Marty Schottenheimer predicted the future. One afternoon at practice for the San Diego Chargers, Schottenheimer pulled aside safety Marlon McCree to share the future.
For more than two decades in the NFL Schottenheimer had built relationships with a revolving door of coaches and players. His voice had grown grizzled from years of barking orders. The 2006 season would be his last as a head coach in the league.
McCree was in the first season of what would become a two-season stint with the Chargers. A cerebral veteran safety who made the transition from college linebacker at Kentucky, he shared responsibility for getting his teammates in correct position on defense. Pleased with McCree's leadership in the session, Schottenheimer grabbed him and delivered a message.
"He said, 'Marlon, the day you get done playing you're going to make one hell of a football coach.'" McCree said. "A coach of his caliber, when he says something, you listen. So I did."
Six years after Schottenheimer's suggestion, McCree has his first full-time coaching gig as the assistant defensive backs coach on Mike Mularkey's staff in Jacksonville, where he started his playing career as a seventh-round draft pick in 2001.
Landing the job concluded the period of introspection and hustle that began when McCree decided to hang up his shoulder pads in 2009. Following a nine-year playing career, he felt ready to start the next phase in his life but less certain about what it should be. McCree did not want to spend his time mulling what he used to do.
"When you get done playing that transition period can be a bit treacherous," McCree said. "It can be a bit turbulent at times."
To preempt the turbulence, McCree turned to all walks of life for professional advice. CEOs, attorneys and doctors spouted the same answer he received from football coaches: It does not matter what you do if you stick to a simple principle. Identify your passion and pursue it.
McCree identified his passion. He never fell out of love with football, so he would become a football coach. When he asked for his wife's blessing, she agreed he already had the makings of a coach.
"She said, 'Well, you love telling people what to do anyway,'" McRee said through a smile.
Reflecting on Schottenheimer's kind words in San Diego, McCree picked up the phone and called his old coach. By the time he hung up, he had his first opportunity in his new field. After hearing McCree's plans, Schottenheimer told him he needed someone to coach the secondary for his team at the East-West Shrine Game.
After working with the college all-stars, McCree was hooked.
"I tell you I had such a great time coaching that secondary, it was almost like playing," he said.
"To give a kid something that he didn't have prior, and to see him go out and apply it and have some success, it's like showing your kid how to ride a bike without training wheels and to see him ride around the block without you. It was just so gratifying and so rewarding that it's not even work. I'll do it all day, all night for free."
And that's what he did, working unpaid training camp internships with the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos. McCree's reputation as a player held enough sway to get him work with two other former bosses. Tom Coughlin, who brought McCree into the league, presented a chance to work with the Giants. A year later John Fox, whom McCree played for in Carolina, invited him to Denver.
In each camp, McCree's eyes opened to what he thought he knew as a player and what he now knows as a coach. The players live a strictly regimented life, scheduled to the minute. Go work out. Go to lunch. Go watch film. Go to practice. Go get treatment. McCree realized he never accounted for all the time spent pencil-pushing just to create an outline for the players.
Every memory of a coach chewing him out was now met with empathy. The experienced mentors on those coaching staffs humbled McCree with their work ethic and their encyclopedic knowledge of the game. They taught him to break down film like he'd never done as a player, to prepare for opponents' tendencies and to make situational adjustments.
The job requires a coach to put his personal life on the shelf, to spend many nights holed up in the office reviewing game tape when he could be at home eating dinner with his family.
"From those internships I was able to just pick up the commitment time-wise that it was going to require, the commitment to the building. You've got to love coming to work, and in order to love coming to work, you've got to love football," McCree said.
"I'll do five more internships. I'll do twenty more internships. Just to be around the game. Just to be in the locker room is an honor and a privilege."
The internships are in McCree's past now. He's graduated to full-time status, sharing an office with Assistant Defensive Line Coach Paul Spicer in the bowels of EverBank Field. He knows he has much to learn but gets excited about the prospect of studying Mularkey, Mel Tucker and Defensive Backs Coach Tony Oden.
McCree achieved his goal to find a job as a coach, and now it's on to one he said raises the little hairs on his arms, a goal he never achieved as a player. He wants to be part of the team that brings home a Super Bowl Championship.
"I'm just humbled to have this opportunity. It's a privilege to play and to coach in the NFL," McCree said.
"We're all in here, and all hands are on deck. We are committed and we're going to get it done around here. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity and I'm fired up and ready to go."