Four Fridays ago, 118 boys received their diplomas in a ceremony at Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna, making up the 2013 Class of St. Francis High School.
Some will go on to become doctors and lawyers. Others will choose civil service or education as a career.
Still others may defy the seemingly infinitesimal odds and become general managers in our country’s most popular sport.
On consecutive days this winter, two graduates of this small Franciscan school on the shores of Lake Erie made headlines in the National Football League.
David Caldwell was first. A 38-year-old member of the Class of 1992, Caldwell was named the Jacksonville Jaguars’ general manager Jan. 8.
A day later, Caldwell’s teammate on the 1990 St. Francis varsity squad followed him into the NFL GM ranks when Tom Telesco accepted the job with the San Diego Chargers. Telesco, 40, is a Class of 1991 graduate.
If that weren’t amazing enough, another teammate on that squad, Brian Polian, became the head coach at Nevada on Jan. 7, one of only 125 such jobs in the country.
Polian, of course, is the son of Bill Polian, architect of the great Buffalo Bills teams of the early ’90s and one of the best executives the NFL has ever known. The elder Polian is also the man who gave both Telesco and Caldwell their first jobs in professional football.
In the spotlight
In his introductory news conference in San Diego, Telesco promised to work “365 days a year” to turn the Chargers into winners.
Reserved by nature, he’d prefer to do that work behind the scenes, but he hasn’t shied away from making bold moves in his first five-plus months on the job.
Since Telesco took over, he hired Mike McCoy as coach, committed to Philip Rivers as the team’s quarterback and traded up to take one of the most polarizing players in the 2013 NFL Draft in Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.
“The draft process is essentially a 12-month process of getting ready, so we squeezed a lot of work in,” Telesco said during a recent phone interview with the News. “There’s been a lot of transition here and it’s natural in this business and professional sports in general that you’re going to have transition. Everyone here has embraced it and worked really hard, so it’s gone smoothly.”
The NFL does not keep records on the backgrounds of executives, so it’s unknown if two general managers working at the same time have ever come from the same high school. But regardless of how historic the circumstance may be, Telesco and Caldwell both agree this is no time for reflection.
“I’m not a big reflector, anyway,” Telesco said. “Everyone has a job to do, and you come in and just keep working on it. So we haven’t had a chance to sit back and see where we are. I’d be afraid to do that anyway, because the more time I spend doing that, the less I’ll have getting better here.”
Caldwell squeezed time in for a phone interview with the News during a drive from Jacksonville to Atlanta earlier this month. He was going back to the city where he spent the past five years working in the Falcons’ front office to help relocate his family to Jacksonville.
“I don’t know if it ever stops, where you get a chance to breathe,” he said.
Caldwell likewise has been at the forefront of several major decisions in his brief tenure. His first move was to fire Mike Mularkey as coach and subsequently replace him with Gus Bradley. Caldwell also made it clear – at his introductory news conference – that the Jaguars would have no interest in bringing in hometown hero Tim Tebow to play quarterback.
“We used to laugh about it back when we were scouting assistants: ‘Could you ever imagine being a general manager?’” Caldwell said. “And here we are about 17 years later.”
While Telesco and Caldwell come from the Polian tree, the real roots of their success stem from the seeds planted in the tiny hamlet of Athol Springs.
“I guess our careers are a little more interesting just because it’s the National Football League and there’s a lot of exposure to it, but there are so many successful people that have come out of St. Francis in all different walks of life, doing all different careers,” Telesco said. “The school, academically, did a great job preparing me for college. But more so, there are just great people there. The teachers, the faculty, to me they always showed a lot of interest in the students both in the classroom and outside the classroom.”
The thread that ties together not just Telesco, Caldwell and Brian Polian, but thousands of kids who have come through the program, is 25-year football coach Jerry Smith and his assistant for that entire time, John Scibetta.
“Jerry and John just have a great passion for the game and it kind of rubs off on everybody and it rubbed off on me,” Telesco said. “Everything I learned fundamentals wise in football that I use today is from John and Jerry.”
A mentor to many
With his shaved head and goatee, and a voice that sounds like he gargles with gravel, the 54-year-old Smith looks like he’s come to the sidelines straight from Central Casting.
