NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It was the spring of 2003 when then Seattle Seahawks quarterback Trent Dilfer’s world was rocked. His 5-year-old son Trevin was diagnosed with heart disease, and just seven weeks later his only son was gone.
The death of Trevin caused Dilfer immeasurable sorrow and led to a deep depression for some time. Even 16 years later the loss lingers, but Dilfer, who raised three daughters, now inherits an entire locker room full of sons to mentor as he steps into his newest challenge.
"It's an honor to introduce to you our new football coat at Lipscomb Academy, Coach Trent Dilfer"
Lipscomb Academy shocked football circles in January when it announced the hiring of Dilfer as its next football coach.
Dilfer is a Super Bowl winning quarterback, an accomplished TV analyst and made his home in Austin, Texas. He had never been a coach at any level, let alone a head coach.
The 47-year-old had what he describes as “a sweet life”, watching and talking about football as a former lead NFL studio analyst at ESPN. But something was missing.
“This was a calling more than anything else,” Dilfer said recently. “I watched football for a living and talked about it. It wasn’t that complicated. But I didn’t really feel like I had a purpose, didn’t feel like I was having an impact.”
When Lipscomb first contacted him, Dilfer was hesitant. But the devout Christian quickly saw the job as a way to find purpose.
The task of building a high school football program would allow him to pour his heart and soul into young men, encouraging them to reach their maximum potential and be the best they can be.
"We live in a world that wants to put limits on people. There's no limits. You don't know what you have inside you. God has made you so unique, so special so awesome, and I just want to be the one that helps pull it out of you," Dilfer said during his introductory press conference.
ON THE RIGHT PATH
Dilfer grew up on the back of a blocking sled as the son of a California high school football coach. He says, even when they were happy in Austin, his wife Cassandra always knew that one day he would be led back to the field.
He was destined to be a coach.
Dilfer learned from coaching greats like Tony Dungy and Mike Holmgren while playing for them in the NFL. He also helped found and develop the Elite 11 Passing Camp for blue-chip quarterback prospects.
But this was the first time he’d be in charge of a team. And few, if any, of his players had stars next to their name in recruiting databases.
Dilfer knew he had to create a culture change, and he riled things up right from his introductory press conference.
“Hard things equal great things and we’re going to do a lot of hard things,” Dilfer said. “We’ve done a lot of hard things.”
He hired what he calls the best high school coaching staff in America, including Trenton Kirkland, an offensive coordinator in Texas considered one of the best young offensive minds in the sport. He also brought Bruce Kittle, the father of 49ers tight end George Kittle, on as his offensive line coach.
Dilfer and his staff pushed players through grueling offseason workouts. And the head coach prodded the Lipscomb community to get more involved with the program than they ever had been before.
“It’s a laundry list of challenges I presented for the kids, their parents, the community,” Dilfer said. "My job here is to make things uncomfortable because the edge of uncomfortable is where you really start to learn have that deep growth. We’ve presented a lot of challenges physically, mentally, emotionally, time-wise. Just really trying to get people out of their comfort zone, and they love it.”
BE SET APART
The sign on the wall in the Lipscomb Academy indoor practice facility says “Be Set Apart”. That’s the motto Dilfer has created for his players and his program.
It was perhaps never more apparent than the late spring day when Dilfer held a community pep rally as the Mustangs unveiled their new uniforms.
Gone are the days of the Los Angeles Lakers-esque purple and gold. Team leaders walked out that day in Nike-made, black and white jerseys and pants with state-of-the-art metallic purple helmets purchased by Dilfer himself
The old saying is that, “if you look good, you’ll play good.” And Dilfer is making sure his players have every advantage they possibly can.
But changing the look and feel of a program takes more than just changing the uniforms.
Dilfer has made his players work harder than they ever have before, testing their limits. The goal is to make games seem easy, to give a team that’s won just three games over the last two seasons confidence about the journey ahead.
“It sounds horrible on the front end, but as you’re doing it you realize you gain confidence because this challenge you thought was going to test your limits and be uncomfortable you’re like, ‘whoa, I’ve got this in me,’” Dilfer said. “And then you do it again and again and again, and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘I like hard things because it makes me better.’”
HOME, SWEET HOME
Dilfer stands in the outfield of the Lipscomb Academy baseball field that serves as his team’s practice field during the fall. He’s at home.
It’s a long ways from the euphoria of Super Bowl XXXV when he quarterbacked the Ravens to a victory over the Giants, and it’s removed from the bright lights of a national TV studio. But, this is right where Dilfer wants to be.
When he lived in Austin, Dilfer had a longing for community. He was flying across the country to and from work and missed being a part of a football team.
Lipscomb Academy gave him the chance to experience that once again. And with his youngest daughter Delaney committed to play volleyball at Lipscomb University starting in 2020, Dilfer is excited to put down roots and entrench his family in the Nashville community.
“Good balls, quarterbacks!” Dilfer shouts with excitement.
Dilfer has an ease in which he teaches people to throw a football, and a unique ability to explain the game. Now he’s putting those skills to use on his team.
This offseason has been about laying the foundation for not just a winning season this fall, but for what he believes can become the model football program for high schools everywhere.
“I would like to build the premier program in the country,” Dilfer said. “But we’re light years away from that. The work is done one day at a time, getting ready for practice as a coaching staff, making sure we give these kids our very best every time we’re with them.”
"If you want to be a part of something so special, then come be a part of this football program," Difler said during his introductory press conference.
Lipscomb Academy has a proud football history. Glenn McCadams is one of the legendary coaches in the state of Tennessee.
But after consecutive losing seasons, school officials were looking for someone to lead a revival.
In Dilfer they found a man with a message of hope, the compassion of a father and life experience of triumph and tragedy that he will use to teach each one of his players.
“It’s been the greatest thing outside of raising a family I’ve ever done,” Dilfer said. “It surpasses any challenge I had in my football career. It’s such a big job when you want to do it right.”
Even as a first time head coach, Dilfer knows he will be judged by wins and losses. But ultimately, for him, this job is bigger than football.
This is about building community, raising sons into men and giving Lipscomb Academy a football program to be proud of once again.
“You know you’re going to be able to have a positive impact, but you don’t understand (how much) until you’re actually doing it,” Dilfer said. “This community’s bought in, the kids have bought in, it’s just been an incredible experience. And we’re just getting started.”