ATLANTA — Shortly after the Los Angeles Rams defeated the New Orleans Saints in overtime to clinch the NFC title and advance to Super Bowl LIII, coach Sean McVay hardly sounded like the youngest coach in the NFL at age 33.
McVay took reporters’ questions, answering each with meticulous detail. He was his typically wired self and, despite the overwhelming circumstances, maintained the composure of a consummate professional.
But when McVay exited the room, he was engulfed by a small contingent of childhood friends. They hugged him, jumped up and down, hollered and cheered. For a few rare and prolonged seconds, McVay appeared every bit the youngest head coach to lead his team to a Super Bowl.
Sean McVay’s friends get a hold of him after his news conference. pic.twitter.com/hkTmmaWkmu
— Lindsey Thiry (@LindseyThiry) January 21, 2019
“He came out and saw us and it’s so fun to see how he goes from the mad scientist back to Sean,” said Chris Ashkouti, one of three brothers who attended the NFC Championship Game and whom McVay counts among his closest childhood friends. “He was just a giddy, excited kid and it was exciting for us.”
But the moment was fleeting. McVay quickly put his feet back on the ground and continued with his postgame duties.
On Sunday, if the Rams defeat the New England Patriots, the celebration isn’t likely to be tamed, or limited to close friends and family.
McVay grew up in a northern suburb of Atlanta and graduated from a private high school in Brookhaven, about 15 miles north of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Some of my closest friends in life are guys that I was able to play high school football with,” McVay said. “So, there’s a lot of … people that will be able to be at that game that are very important to me.”
Success came fast for the second-year head coach. But to those who grew up with him, it doesn’t come as a surprise.
‘What’s wrong with your nose?’
McVay enrolled at the Marist School, a private Roman Catholic institution, in the seventh grade. Students were required to wear a uniform of gray slacks, a button-up shirt with a tie and a sport coat. McVay stood out, first as an outstanding soccer player, but also for his crooked nose, broken several times on the pitch.
“When you’re in high school, you tend to hone in on people’s insecurities,” former Marist offensive lineman Alex Salzillo said. “We knew he was sensitive about [his nose].”
McVay grew up in a family with rich football tradition. His grandfather, Rich, was an executive with the San Francisco 49ers when they won five Super Bowls and his father, Tim, played college football at Indiana. McVay didn’t start playing football until his freshman year, when classmates insisted he would be an asset.
It didn’t go over well with the soccer team.
“Our soccer coach just couldn’t believe he decided to hang soccer up and play football,” said Ashkouti, who keeps in regular contact with McVay and friends through group text messages. “I remember our football coach and our head soccer coach were like yelling at each other, cause they both wanted Sean. … It was a huge ordeal.”
After the freshman football season’s conclusion, Marist coaches moved McVay, along with a few of his teammates, to varsity.
McVay played defensive back as a sophomore, then started at quarterback as a junior and senior.
As a senior in 2003, McVay, an option quarterback, led Marist to the school’s first state championship since 1989 when he rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in the title game. He attempted only three passes.
“To be able to win a state championship my senior year with the coaches and with some of my closest friends in the world,” McVay said, “that was a special memory.”
His former teammates also remembered their state title fondly, but McVay’s high school ride also stood out.
McVay drove his mom’s hand-me-down, four-door Lexus sedan. Not bad for a high school kid, except the passenger seat was broken and leaned to the left. Kind of appropriate, though, given what a typical ride with McVay entailed.
“The passenger seat, would just have a gangster lean to it and he would always play the funniest R&B,” Ashkouti said, chuckling. “Like, he loves R&B songs, and it was just weird.”
But back to McVay’s sometimes-crooked nose. His senior year, it got more crooked. In one game, a defender grabbed his facemask and nearly twisted the helmet off his head. When fullback Michael Ashkouti, Chris’ older brother, reached his teammate, McVay asked him if his nose was broken. “Man, what’s my nose look like?” McVay asked. “Is it crooked? Is it straight?”
Marist held a lead with six minutes left, but Michael Ashkouti didn’t want McVay to have to leave the game, even with a nose obviously broken and bent badly to the right.
“It’s fine,” Michael Ashkouti told him. “It’s good.”
Almost simultaneously, Marist offensive lineman Casey Murphy ran over to see if his quarterback was OK. “Holy s—!” Murphy yelled. “What’s wrong with your nose?”
In the playoffs that season, there’s a playcall — made by McVay — that has grown into a legendary tale in Georgia. Trailing by five with minutes remaining and facing a third-and-5 near the goal line, Marist coach Alan Chadwick called timeout. Offensive coordinator Paul Etheridge wanted to call a play-action pass or another veer play, which was a staple in Marist’s option offense. But then the receivers coach relayed a message to Etheridge, who was calling plays from the press box.
“Sean says the naked bootleg is there,” the receivers coach told Etheridge. “Sean really wants it. He wants to run it.”
With some more nudging from McVay, Chadwick and Etheridge agreed that the naked bootleg was the correct play to call.
The result? An easy touchdown.
“My grandmother could have walked that one in,” Michael Ashkouti said. “It was one of the best playcalls we’ve ever seen from Sean. They didn’t see it coming at all.”
“I looked down at the pile and thought we hadn’t scored,” former Marist lineman Matt Rumsey said. “But then I heard the crowd erupt and saw that Sean still had it.”
McVay became the first player in Marist history to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. In 2003, he was named the Georgia 4A offensive player of the year ahead of future Detroit Lions star Calvin Johnson.
“He was the unquestioned leader of that team for two years,” Chadwick said. “We even had players that wanted him to be the quarterback as a sophomore. His leadership and his belief in himself were just unquestioned, and everybody believed in him so much.”
