Bowie State head football coach Damon Wilson strolled into the meeting room designated to the New York Jets' running backs, just as he had done for the past week, and he knew Le'Veon Bell was going to sit in the seat next to his.
The Bulldogs' head coach and the star NFL running back actually have a connection with each other. Bell was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013, when former Bowie State player Isaac Redman was on the team. The two exchanged stories while they sparked a relationship during the course of the NFL preseason.
Like most people in the sports world, Wilson had heard all the stories about the Jets' new offensive weapon and his contract battles with the Steelers. Those stories only offered a glimpse into Bell's life, though, and Wilson discovered there was so much more to him than the holdout for more money.
"He's a great guy," Wilson said. "He's a great teammate, he works hard and he cares about his guys. He puts in his time in the classroom. He loves the fans. He loves the kids. He understands his position and expectations set before him. He's looking forward to getting back on the football field and playing ball."
Wilson's relationship with Bell was just one of the benefits that came from being one of four Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) coaches to participate in the NFL's Bill Walsh Diversity Program this summer. This is second time Wilson has worked with an NFL coaching staff -- the first being in 2013 with the then-St. Louis Rams -- but he is always excited to learn as much as possible from coaches and players at the sport's highest level.
"It's an honor," Wilson said. "It's an honor to have an opportunity to work with the Jets and continue to sharpen my skills as a coach and build relationships at the National Football League to better prepare myself to help my players."
When Wilson last participated in the program during the 2013 preseason with the Rams, he primarily worked with former running backs coach Ben Sirmans and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. He also spent some time in personnel meetings for offense, defense and special teams.
This year, he was back with the running backs, working with position coach Jim Bob Cooter and helping prepare Bell and his teammates during drills.
But more importantly, Wilson was actively coaching on an NFL practice field.
"I was pretty much right at home," Wilson said. "It's the same game. It really wasn't a special feeling. It was more like business as usual. We were in our environment just coaching and playing football."
The gap between the NFL and college level is large, but at its core, "football is football," Wilson said. That was apparent to him when he was talking with Cooter about different schemes and systems.
As it turns out, their offensive systems share a lot of the same tendencies.
"Of course, the terminology was different, but the overall schemes are very similar," Wilson said. "The biggest takeaway for me was just having the ability to share the room with Jim Bob and talk through different schemes and responsibilities and making sure that it was still aligned with the way we teach our players."
Wilson also was on the sideline for the Jets' preseason opener against the New York Giants Aug. 8 before having to leave to focus on his own team in Bowie. Two weeks later, though, he was invited back by the Jets for their third preseason game against the New Orleans Saints Aug. 24..
"It was great," Wilson said of coaching during the Giants game. "The game was a lot faster than it is in college, but with the use of technology and the things they have available to them, you get to experience those things. We have the ability to identify a problem and implement different problem solving methods."
Most of what Wilson learned came from seeing and being a part of different teaching techniques the Jets incorporated on the practice field to help players absorb information at a quicker rate. Things like learning better time management skills, situational football drills and developing a winning culture from defensive coordinator Gregg Williams are things that Wilson described as "priceless."
"He's a big culture guy," Wilson said of Williams. "He knows how to change a culture at all the programs he's been at, so there's a lot of things that I can take away from Coach Williams ... and apply at Bowie."
The game was faster and the level of play was higher, but Wilson was able to learn unique ways to improve his team from coaches who are at the height of his profession. And now, as the Bulldogs' season gets underway Sept. 7, he can't wait to use some of what he learned to make his team better.
"A lot of guys have aspirations of desire to play at the National Football League level, and to know that a head coach has some experience there and knows some coaches, they understand they're going to learn football at the highest level," Wilson said. "It's priceless, and it's something that we look forward to building upon at Bowie State."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Robin Monsky