When Hendricken head football coach Keith Croft got the call a few weeks ago, he wasn’t even sure it was real.
“I almost didn’t believe it when I got the phone call,” Croft said. “I thought one of my coaches was goofing around a little bit.”
But it wasn’t a prank. Rather, it was the beginning of what Croft and the Hendricken football program hope is a new partnership that brings the four-time defending Super Bowl champions to even greater heights.
Dan Koppen, the former All-Pro center for the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, was on the other end of the line, expressing interest in joining the Hendricken football staff this fall.
Croft didn’t hesitate. When the Hawks take the field for 2014, Koppen will be part of the program.
“I’m in a transition in my career, obviously, moving on from the NFL,” Koppen said during a meeting with the media at Hendricken on Wednesday. “I know that the college and professional level is not in my plans, just with the time commitment. But for me to give back to the sport that’s given me so much, I’ve always thought about being a high school coach, and this is a good start.”
Koppen played 11 years in the NFL after a standout college career at Boston College, joining the Patriots in 2003. He won two Super Bowls in New England and made the Pro Bowl while also being named All-Pro during the team’s 16-0 season in 2007. In 2012, he played for the Broncos before missing all of last season due to a torn ACL.
When this season came to a close – and he hadn’t played a down – Koppen decided the time was right to hang up his cleats officially and move on to the next stage of his life.
“The way my career went with New England and Denver, it couldn’t have gone any better,” Koppen said. “I played with a lot of great guys, won a lot of football games and for me to be able to walk away – to walk away – and still be able to throw the ball around with my kid and wrestle around, my body is good, my mind is good. It seems like the right thing to do.”
The next step was to get into coaching, something he knew he wanted to do whenever his professional career was finished. Living in the northern part of the state, and with a planned move to East Greenwich on the horizon, Koppen had no real ties to any specific area in Rhode Island.
After some research, he settled on Hendricken as the place to start his coaching path.
“The reputation of this school precedes itself, and I know a lot of guys that have played here in the past and recently,” Koppen said. “Everything that they’ve said has been very positive and it seemed like the kind of place I’d like to be involved with.”
Croft couldn’t be happier to have him on board and thinks it’s a great way to help not only his program, but the perception of football in this state.
“I think the way we’re looking at it is it’s not only good for us, but it’s good for Rhode Island high school football,” Croft said. “I think it gives a chance for everyone to see someone who has obviously played at a high level and to see that there’s a lot of good things happening in Rhode Island.”
The players are certainly on board. Christian Wesolowski, a junior and a member of Hendricken’s championship team this past fall, said the school was abuzz once word got out.
“The whole school is excited,” he said.
The Hawks have built much of their success around a powerful ground game, with the offensive line doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Year in and year out, no matter who has graduated, the Hawks have developed steady units that fit their scheme. Koppen’s presence will provide even a little extra to that process.
“I’m looking forward to working with him and learning a lot from him,” said Wesolowski, who played defensive line last year but may go both ways next season. “Our coaches are great and he’ll add on to it. I think he’ll add a different perspective. There’s so much we can learn from him.”
Lee Moses, who will be a senior next year, has been a standout on two state championship teams. As a defensive back and wide receiver, he may not work closely with Koppen, but it wasn’t hard for him to imagine his team getting a boost.
“When I first heard the news, I was pretty excited about it,” Moses said. “It’s not everyday you end up getting an NFL football player as an assistant coach. Now, it just adds on. We have a great coaching staff and it helps us out even more. I think it makes us an even better team now.”
Koppen will help out coaching the offensive line and may even assist some with the defense. All of that is being sorted out, with the season still months from getting started.
When it does begin, though, Hendricken will have added a Super Bowl champion to its staff, one who can’t wait to pass some of his knowledge on to Rhode Island’s reigning Super Bowl champs.
“I don’t know about bringing new things, but I think I’ve run every play you can possibly run – every run play, every pass protection,” Koppen said. “Technique-wise, I think I’m a pretty good technician and can spot things on film and help the kids out with their footwork or hand placement or body control. Just teaching them about the game and how to play the game the right way.”
The Hawks will be listening.
“It’s exciting to have an opportunity to learn from him, someone who obviously has played at a really high level and has learned under some great coaches,” Croft said. “It’s hopefully going to be a win-win for everybody.”