In the 65-year history of their football program, the Red Raiders have won or shared 14 Monsignor Martin titles. Smith owns 12 of those, including a run of five straight from 2000-04.
Just don’t ask him what his career record is.
“I’ve always told the kids that I’m not in it for the ‘Ws’ and ‘Ls,’ never have been,” he said. “That takes care of itself if you do things the right way.”
His career record, for the record, is 131-109-4.
Smith has a simple reason when asked why he’s made St. Francis his home.
“Quite honestly, it comes down to the kids themselves. They get in your heart,” he said. “When you show them that you truly care, they bust their hump for you in everything. Not only in the athletic end of it, but the arts end of it, the academic end of it. Just being that Renaissance man.
“You see it every year, the talent that these guys have. Here, if you don’t try to be smart, everybody gets on your case. They say, ‘you’re not doing the work. You need to do the work.’ That’s what’s amazing.”
Smith arrived at St. Francis in 1981, starting as an assistant for his mentor, legendary coach Ray Karney. His plan was to stay for about three years, then go off to a graduate assistant job.
It’s been 32 years and counting, and Smith still hasn’t gotten that GA job. Scibetta’s been at his side the entire time.
“They don’t get enough credit for how long they’ve been at that school for. They’re still as passionate now about coaching and developing young men as they were then,” Caldwell said. “They lay the foundation of ‘this is how you work. This is how you take care of your business.’”
Caldwell learned that lesson in a sit-down conversation he had before his junior season in 1990. Described by Smith as “a little wild back then,” he and Scibetta wanted to know if Caldwell was going to commit himself to doing things the right way.
“He ended up making the decision that he did. He said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do it the way I’m supposed to do it.’ I’m going to take it a little bit more serious. I would say it changed his life,” Smith recalled.
“Football is such a team-oriented sport – the ultimate team game – and you have to have a childlike faith in your teammates and your coaches. I think the loyalty aspect of it was really instilled to us at St. Francis,” Caldwell said. “I think that has carried me in this business. Throughout my career, and in college, when I said I was going to do something, I think my bosses knew I was going to follow through. And those are the things I learned at St. Francis. Follow through and be loyal to the people you work for and that will carry you a long way, not only in this business, but in life.”
Karney served as a father figure for Smith, who was just 8 years old when his own dad passed away. That has been the guiding principle in his coaching career.
When Brian Polian was at the school, the Bills were at the height of their success. Bill Polian was very much in demand.
“My dad was very public at the time, with a TV show or a radio show or whatever he was doing. He wasn’t home a lot. I love my father and I have a great relationship with him, but John and Jerry were like surrogate dads to me when I needed one,” Brian Polian said. “Part of my strong feelings toward the place and toward the program has a lot to do with that.”
“It’s very humbling to hear, I’ll tell you that,” Smith said. “A lot of times, we really don’t realize the effect we have on guys. If you’re in this profession, especially at our level, you’re really not in it for the money. You’re in it to give a guy an opportunity to make the right decisions and carry it through their lives. They’ve done that, so it feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Smith’s first victory as a head coach in 1988 came with Brian’s older brother, Chris, at quarterback. Caldwell hired Chris Polian last month to serve as the Jaguars’ director of pro personnel.
Telesco played two years of varsity for Smith as a wide receiver, in 1989 and ’90.
“Tommy was a skinny little guy. If he was going to hit someone, we were more concerned about him getting hurt than anything else,” Smith said.
Growing up in Hamburg, basketball was Telesco’s first love. He was childhood teammates with Brian Polian, and that’s how he first came across Bill Polian, who was refereeing one of Telesco’s grammar school games.
“I was probably in eighth grade at St. Peter and Paul and he was reffing one of our games,” Telesco said. “I remember meeting him then, and then got to know him much better through St. Francis.”
Polian’s sons were part of the Hamburg Little Cagers program, and he would volunteer as an official from time to time. It was a passion of Polian’s long before he got into player evaluation.
“Which is ironic,” Brian Polian said, “because nobody was tougher on officials than him.”
“That isn’t entirely true,” Bill Polian said. “We have a difference of opinion on that.”
Caldwell was on varsity in the ’90 and ’91 seasons. As a senior, he was joined by Brian Polian and Brian Daboll – currently an assistant coach with the New England Patriots – on a team that went 8-0-1 and won Smith his first league title.
