John Habib's City Sports: Going deep with Manchester's NFL connections
BOB LEONARD saw this coming.
Well, maybe not this exactly - not the rock-star status in Oregon, or the frenzied pursuit by three NFL teams, or the pivot from the University of Oregon back to Philadelphia and the Eagles, one of the NFL teams that had wanted Chip Kelly to become its head coach.
But the coaching part? Yeah, Leonard saw that in Kelly's future decades ago.
Leonard was head coach at Manchester High Central when Kelly was a Little Green varsity quarterback, defensive back and, as Leonard put it, "another coach on the field" from 1978-80.
"He was destined to coach," Leonard said Thursday night, hours after the Eagles officially introduced Kelly at a packed media session. "He studied the game like no other (player)."
After every Central game, Leonard said, "Chip would stay up all hours of the morning dissecting what happened on the field. He was amazing. He'd want to figure out why this play didn't work and find a way to make it work for the next game."
Leonard said he would let Kelly call or change a play at the line of scrimmage.
"When you drew up a play, Chip had the ability to visualize it and then execute it," he recalled. "Finally I told him, 'If you think a certain play is better than the one I sent in, then go with it.' And he usually got the results we were looking for."
Leonard said the fans in Philadelphia are going to "fall in love with Chip. He's going to be a breath of fresh air for the city and the NFL. He was a winner at Central as a player and a winner as a coach at UNH and Oregon, What makes him a winner is, he refuses to take 'no' for an answer. I'm sure some people will doubt he can coach in the NFL, and I'd be the first to tell everyone Chip will prove them wrong."
Kelly was captain of Central's football, hockey, and track and field teams as a senior in 1980-81, and Leonard was his coach in track, as well as football. An incident that spring, Leonard recalled, further exemplified Kelly's will to win.
"He's on the 4-by-100 relay team in the regionals, and we had a very good relay team that season," said Leonard. "Chip, tough as nails, is telling everyone how he's not going to settle for second place. Sure enough, he gets his teammates focused and they not only won the meet, but also set a New England record in that event."
As is the case with many of his friends in Manchester and on the Seacoast, where he played and coached at UNH, Kelly keeps in touch with Leonard. In fact, before news broke that Kelly would be heading to Philadelphia after all, Leonard sent him a text message calling him a role model and telling him, "Never change."
Kelly, in the midst of making the biggest decision of his career, quickly texted back a "thank you."
"He's still that 17-year-old kid to me," Leonard said. "Just the fact he sent a text message back shows he still thinks of the people he grew up with in New Hampshire. I'm proud - thrilled - for him."
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ANOTHER former Central standout, ex-NFL player Steve Schubert of Candia, believes the impending retirement of Baltimore's Ray Lewis and the absence New England's Rob Gronkowski will be factors in Sunday's AFC Championship, but not to the extent that the Ravens upset the Patriots.
"There's no doubt it's a plus, a big factor in motivating his teammates," Schubert said of Lewis' farewell tour. "There's a sense from the Baltimore side of wanting to win the Super Bowl for him. But once the game starts, it won't have a huge bearing on the outcome of the game. They'll hype it before and maybe in the final minutes of the game, but it still comes down to which team executes the best on Sunday."
Schubert ranked Lewis as a top 10 linebacker all-time in the NFL.
"I can't definitely say he's in the top three, five or seven without taking the time of looking at the entire list," Schubert, a wide receiver and special teams ace with the Bears and Patriots in the mid-1970s, said. "I mean, (former Pittsburgh Steeler) Jack Lambert jumps out at me during my era. But Lewis would be in my top 10."
Of the loss of Gronkowski, the All-Pro tight end who last week broke his forearm for the second time this season, Schubert said, "He's the best at his position today. But the Patriots can still win. They have consistently shown they can still operate their high-powered offense with someone else stepping in. Last week (Steven) Ridley and (Shane) Vareen stepped up, and they got their normal contributions from (Wes) Welker, (Aaron) Hernandez and (Brandon) Lloyd. They'll be fine if they execute and take care of the ball."
One area in which Schubert doesn't consider New England as having as much of an advantage as other observers do is quarterback. Don't underestimate Baltimore's Joe Flacco, he said.
"He's played better away from home this year and played well in last year's AFC championship game in Foxborough," Schubert said of the Ravens QB.
Brady, meanwhile, needs to play better than he did in last week's 41-28 divisional-round victory over the Texans.
"I know he threw for over 300 yards against Houston last week, but he wasn't totally sharp," Schubert said. "He threw some passes behind and over receivers. He needs to be sharper this week because I believe Flacco will play well."
Schubert's predictions: a 28-24 Patriots victory in the AFC Championship following a 28-21 San Francisco victory over Atlanta in the NFC title game.
"City Sports" appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader. Email staff reporter John Habib at firstname.lastname@example.org.