With games on Friday nights, McVay routinely would get together on Thursdays with the backup quarterback, Chris Ashkouti.
“I would be quizzing him on the scouting report that our coaches put together and he would be answering the questions before I would even finish because he had such a grasp on our game plan,” Chris Ashkouti said. “Then sometimes he would take the report from me and start drawing. … He would be like, ‘If they’re going try and stop us, and they’re smart, they’ll probably come out and try and do this,’ and so he would mark up a report that our high school coaches had put together, and he would come up for air and look at me and would be like, ‘Are you with me?’ and then the report would be like — there’d be stuff all over it. I’d be like, ‘Look, dude, just do me a favor and don’t get hurt tomorrow.'”
After victories, the juniors and seniors would go to Waffle House for a postgame meal. But before McVay’s first game as a junior quarterback, he called Chris Ashkouti to ask what they should wear after the game. Chris told McVay he should bring street clothes to change into. McVay wouldn’t have it.
“He was like, ‘Well, I feel like that’s predetermining that we’re going to win the game tomorrow, if we pack street clothes,'” Chris Ashkouti recalled. “He’s like, ‘Let’s just plan to wear our [school] uniforms if we win the game.'”
So that’s how it went for two years. After every win, McVay and Chris Ashkouti would arrive to Waffle House, with teammates and classmates, dressed in their school uniforms.
McVay always seemed to take football to another level. On Saturday mornings after games, McVay and a group of about five or six other seniors met to watch film before the full team meeting on Sundays. Afterward, they went for burritos. McVay also watched film at home on Saturday nights.
“He’d call me and tell me I ran the wrong route,” Michael Ashkouti said. “He knew what everybody on offense and defense was supposed to do.”
After McVay’s senior season, he took Marist’s offensive linemen to Fogo de Chão, a Brazilian steakhouse in Atlanta.
“Offensive linemen don’t get a lot of credit or ink,” Salzillo said. “He always made sure to push some of his praise to the offensive line. He always meant it and gave credit to the team.”
The bill was a few hundred dollars, and it made a lasting impression on his teammates.
“Each of us probably ate five pounds of meat,” Salzillo said. “It was a thank-you for protecting him all season. He’s not a boastful person and he’s a very modest person. He’s the first guy that gives the guy next to him credit for success. I think he understands that football is the most pure team sport we have. He knows that every person on the field plays a role.”
‘Kind of a dork’
After the Rams defeated the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional-round playoff game Jan. 12, Chris Ashkouti was inside the office of McVay’s Los Angeles-area home. The setup is practically identical to his office at the team’s practice facility. But there are books — leadership books — stacked from floor to ceiling.
“Behind the scenes,” Chris Ashkouti said, “he’s kind of a dork.
“I’m like shuffling through these stacks of books and I’m like, ‘You’ve read all these?’ And he’s like, ‘I’ve read them all.’ He’s like, ‘This one,’ — and he’ll give me a comment, ‘I love this about this book. The way this guy talks about this. If you read one, I highly recommend you get this one.’ … I’m like, ‘You are crazy, man. You. Are. Crazy.'”
McVay said his favorite book is “The Score Takes Care of Itself” by Bill Walsh.
Maybe hidden in those books is the secret to how McVay quickly orchestrated a masterful turnaround of a moribund team coming off a four-win season.
In two seasons, McVay is 26-9 and has led the Rams to back-to-back NFC West Division titles for the first time since 1979, and to their first Super Bowl appearance since the 2001 season.
“He’s the best. He’s the best at what he do,” Gurley said. “He’s a great guy. You can talk to him, you can understand and he does everything for a reason. He does everything for us, for the team. So, you love playing for a guy like that.”
McVay’s childhood friends and teammates aren’t surprised that he was able to capture the attention, and most important, the respect of a locker room of professional athletes, most who are slightly younger than McVay, but also a couple who are older. And they were even less surprised when told McVay is often known to shut his office door during the week, as he watches film and bumps some rap and hip-hop music loud enough to cause a few vibrations.
“A lot of what I see on TV and in videos is who he was in high school,” former Marist lineman Matt Rumsey said. “He was enthusiastic and was a motivator. It wasn’t fake or disingenuous in any way. He generally cared and was trying to get people to feel the same way he did. He really came across as someone who wanted to make everyone around him better and as excited about it as he was.”
The night before the NFC Championship Game, the Ashkouti brothers made a quick visit to McVay.
“The night before the game, you really don’t know who you’re going to get,” Chris Ashkouti said. “He was just laser focused and I think we had like a five- or 10-minute conversation, and I guarantee you he can’t tell you one thing any of us said to him. … He’s just so focused and he just looks right through you, and he’s just not hearing anything you say because you know his mind is all about the game.”
The game was a big deal even before the Rams secured a spot. But with a hometown kid leading the way? “People are just scratching and clawing to try and get a ticket,” Chris Ashkouti said.
“If your last name is McVay, you’re probably going to be here,” McVay said. “That’s a safe way to say it and then there will be some other close, really, family friends and things like that, but I’m sure my parents found a way to get a couple more tickets that I didn’t know about and sometimes they protect me from those things, which is a good thing.”
As the country prepares to watch McVay and his team on the game’s biggest stage, there’s a community who will be in attendance — or watching from not too far away — who saw it coming.
“He’s always been preparing himself for this moment,” Chris Ashkouti said. “A lot of people are surprised by this and I think we’re maybe a little surprised by how quickly it’s happened.
“But we knew at some point, it definitely was going to happen.”