Now a coach, football still consumes Duce Staley
After a decade playing in the NFL, after a decade busting out of tackles and fighting for extra yards, after a decade as Doooooooooooooooooce, Duce Staley suddenly discovered he had turned back into just plain, ol’ Duce.
And when the cheers died down and there were no more tackles to break and no more extra yards to fight for, he found that there was something absent from his life.
His career was over. And he was only 31 years old.
“There was something missing, you know?” Staley says now. “I’m such a competitor. I just missed the game. Missed being around the game. Missed the battle. Missed the fight.”
Staley was always a crowd favorite here. Eagles fans don’t agree on much, but good luck trying to find a single Eagles fan that didn’t love Duce.
He was the one positive in a miserable 1998 season, rushing for 1,000 yards with 57 catches in his first season as a starter. He ran for a career high 1,273 yards with 41 receptions a year later and should have gone to the Pro Bowl, and, after battling all the way back from a dreaded lisfranc foot injury that ruined his 2000 season, he recorded his third 1,000-yard season in 2001 along with 51 more catches.
But it wasn’t just the numbers that made Staley so popular. It was the way he played. He simply gave everything he had. Every snap.
From 1998 through 2002, Staley was one of only four NFL players with 4,000 rushing yards and 2,000 receiving yards. And he missed nearly a full season in there.
In 2003, he formed one of the mighty Three-Headed Monster with Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter, but with two young tailbacks, the Eagles cut ties with Staley after the season. He signed with the Steelers but after rushing for 707 yards in his first seven games in 2004, he fell off the face of the Earth, running for fewer than 300 yards combined over the second half of 2005 and all of 2006 and 2007, though he did win a Super Bowl ring in 2005.
Staley quietly retired after his 11th NFL season and resurfaced in Columbia, S.C., as a sports radio host.
“Radio was fun, but it was no challenge,” Staley said. “Wake up, go research, read, watch TV, then you go talk about it on the radio, and it was cool, I really enjoyed it, but something was missing. I just missed being around the game.”
Staley called Eagles head coach Andy Reid, who he played for his last five years in Philly. Things ended ugly here, with the Eagles deciding not to offer him a contract after the 2003 season. But when Staley called, Reid was happy to help.
Through the NFL’s minority coaching internship program, Staley spent the summer of 2010 as a coaching intern at training camp.
That’s all it took for him to realize football was still in his blood.
Radio was fine. But he knew where he belonged. On the football field.
“It’s the challenge,” he said. “I like being able to wake up knowing that I have the opportunity to work with one of the best running backs in the league. I like waking up knowing I still love the game. I’m still passionate for the game. I’m still driven by the game of football.
“Hey, I can’t still play the game, but I play it through the players I coach. So when LeSean [McCoy] is out there breaking tackles, scoring touchdowns, I get a little twitch in my legs because I feel like I’m out there running with him. I still love the game, and I can’t play anymore, so I’ve got to play through these kids. But that’s OK. I just feel like this is where I belong.”
Staley, now 37, spent last year as a full-time assistant on Reid’s staff working mainly with McCoy and the other running backs. This year, he’s working with special teams coach Bobby April as a special teams quality control coach.
“Coming to work every day, helping develop players, helping the guys understand what we’re trying to get done, helping the running backs understand how to run routes or beat a defender or what to look for running down covering kickoffs ... that’s rewarding to me.”
Staley is one of four former Eagles on Reid’s staff, along with linebackers coach Mike Caldwell, who was here for four years (and played for Reid for three years), Mike Zordich, who spent five years here (under Rich Kotite and Ray Rhodes) and Doug Pederson, who was Reid’s opening-day quarterback in 1999.
“It’s been more rewarding than I ever imagined,” Staley said. “Coach Reid does a great job getting guys back who are interested in coaching. When I left football, I really never imagined I would coach. You hear the horror stories -- ‘You stay all night, you’re never going to get out of the building, you’ll never see your family’ -- but coach Reid takes good care of his coaches. We work hard, but he also takes care of us and gives us the time we need outside the building.
“But when I got a chance to come in and learn football, really start to learn football in a new way and watch film as a coach, I was hungry, I wanted to learn more. Now all of a sudden, you see how those eight, nine-hour days turn into 13-hour days. But I love it.
“I never thought I would be coaching at all, much less with Andy. But he opened that door and I fell in love with it.”
Staley said he enjoyed his time last year working with running backs coach Ted Williams but he said he’s also enjoying doing special teams this year.
Don’t forget, Staley was a very good kick returner when he first got to the NFL. In 1997, he ranked sixth in the NFL with a 24.2-yard average, sixth-best in franchise history. He’ll still work with McCoy and the other backs but focus more this year on special teams.
“I just think the more things that I can do, being able to coach more phases, it has to be a positive,” Staley said. “I enjoy really, really just learning a new aspect of the game.”
Staley is the Eagles’ fourth-leading all-time rusher, with 4,807 yards, trailing only Wilbert Montgomery (6,538), Westbrook (5,995) and Steve Van Buren (5,860). Nobody has more 1,000-yard rushing seasons in franchise history. Only Staley, Montgomery and Ricky Watters have three.
Now Staley wants to become just as accomplished on the sidelines as he was between those white lines.
Like everything else he tries, he wants to be the best. Nothing less.
“At first, honestly? I didn’t know if this is what I wanted to do,” he said. “Do I love it enough to stay in it forever? And I do. That’s what I ask myself ... do you love it enough to stay in it forever?
“I was able to get away from football for a while and just sitting back and watching it on Sundays, it was hard. I played it for so long. I played in the league for 10 years, and it was just hard not being a part of it. Coach Reid opened that door. I came in and took full advantage of it.
“This is where I want to be.”E-mail Reuben Frank at email@example.com