Tom Telesco could barely bring himself to watch the Miami and Baltimore games at 1 p.m. Sunday. The San Diego Chargers’ general manager paced back and forth, stopping now and then to catch a score, unable to manage the events unfolding back East.
“You have no control,” Telesco said Monday. “It was nerve-wracking. But once those two lost, it was in our hands.”
Once the Dolphins and Ravens lost, opening the door, the tension really began to build. Now all the Chargers had to do was beat the Chiefs, and Telesco, a Hamburg native and St. Francis High graduate, would make the playoffs in his first year as a GM.
It was heart-pounding, and it took overtime to do it. But finally, the Chargers did it. They came from 10 points down in the fourth quarter and beat the Chiefs, 27-24. The Chargers finished 9-7 to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Telesco, 41, spent much of a busy Monday fielding congratulatory texts from back home. Among the first to send along their good wishes were Jerry Smith, the veteran St. Francis football coach, and his long-time assistant, John Scibetta.
“I owe so much to those guys,” Telesco said from San Diego. “They put in so much time with young, impressionable kids in high school. Not just me, but so many others, too.
“Sometimes you’re lucky to get your foot in door,” Telesco said, “but those two guys still probably know more football than I do. But for me and so many other kids who came through St. Francis, they taught work ethic, discipline, fundamentals — things that really matter.”
Telesco has a reputation as a reserved, hard-working guy. He seemed genuinely humbled to know people here feel a sense of connection and pride.
“I always feel bad,” he said, “because there’s so many St. Francis alumni who are doing great things, whether it’s football or other walks of life. Our business is a little more out there in the media.”
No school has produced more NFL executive talent than the one in Athol Springs. David Caldwell, a teammate of Telesco at St. Francis, is the GM at Jacksonville. He was hired last Jan. 8, one day before Telesco got the job in San Diego.
Both got their start from Bill Polian, the architect of the Bills’ Super Bowl teams. Polian’s sons, Chris and Brian, were boyhood pals of Telesco and Caldwell who played at St. Francis and also went into the football business.
Telesco was a summer intern for the Bills from 1991-94. Like Caldwell, he took an entry-level scouting job under Polian at Carolina and followed him to Indianapolis, where he worked his way up the ranks to vice president of football operations.
He took on a tough assignment with the Chargers, who had missed the playoffs three years in a row. Telesco was undaunted. He had learned at the foot of Polian, who built his teams around offense.
“Well, I only know what I’ve been taught,” Telesco said. “I worked with Bill for almost 20 years. I got most of my pro football experience from Bill and Chris (Polian). Every situation is different. But a lot of your core values end up being similar.”
Six days after taking over, Telesco hired Mike McCoy as head coach. Telesco wanted an offensive coach to revive the career of Philip Rivers. McCoy was one of the most sought-after offensive minds in the game.
Telesco brought in Frank Reich, whom he had known since his days in Buffalo, as quarterbacks coach. McCoy wanted to run a fast-paced, no-huddle offense. Who better than Reich, who had been the backup for Jim Kelly when the K-Gun was at its zenith?
He hired Joe D’Alessandris, who had been let go with Chan Gailey in Buffalo, to coach the Chargers’ shaky offensive line. D’Alessandris had tutored a Bills O-line that was among the best in the league in preventing sacks and rushing yards per carry.
Chad Rinehart, a free agent left guard, bolted the Bills as a free agent to join D’Alessandris. Looking for a cheap running back to complement Ryan Matthews, Telesco signed Pats free agent Danny Woodhead, who had more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage and eight TDs.
In the draft, Telesco’s first three picks were offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, linebacker Manti T’eo and wide receiver Keenan Allen. All three became starters. Allen, the 76th overall pick of the draft, led all NFL rookies with 71 catches, 1,046 yards and eight TDs.
The biggest move was standing by Rivers, whose was under fire after three straight non-playoff seasons. Rivers, 32, rewarded him with a Pro Bowl year, completing 69.5 percent of his throws for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns. Reich was a soothing influence.
“Frank is really talented and smart,” Telesco said. “Everything you thought of him as a player, he shows as a coach. Phil can come off the field and tell Frank what he saw. Frank was there. He’s seen it before.”
So they can see it through the same eyes.”
It wasn’t easy. The Chargers lost three in a row and fell to 4-6. But Rivers led them to a comeback win at Kansas City. They lost to go 5-7, but ran the table to get in.
Some Bills fans might be a little torn. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs in 14 years. A young Hamburg guy makes it in his first shot as a GM – borrowing from the Bills to do it.
“I don’t really even want to touch that,” Telesco said. “I still have so many people back there, family and friends, who are Bills fans. I still root for them – when it doesn’t affect us.”