The next year, the team went 8-1 to win another league championship. In the only loss of the season, 20-18 against Lackawanna, Daboll – who was one of the team captains along with Brian Polian – didn’t play because of a broken thumb suffered the week before.
“I still think to this day if we have him on defense in that game, they’re not completing what they did,” Smith said. “I don’t think there was anybody on the team that could match his intensity. He coaches that way now, too.”
Daboll went from St. Francis to the University of Rochester, where he played for two seasons. His big coaching break came when he was a graduate assistant under Nick Saban at Michigan State in 1998. He’s gone on to serve as the offensive coordinator for three teams – Cleveland, Miami and Kansas City – in the NFL.
“Jerry and John had a big impact on just about everything that I’ve done since I’ve left there,” Daboll said. “The way they handled you as young men, the discipline they taught you, not only were they very good football coaches, but they were really good mentors.”
The St. Francis connection to the NFL continues beyond those members of the graduating classes between 1989 and ’93.
Kyle Smith, the son of former Bills executive A.J. Smith, is an ’02 graduate working as a regional scout for the Washington Redskins.
Luke Tasker, son of former Bills great Steve Tasker, is an ’09 graduate who is an undrafted free agent receiver signed by Telesco with the Chargers. The GM said he’s been impressive so far.
“They’re all pretty much the same as they were in high school. They just have a little bit more mature outlook to things,” Smith said of the high-profile members of his program. “But their work ethic is the same. They were relentless in what they did. They knew how to work hard and they knew how to have a good time after they did.”
Work hard, play hard
One of Brian Polian’s favorite memories – at least that he can tell in a family newspaper – is of Caldwell’s “speech” in English class.
“David got up, he had to give a verbal report, and he did the ‘Art of Silence’ and stood there and stared at the class for two minutes,” Brian Polian said. “I’m not quite sure how Mr. Malloy took it.”
Not well, in Caldwell’s recollection.
“I think I had to do it over,” Caldwell said. “It probably wasn’t one of my finer moments, but we did have a good time. And those are some of things that built our camaraderie and the relationships that we have. Hey, you live and you learn. I was a good student, but I probably wasn’t the most well-behaved student.”
Smith and Scibetta weren’t the only ones to set Caldwell straight.
Rev. Joseph Benicewicz, the former principal of the school, has remained a mentor to Caldwell.
“We still keep in contact, and he’s been an incredible influence on my life,” Caldwell said. “In some of the instances where I did run awry and do some of the stupid things like I did in Mr. Malloy’s class, he’d take me aside and say, ‘now why did you do this?’ He helped me mature over the years.”
Caldwell, who grew up in West Seneca, said the biggest impact the school had on him is the relationships built over four years.
“We have a running email with 20 or 25 guys from our graduating class that still get together. It’s a very tight-knit group,” he said. “Last year we got together for the 20th reunion and we just left off like it was 1992. It’s funny how much things change but the people stay the same.”
The football field is only one area where the group bonded.
“My favorite memories have very little to do with football, actually,” Brian Polian said. “It was usually the mischief I was involved in. Hanging out at David Caldwell’s house with his family. His sister, Judy, used to cut our hair in the basement of their house. I mean, we go back that far.”
The friendships would only get stronger.
Off to John Carroll
Chris Polian was the first to head west on the I-90 for college at John Carroll University, the small Division III school in suburban Cleveland with a rich history of graduates moving on to the NFL.
Telesco followed soon after, as did Caldwell and Brian Polian.
“Chris was a couple years ahead of me and during the Thanksgiving break I’d hitch a ride with him,” Caldwell said. “There was some familiarity there, which was a good thing for all of us. It was when we were in college that we became much closer friends.”
Chris Polian and Telesco played wide receiver for the Blue Streaks, while Caldwell and Brian Polian – who were roommates – were linebackers.
Chris Polian graduated college in ’93, missing out on John Carroll’s Ohio Athletic Conference championship a year later.
When he was getting ready to graduate in 1996, Caldwell knew he wanted to pursue a career in football. He just wasn’t sure in what capacity.
