Joe Avezzano is living his nightmare. He's coaching, just as he has with the Cowboys for the past 13 seasons. The wind is kicking up, and it's cold enough on the field that the players can see their breath. The game is football. The trouble lies not in the similarities, but in the key differences. This new reality is just off-center, enough to madden him with memories of everything he's known and loved for so long. Everything that's gone now.
He was the well-known special teams coach, as much a part of the 'Boys' identity as the one-name players like Troy and Michael and Emmitt. That era has long since faded, and so it followed that Avezzano would be forced into the shadows, too. He just never thought that day would come so soon. When Bill Parcells inked a contract to become head coach of the Pokes a few weeks back, he may as well have been banishing Avezzano on the spot (15 days passed before the formal firing).
Since then, he has been exiled to the world of Arena Football. Sure, this is Avezzano's second year with the Desperados, but last season he was also an assistant with the Cowboys; a guy who could always say, "Yeah, I do this....but only on the side."
It's a particularly cruel fate and not without irony. Today, the Desperados are practicing at Texas Stadium in full view of the Ring of Honor and just below three Super Bowl banners that Avezzano helped hoist.
Why are the indoor boys playing outside? Because Reunion Arena, where the Desperados play their home games, was booked--an ice-dancing show or something. Now that's hard.
"Goddammit," Avezzano suddenly erupts. He's gesticulating with his usual flair. "If I wanted to watch the ball fall off the net, I'd put an offensive lineman back there. Catch the damn ball off the net."
It's arena lingo, strange enough in its own right but completely foreign coming out of Avezzano's mouth. Even a little sad. Because this was the guy who ran up and down the sideline like a crazy man, silver hair and lips flapping. This was the guy who was, in his words, "really high-profile." And you loved him for it. He worked for the Cowboys, but he belonged to you. He was Coach Joe.
Now he's standing in Texas Stadium, coaching as he's done many times before. Only now he's as far from the NFL as a coach could be while still saying he works in pro ball.
"My situation is unique at the moment," Avezzano says softly. "It's unique to me, and it's unique to anybody who's ever coached. No one has ever done what I've done in this way, the way that I've done it in the last couple of years."
When the Cowboys let him go, he cried. That's how much the job meant to him. He cried in public, with reporters milling about and flashbulbs popping. Avezzano's tearful goodbye was the lead story on the evening news. If you slowed down the tape, you could almost see his heart break.
For a while, it looked as though he might be kept on. Jerry Jones lobbied to retain Avezzano, but he also said it was ultimately Parcells' decision. In the end, Jones showed his friend the door and issued a stock quote about "excellent coaching" and how Avezzano "holds a special place in the history of this franchise."
Can you imagine? Forget the football aspect here--because it's hard to defend some of the special-teams units Avezzano has commanded recently--and focus on the raw emotion. In this breakup, the jilted lover just got demoted at work and has to see his ex around the office. For God's sake, there are Greek tragedies that aren't that twisted.
"That's...that's not a bad point there," Avezzano agrees. "But I think I'm completely comfortable working for the Jones family, totally comfortable working for the Jones family in whatever capacity. The relationship between Jerry and myself, and myself and his family, is nothing but great respect and admiration for the 13 years we've been together....but it is different. It is awkward because it's different."
Avezzano isn't sure what's going to happen. The change in his life came swiftly, and he's still adjusting. Or reeling. Maybe he'll look for another job, or maybe someone will come looking for him. Who knows?
None of which guarantees that he's leaving the area anytime soon. Really, can you picture him heading up special teams in Seattle or Baltimore or anywhere but Dallas? More important, do you think he can picture it?
"I've always had great respect for [arena ball]," Avezzano offers. "I have great respect for the league; I treat the players with great respect. So long as I do this, whether it's long term or for a short while, there will never be any questions about [my effort].
"I haven't had a job in a long time. I've had a lifestyle--a way of life. That's been extremely enjoyable to me. And so therefore, I don't have any desire, nor do I have reason to go somewhere just to be in the NFL. I love the NFL, but I've been with a great organization at a very high level, and I don't care for that to be altered very much. All situations in the NFL are not good situations."
To his credit, he doesn't appear to shirk his Arena League responsibilities. The season starts February 2 at home against New York, and he says he'd like to get them to the playoffs again (they lost in the second-round last year). No one would have faulted him for begging out of this gig given the odd circumstances. "But what would that solve?" he asks. "That wouldn't get my old job back." Which is why he's pouring whatever he has left into the Desperados. For now.
There's a final irony here. When a player gets cut, the standard response is for the coach to come off cold, even austere. It's a business and all that jazz. Right. Until the roles are reversed and the queasy feeling finds their gut. And rightly so.
Still, you almost wish Coach Joe never had to feel that rumble.
"I never did forget, when I was a player playing in professional football for a very short period of time, what it was like to be cut," Avezzano says. "I always had great empathy for players who were cut and who were put through the tedious nature of the sport. Truly in the NFL, the NFL stands for Not For Long. That is true. I've always had great empathy for that. It's tough. It's always more, even though you may have great empathy, it's still different when it happens to you, because it's obviously more personal. But they don't ask you whether you like it or not; they just ask you to deal with it and move on...If there's one thing I've learned in coaching over the years, if there's anything I've learned that's valuable, it's that when change comes, get on with it. Get over it and get on with it. That's what you try to do. Of course, that doesn't make it any easier because you have a handy little philosophy. It's not easy."
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