They call themselves The Chain.
There are 15 of them, college buddies who have remained enviably close, who have been in each others’ weddings, who have become godfathers to each others’ children, who have cheered on each others’ professional advancements, who have won together and lost together, even 20 years after they played their last football game together as teammates at Tufts University.
The Chain’s roster now includes a doctor, a lawyer, a vice president, a Green Beret, salesmen, financial advisers, a tunnel engineer, an engineer-turned-high-school-science teacher — and two newly appointed coaches with the Seattle Seahawks.
The men, all in or near their 40s now, make a concerted effort to get together at least once a year. “No excuses,” the science teacher says. Sometimes their wives and children come along for big family vacations. Sometimes it’s just a guys’ weekend. They’ve gone to Hawaii together. They explored the Outer Banks. They went to the Super Bowl two years ago, a group of New Englanders rooting against the Patriots.
They got together again last week, this time for an impromptu Zoom session to toast two of their own — Shane Waldron and Andy Dickerson, the newest additions to the Seahawks’ offensive coaching staff. Both came from the Los Angeles Rams, where they worked under offensive mastermind Sean McVay.
When the news broke late one night last week that Waldron would be Seattle’s new offensive coordinator — his first chance to call plays in the NFL — The Chain was buzzing.
“Everyone was pumped,” said Mike Willey, Waldron’s roommate and a team captain at Tufts. “Most of us are in New England still, and we’re getting a little old, but we stayed up to celebrate. … You’ve got about 15 new Seahawks fans out here in New England now.”
The old buddies talk or text just about every day. Chris Mellen, another one of the Tufts teammates, said he was talking with Waldron early last week about a couple other NFL teams that had approached Waldron about job openings. But Mellen could tell Waldron had his sights set on the Seahawks.
“It’s a great situation up there in Seattle, and this has been Shane’s dream,” Mellen said. “He’s had some downs in his career, but he never gave up hope. He always remained positive and would tell us: ‘I’m going to be a coordinator and I want to put my name in for head coach someday.’ He’s been working his butt off to get to this point.
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Tufts University, located in Medford, Massachusetts, is a small, private school with rigorous academic standards. During his 17 seasons as the Tufts coach, from 1994 to 2010, Bill Samko proudly noted that more than 20 of his football players went on to medical school.
The Jumbos play in the Division III New England Small College Athletic Conference, and they were a .500 team during The Chain’s final three seasons, though the class’ senior year did feature a breakthrough of sorts, with a 6-2 record and a third-place finish in the conference.
A football factory, it is not. Tufts has produced only one NFL player (Mark Buben, 1979-82) since the NFL merger in 1970.
But the Jumbos have, remarkably, produced three active NFL coaches — Waldron, Dickerson and Ben Bloom (Class of 2005), now a defensive assistant with the Cleveland Browns.
“It’s kind of cool, you know — three guys from this Division III place in the NFL,” Samko said. “I’ve been lucky. I like to believe that I somehow made football feel important and that it was worth doing.”
Dickerson, who, as Waldron, got his coaching start as an intern with the New England Patriots, is joining Waldron in Seattle as the Seahawks’ run-game coordinator. Waldron credited much of their success to Samko’s teachings at Tufts.
“The thing Coach Samko always reiterated to us, and taught me, was work — there’s no shortcuts to this process,” Waldron said Tuesday in his first virtual news conference with the Seahawks. “When I told him I was going to get into coaching, he said you better be ready to work. When we were playing for him, that was the foundation of his belief system.”
Waldron, 41, now married with two daughters, grew up in Portland and went to Tufts to play both football and baseball. He wound up focusing on football, playing a little tight end, a little defensive end and a lot at long snapper.
“He was solid as hell,” Samko said. “He was a great long snapper. I thought he had a chance to do it in the (NFL), to be honest with you.”
Waldron chuckled at what he described as Samko’s generous recollection of his playing days; he says he knew he was always destined to be a coach. After a few years in entry-level staff positions with the Patriots, Waldron was invited to join Charlie Weis’ coaching staff at Notre Dame in 2005. A few years after that, at age 28, Waldron returned to New England to join the Patriots staff. Still single, Waldron asked Willey — his old college roommate — if he could live with him as he got settled back in the area.
Those six months together again made Willey realize just how motivated Waldron was to be an NFL coach. Willey would often find his roommate up late watching film or meticulously analyzing various game-situation scenarios (the viability, for example, of a strongside run on third down when your team is trailing by one score).
“He’s just such a hard worker,” Willey said. “And I know those words get thrown around a lot, but he is just grind … grind … grind.”
Willey saw more of that work up close a few years later. Waldron had bounced around jobs, from the Patriots to a stint with the Hartford Colonials of the United Football League. When the UFL abruptly folded after the 2010 season, Waldron accepted a position to join Willey on the high-school coaching staff at Buckingham Browne & Nichols outside Boston. (Willey, after starting a career as an engineer, decided to return to football, joining the BB&N faculty as a science teacher and assistant coach.)
It is the only time — until now — that Waldron has been an offensive coordinator at any level. He developed the offense around a dual-threat quarterback, a kid who “wasn’t quite as good as Russell Wilson,” Willey deadpanned, “but (Waldron) did a good job maximizing his talents.”
Willey, now the BB&N head coach, still uses some of the general organizational philosophies Waldron introduced to his high-school program in 2011, and he says he specifically uses the play-sheet skeletons Waldron brought from the Patriots.
“I felt like I took some masters courses on coaching and organization from Shane that year,” Willey said. “He’s a great communicator … and the kids loved him.”
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Dickerson, who played on the offensive line at Tufts, is as humble and down to earth as anyone you’ll meet. That’s the scouting report from his friends in The Chain, anyway.
“He’s really thoughtful, and he has a huge heart,” Mellen said. “He would be available to any of us at a minute’s notice.”
The Chain, in turn, was there for Dickerson and Waldron two years ago after the Rams’ crushing loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Thirteen of the 15 friends had made the trip to Atlanta for the game; they were there in the moments after, offering supportive shoulders and sharing in the disappointment.
Mellen said it didn’t take long for the two coaches to start to turn the page, to look ahead, to plot a way to get back. That goal remains, with a new twist.
“Now,” Mellen said, “we’re all hoping to get back to the Super Bowl with the Seahawks.”