your father be so endearing to so many different people,” Pleasant said. “That’s one thing that my father did a really good job of was that he gave that same type of love and compassion to me that he did to all his players, but especially being an African-American male teacher and coach in the city of Flint, I watched him inspire a lot of young men and young women. And that was inspiring to me and it kind of made me feel like, man, I watched this guy who did take my father’s advice and I watched this guy who didn’t take his father’s advice, and I think that maybe I should listen to him.”

Garner said he first noticed Aubrey had the makings of a future coach when Aubrey came home from Wisconsin one summer. Garner was in the weight room showing his nephew how to do power cleans, and Aubrey stepped in and “broke it all down to its smallest detail.”

“I knew then,” Garner said. “I said, ‘Man, he’s a heck of a teacher.’ Boy, he can teach.”

Seth and Rex Ryan

Just as Pleasant is the son of a prominent prep coach in Flint, Lions assistant receivers coach Seth Ryan hails from coaching royalty in the NFL.

Ryan’s grandfather, Buddy, won two Super Bowls as an assistant coach and was architect of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense. His father, Rex, is an ESPN analyst and the former head coach of the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. And his uncle, Rob, is inside linebackers coach for the Ravens.

When Seth was 10, though, he dreamed of playing, not coaching, in the NFL.

“It was like late one night. I walk into my parents’ room and they’re asleep and I wake them up like, ‘Hey guys, I’m only going to do three years of college football,’” Seth recalled. “And my parents were like, ‘What? What do you mean? Why?’ My dad’s saying, ‘It’s going to be great for you. You’ll meet your teammates and have amazing experiences.’

“I was like, ‘I’m only going to do three years because the NFL’s going to want me early.’ And my parents started dying laughing. They’re like, ‘You ain’t going to make it as a player.’ They’re like, ‘You should try coaching.’”

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His adolescent aspirations aside, Seth has been on the coaching track most of his life.

He worked as Matt Stover’s personal pregame kicking assistant during his father’s time with the Baltimore Ravens, following a meticulous warmup regimen that helped show him how detailed he had to be as a coach. He grew up in and around locker rooms, experiencing all the diversity the NFL had to offer. And when it came time to pick a college, Seth opted for a preferred walk-on spot as wide receiver at Clemson because he felt that would best set him up for a long coaching career in the NFL.

“I wanted to be around the best,” Seth said. “I wanted to play against the best, I wanted to be as best as I could as a player so that would help me as I tried to go into the next level. I wanted to learn from the best.”

Though Rex jokes Seth is “a little goofy” for coaching on the offensive side of the ball — Buddy, Rex and Rob are known for their defensive prowess — he understood early on Seth’s football acumen is top-notch.

Once, Seth accompanied his dad and uncle on a trip to work out a draft prospect. Rob was with the New England Patriots at the time, and when the workout was done, he gave the prospect a written test the Patriots used to judge players’ intelligence. The prospect, who became a first-round pick, scored in the 20s. When Rob gave the same test to Seth, a high school freshman or sophomore at the time, Rex said he scored in the 90s.

“As a son, you want to be like dad in a way,” Seth said. “So you just, you follow footsteps.”

Rex said he’s happy Seth chose to follow his footsteps as a coach, and. “God willing, the greatest thing would be that he be a third-generation head coach” one day.

“It’s like the family business,” Rex said. “It really is. And I think so many kids, they go with their father or mother, it’s just a natural thing. And for me and my twin brother, obviously, that was — like from a young age I knew I wanted to coach. And I think, I’m not so sure, but I think Seth was really the same way. Like he went to college because he wanted to coach. He played football cause he wanted to coach. He was probably as good a baseball player as he was a football player, but he decided, no, I’m going to play football and learn the game and be around it, cause he was around it all the time. His whole life he spent around it.”

Jett and Curtis Modkins

Curtis Modkins had a different reaction when he learned his son, Jett, the Lions assistant special teams coach, wanted to go into coaching.

“Unfortunately, I think it rubs off a lot — more than I wanted it to,” Curtis said, half-joking. “I think there’s some stuff that you learn just by osmosis, just by being around it. And you get a chance to experience locker rooms as a kid and the sideline and gamedays and I think it just kind of gets in you, man, and it was not by choice. Sometimes it’s a hard business and can you be a lawyer or something else? But this is what he wanted to do so we support him.”