One night when Bill Polian was in town, Brian suggested that Caldwell might be interested in an internship. After a John Carroll game, Caldwell and Bill Polian, who was the Carolina Panthers’ general manager at the time, discussed the possibility over dinner.
A job as a scouting assistant eventually opened up, and Caldwell jumped at the opportunity. Telesco – who had worked as a summer intern with the Bills during training camp between the 1991-94 seasons – had taken the same job a season earlier in 1995.
“To their credit, both of those guys took entry-level positions that paid next to nothing and have turned it into one of 32 jobs in the league,” Brian Polian said.
Starting from the bottom
An open door is one thing, but it’s what you do after walking through it that really resonates.
Chris Polian’s first job in football came as a player personnel assistant with the Sacramento Gold Miners, America’s first team in the Canadian Football League in 1993.
Brian Polian started as a graduate assistant at Michigan State in 1997, the year before Daboll arrived. From there, he worked for the University at Buffalo, Baylor, Central Florida, Notre Dame, Stanford and Texas A&M.
When Telesco and Caldwell started with the Panthers, they were making less than $25,000.
“All four of those guys have made it strictly on their own,” said Bill Polian, who was Panthers GM from 1994-97. “Every one of them started at the bottom and worked their way up. The only thing that helped was the fact they knew somebody in the business, but that’s where it ended. Everything else, they did on their own.”
Caldwell was only 22 years old at the time, without a family, which afforded him the flexibility to be the first one in and last one out. That work ethic – which was shared by Telesco – quickly made an impression.
“It was pretty obvious that they were going to be top-flight people in the business from a relatively early age. As time went on, we gave them more and more responsibility,” Bill Polian said.
Polian said it was apparent “almost from the get go” he had two future stars on staff.
“They always went that extra mile in terms of doing everything that it took to get the complete picture of a player. They had personalities that exuded leadership and professionalism, and at the same time were very, very easy to get along with,” Polian said. “Obviously, they came to Indianapolis with us, and by that time it was clear they were headed for big things.”
With the Colts, Telesco served as an area scout (1998-2000), pro scout (01-03), director of pro scouting (2005), director of player personnel (2006-11) and vice president of football operations (2012).
“He’s a mentor, but he’s even more than that,” Telesco said of Bill Polian. “They’re like family to me just because I’ve been with them so long and they’ve been so good to me. I obviously keep in contact with him. He’s such a great resource that it’d be hard not to. At a young age, he gave me a little bit more responsibility than I’d even earned at that point, but it was just part of his teaching process.
“You’re a product of who you’ve worked with and worked for. I was just lucky enough to work for, in my estimation, one of the best team builders in any sport, not just football.”
Caldwell joined Telesco and Bill Polian in Indianapolis in 1998, working as an area scout from 1998 to 2007 before joining the Falcons as director of college scouting (2008-11) and director of player personnel (2012).
Telesco had a good laugh when asked if he’s made his first trade call to Caldwell yet.
“No, but shoot, I’ll trade with anybody. It doesn’t have to be him, as long as I get a deal done,” he said. “But it does make it easier knowing the person on the other end of the phone really well.”
Caldwell and his wife, Joelle, had their son, David Michael, baptized in the chapel at St. Francis. So did Brian Polian and his wife, Laura, with their daughter, Charlotte, who joined older brother Aidan.
“For me, and I know my brothers feel this way, Buffalo’s home and will always be home. I’m the only guy in America who over spring break in March, I go to Buffalo,” Brian Polian said. “We christened my daughter there St. Patrick’s Day weekend in the chapel at St. Francis. I miss being back there.”
Polian was determined to pay it forward after getting his first head coaching job. One of his first moves was to hire a graduate assistant – Pat Denecke – who’s a 2006 St. Francis graduate.
“I always said when I got my first job that I was going to get somebody from home and give them their first break,” Polian said. “Pat played for John and Jerry. He’s been great.”
It all begs the question: How does Smith keep up?
After all, he’s got more than 30 players currently on college rosters, bringing the total number of players he’s sent to the next level to nearly 200.
“With technology the way it is, I can put all the schools in my phone and get the updates on each,” he said. “My phone blows up on Saturdays and Sundays.”
As for knowing what to root for when Telesco’s and Caldwell’s teams meet Oct. 20, he’s already thought about that.
“Simple. A tie.”