A young Denver South High football player, cherubic and baby-faced, approached the Rebels' first-year offensive line coach shortly before a recent practice. Coach, he said, tapping his sternum, these pads just don't feel right.
The rookie coach lifted up the player's practice jersey and began tugging, adjusting and tightening the young man's shoulder pad straps. The coach smiled and said that he already had learned and accepted that such tasks come with the territory.
The player looked at Nalen's visitor, then nodded at the coach and asked, "He's rich, isn't he?"
Standards are relative. But the rookie coach, former Broncos standout center Tom Nalen, retired in January after 15 seasons in the NFL. Unlike his former teammate Brandon Marshall, Nalen is completely satisfied with the salary he will receive for the 2009 football season.
His reward? The invigorating feeling he gets from coaching young players at the Denver high school, which is a magnet for students for whom English is their second language. He began working with the Rebels, under head coach Tony Lindsay Sr., early this year, with the eighth-grade team in a "futures" program sponsored by the Broncos and the NFL.
"We had an awesome eighth-grade team, and most of those guys are out here now," said Nalen, a Massachusetts native who joined the Broncos in 1994 after playing at Boston College. "I've been telling people that after those three months, I feel like I wasted 15 years of my life in the NFL and feel so much better about where I'm at as a person, contributing to society as opposed to playing football."
Nalen, the last link on the field to the Broncos' back-to-back Super Bowl championship teams in the 1997 and 1998 seasons, retired in January. He didn't play at all last season because of a knee problem. He was on the field only sparingly in 2007 because of a biceps tear. After his retirement, he and his wife,
View slide show of ex-Broncos center Tom Nalen, who is now coaching offensive linemen at South High School.
Denise, and their three children were committed to remaining in the Denver area. He began contacting area high school coaches, making it clear money was no object, because he didn't expect to be paid.
"I didn't want to be a head coach," he said. "I just wanted to coach the offensive line."
The initial responses were lukewarm.
That seems surprising, given that it wasn't at all out of line to argue at various stages of his career, Nalen was the Broncos' best player. The kicker was that he was relatively unheralded, both because of his playing position and his scrupulous mandating and policing of the offensive linemen's cone of silence around the media.
Broncos tight end Daniel Graham intervened after Nalen told him of his desire to coach in the DPS. Graham had played for Lindsay at Thomas Jefferson High. He told Nalen to give his old coach a call. Nalen left a message for Lindsay, and the South coach confesses that he thought it was a joke and didn't return the call. The next call was from Graham, and Lindsay laughed as he related the rest of the conversation.
"Coach, did Tom call you?" Graham asked. "He said he called you!"
"Tom who?" Lindsay asked.
"So that really was him?"
Lindsay and Nalen quickly reached an agreement.
"Last year, I started thinking about it, and for some reason, I wanted to coach in the DPS," Nalen said. "The coaches here seem to have a lot more authority here as
Former Broncos center Tom Nalen is volunteering his time to coach the offensive line at Denver South High School. Nalen says coaching is his real calling and he is still learning the nuances of communication. (Karl Gehring, The Denver Post )opposed to the parents in the suburbs. Maybe it's you eventually can become a mentor to some of these kids and make sure they get to college."
Lindsay calls Nalen's presence a blessing.
"He could have gone somewhere else," he said. "He came out here when we started the futures program, and I think the first time he walked out here, he fell in love with it."
South senior wide receiver Alphonso Campbell, 16, said the Rebels were excited when they heard Nalen was joining the program.
"He was a big star for the Denver Broncos," Campbell said. "He can be a big asset to our team. He's a cool guy. He's pretty down-to-earth, and he's teaching new things. He's in there one-on-one with the kids and telling them what should be done."
At one of the Rebels' first practices in pads, Nalen sounded like a old, veteran line coach. At one point, he hollered, "I want him driven out of here! Out of here!"
To one player, he talked about what kind of initial contact he wanted. "I don't want that," he said, demonstrating one move. "I don't want that," he said, showing another move. "I want that!" he said, demonstrating that initial "pop."
He also painstakingly went through blocking scheme "calls" on certain plays, a concept that seemed Greek to some of the Rebels.
"These kids are learning, I'm learning," he said. "A kid came up to me yesterday and said, 'You know, I wish you would explain more things.' I think I go too fast and expect things a certain way, and I know I need to slow down a bit.
"Some of these kids aren't used to working hard. Some of them are. Some of them are great kids that know what's going on. But there are some kids who need some prodding, and I'm going to provide that for them and teach them to be accountable. As offensive linemen, I don't think they've grasped the concept yet of communicating with each other, working with each other, and those lessons go on for all your life. I hope I can accomplish that by the end of the year."
Nalen said this coaching position won't be a brief interlude.
"This IS a job for me," he said. "When people ask me what I do, I say I coach football. Regardless of what level it's at, this is what I do. I'm pretty jaded with the NFL right now. I love my family, I love spending time with them, and college and the NFL is not the place to be if you want to spend time with your family. It's too much of a time commitment, and I'm not ready for that.
"This is something I want to do. I told the freshmen, 'Learn these (blocking) calls because until they fire me, these are going to be your calls, so you better learn them.' "
And will his linemen be allowed to speak to reporters?
"I hope they get an opportunity to talk to the media," Nalen said. "I hope they're doing that well. But if the chance comes, there's no way they're talking."