For many coaches, the desire to see their kids pick a different profession stems from the long hours they work — 18-hour days are common in-season — and the nomadic side of the business.

Curtis, the Broncos running backs coach, is with his seventh NFL team in 14 seasons. He was an assistant with the Lions in 2013-15. (His brother, Jeremy, has had a more stable coaching life, working only for TCU, the school he has been at since returning to the profession in 2014.)

Jett, who is with his third team in three years, said all the moving he did as a kid was one of his favorite things about being the son of a coach.

“There was a couple moves where it was maybe a little more difficult,” Jett said. “Maybe some undesirable places compared to the place I was coming from. But like, man, looking back on it, I got to live in almost every region in the United States and I have friends in a handful of different states that I can call right now and they’d answer and do whatever, and the same for me.”

Like Seth Ryan and others, Jett spent summer days at his father’s practices at New Mexico, Georgia Tech and in the NFL. He was a ball boy at Kansas City Chiefs camp. He roomed with his father when training camp was held off site. And he learned through osmosis by watching his father and other coaches his father was around teach.

“I kind of picked up things that I liked and I didn’t like, and I carried them with me,” Jett said. “Even today, I find myself doing a lot of things that my dad would do or say. I try to do that at least. My dad’s probably my biggest role model, so I try to do everything like him, especially in this profession. He’s kind of created a good path for us.”

Being a coach’s kid comes with other perks as well.

Curtis was a frequent contributor at career day for Jett and his younger sister, Mariah, a point guard on the Kent State basketball team. He brought posters and wristbands to hand out, and regaled his kids’ classes with tales of the football teams they followed.

Jett said that gave him a sense of pride and made him “a cool kid” for the day, even allowing him to sit in the back of the bus with his older schoolmates.

“A lot of kids, sports connects a lot of people and sports eases the transition from school to school because they have something in common with someone instantly they walk into a new school,” Curtis said. “So I think it gave them some ease into transitions in being at new places and I think the kids around them probably thought their life was really cool, and I think as a kid, it’s a positive think if somebody thinks your life’s cool.”

Like the Lynns, the Modkins spent a season working together last fall with the Broncos, which Curtis calls “the highlight of my professional career.”

“I’m fired up for him and I’m very appreciative of (Lions head coach Dan) Campbell and (special teams coordinator Dave) Fipp for the opportunity they’re giving him and I just want to be a sounding board for him. And one day I’m just going to have an RV and I’m going to come watch him, wherever he’s at. And it might be sooner rather than later, who knows?”

Aaron and Jason Glenn

Aaron Glenn did not get into coaching immediately after his 15-year NFL playing career ended. A three-time Pro Bowl defensive back, Glenn ran a chain of eight Frenchy’s restaurants in the Houston area instead.

The businesses were successful, including one franchise across the street from the Houston Texans’ practice facility, which players visited almost every day. But Glenn desired something more.

“I knew I wasn’t a restaurant owner,” he said. “I enjoyed it and I did really well, but it just wasn’t fulfilling to me. And at that point I wasn’t going to do anything that wasn’t fulfilling so actually my wife saw that in me. So she’s the one that said, ‘Listen, you need to go coach, cause I know you can do that.’”

Glenn was dabbling in football at the time. His younger brother, Jason, a 2001 draft pick of the Lions, had just finished his seven-year NFL career and was beginning his second act as a coach, and Aaron was helping him get his program at C.E. King High off the ground.

An inner-city school in Houston, King had fewer resources than most, so the Glenns spent time cutting and watering the grass, patching the field, and buying shoes and uniforms for their players.

Aaron sometimes came to games and practices, both at King and Jason’s next stop, Klein Oak High, and when he did, he threw himself into drills.

“Aaron’s so meticulous,” Jason said. “We’re coaching and Aaron said, ‘Hey, his hips are too tight.’ I’m like, ‘Man, how do you know?’ ‘Well, when he turns and runs, you can see he’s taking more steps than he needs to instead of flipping his hips.’ ‘OK, you’re right.’ ’Hey, this guy’s eyes aren’t pure.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, he’s not looking at this, cause he’s looking at that, that’s why his reaction time (is slow).’

“And those things, as a head coach, you can’t see it all, but Aaron’s just sitting there looking and picking things apart, man, like just taking these kids apart. I’m like, ‘Hey, man, these guys are not making $9 million a year. You got to take what you get.’ But what it did do is, it helped those kids tremendously, but my other coaches listening to him like, ‘Hold on. Yeah, he’s right.’ So Aaron wasn’t just coaching the kids, Aaron was coaching the coaches.”

The more Aaron was around, the more Jason saw something bubbling inside his brother, too.

“While I was watching him with the kids, I’m sitting here like, ‘Man, come on, it’s just a matter of time,’” Jason said. “And I didn’t want to put that on him. He’s a grown man at the time, but we know it, man. I’m like, ‘Man, it’s a matter of time.’”

Aaron returned to the NFL as a scout in 2012 and made his way into coaching two years later as assistant secondary coach with the Cleveland Browns. He joined the New Orleans Saints as defensive backs coach in 2016, the same year Campbell arrived as assistant head coach. And when Campbell got the Lions job in January, he made Aaron his cornerstone hire as defensive coordinator.

Inevitably, when the Glenns get together now, while the kids are swimming and the wives are talking inside, the brothers watch film and talk football. Aaron even picked Jason’s brain early in his coaching career about defending run-pass option plays and other high school and college concepts that were invading the NFL.

“I think doing this and playing this game, coaching, it’s who God made me to be,” Aaron said. “It’s in my heart, it’s in my soul. Cause I know people say it, if you do what you like to do, it’s really not work. That means a lot to me, cause it’s really not. I enjoy doing this, I enjoyed playing. I really missed it when I didn’t play, when I was out. And I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t know I wanted to coach at that point, but I knew I wanted to be a part.”

Mark and George DeLeone

One more family coaching story, and since it’s Thanksgiving, that’s where this one begins.

“I always remember every single Thanksgiving I grew up,” Lions linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said. “I remember Syracuse would practice in the morning, and then all the offensive linemen would come over to our house for Thanksgiving. And we’ve got tables, my mother would be cooking for 12 320-pound guys, and we’d sit at the table and we’d have video games in the basement. I used to love it. Guys would come down and play video games with me. And we’d watch the Lions. Like I remember that growing up, you’d watch the Lions and you watch the Cowboys.

“Thanksgiving for me’s always been my favorite holiday because of that.”

DeLeone, whose father, George, spent five decades as a college and NFL assistant, most prominently with Syracuse in the 1980s, ‘90s and early 2000s, decided he wanted to go into the profession as a kid because of some of the fringe benefits he enjoyed.

He went on bowl trips annually with his father’s teams. At a community service event during one trip, he saw his dad join Billy Ray Cyrus for a rendition of “Achy Breaky Heart.”

He went to his father’s practices after school, then ate dinner with his dad, knowing his father had a long night at the office ahead.

And he had a rotating cast of big brothers who came over for holidays and barbecues, and who looked after him like their own.

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“I think being able to watch the way my dad interacted with his players left a lasting impression on me and I try to carry that with mine,” Mark said. “I idolized my dad’s players when I was growing up, so I feel like going to bowl games – he was a college coach, so I’d go to bowl games every year and those types of things. When I look back at my childhood, those are my favorite memories. I don’t ever think about the games he missed and that kind of stuff. I think about all the really cool stuff that I got to do because he was a coach.”

Mark started his coaching career as a student assistant at Iowa and went on to work for Urban Meyer at Florida and Steve Addazio at Temple before coming to the NFL. He’s been to 44 states and four countries because of coaching, either his job or his dad’s.

Now on his fourth NFL team in 10 years, he has lived the nomadic life and worked the unforgiving hours his father warned him about, but nothing has made regret being a coach.

For him and others on the Lions staff, it’s all they’ve ever known.

“My dad said if you can do anything else you should do it,” Mark said. “But for me this was always what I wanted to do. And I was just a whatever player, but when I stopped playing, this was a way for me to continue with the brotherhood and the camaraderie. There’s just no other feeling like being in a locker room.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

More family fun online

Visit freep.com/sports for more stories from Lions assistant coaches, including assistant special teams coach Jett Modkins and his father, Curtis, and inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone and his father, George.

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