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Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn began his path to the NFL at Salisbury

Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn began his path to the NFL at Salisbury.

Every Friday night before his team plays a football game, Dan Quinn calls his friend, Len Annetta.

You might guess that the nature of those calls has changed over the past 22 years as Quinn has made his way from coaching the defensive line at VMI to leading the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons into Super Bowl LI.

“It's the exact same conversation,” Annetta said, laughing.

Yes, Quinn talks through his plans for Matt Ryan and Julio Jones with an East Carolina education professor. Then he inquires after Annetta's children, one of whom is his goddaughter.

They've failed to connect for their ritual just a few times over the years. “And his team has not done well,” Annetta said, laughing again.

The pair met at a high school football camp at Rutgers. They became as close as brothers at Salisbury (then-Salisbury State), where Annetta was the quarterback and Quinn a defensive captain. They coached for a year together as unpaid assistants at William & Mary before Annetta's path turned to academia.

Annetta and others who've maintained bonds with Quinn since his days at out-of-the-way Salisbury say his loyalty to them is telling. Sure, he'll match wits with Bill Belichick tonight before an audience of 110 million. But old friends describe the Falcons coach as a man who has remained grounded in the humble experiences of his past.

“He never forgets the little people,” said Pat Lamboni, head athletic trainer at Salisbury for the past 35 years. Quinn, 46, met his wife, Stacey, in Lamboni's training room, where she was a student assistant.

Moments after Quinn's team beat the Green Bay Packers to secure a trip to the Super Bowl, Lamboni sent him a congratulatory text accompanied by a photo of the trainer's family decked out in Falcons gear.

Twenty minutes later, Lamboni's phone pinged with a return text: “I really appreciate you guys! We're going to the Super Bowl—DQ”

“They'd just won the NFC championship, and he sends that,” Lamboni said. “It just makes you realize this guy has his head on straight.”

Mike Vienna was an associate athletic director at Salisbury when Quinn started there and went on to become the school's longtime athletic director. He found Quinn unfailingly generous, both as a donor and an advocate for the university.

“If we called Dan and asked him to help with something, he would always do it,” said Vienna, now the athletic director at Emory. “When you're working at an institution, you just love that.”

The story of Dan Quinn at Salisbury is not one of headlines, accolades or trophies. In fact, the Sea Gulls never won more than two games in any of the four seasons he played.

Rather, Quinn learned to cling to his core principles — always give a fierce effort, care about the people around you, believe next week will be better — even as the results gnawed at his ultra-competitive soul.

“So much of my foundation as a competitor was during that time,” he said Monday.

“It took great courage and strong work ethic for those guys to stick with it,” said his college coach, Joe Rotellini. “But they just kept grinding and stayed positive. We always played hard. It was a great learning experience for all of us.”

Those who knew Quinn in those years and have stayed in touch as his career has progressed, say his time on the Eastern Shore was essential in shaping him. To a man, they say the guy who left Salisbury 23 years ago is largely the same character who commands the high-powered Falcons.

“When things are going really well, when it's easy, you don't get the same characteristics you might when things are difficult. And things were always difficult for Salisbury football in the early '90s,” Annetta said. “When you hear Dan talk now about a standard and a process, I believe those years, when we had to struggle and scrap and have some grit to succeed, even on the small scale we did, really laid the foundation for what he has going now. I think it's part of the secret sauce for why he's in the Super Bowl in his second year.”

Friendly competition

The Sea Gulls had played in the DivisionIII national championship game in 1986 under then-coach Mike McGlinchey. But the program and the university around it were changing by the time Quinn arrived in the fall of 1989.

Academic standards were rising, and the football team was no longer in a conference, meaning it had to play a brutal independent schedule. Those factors, combined with plummeting win-loss records and the absence of a full-time coaching staff, made recruiting difficult.

Quinn was lured from Morristown, N.J., by the prospects of playing football, throwing the hammer in track and field, and studying to become an elementary school teacher. Annetta joined Quinn as a transfer from Bloomsburg in Pennsylvania. From the jump, they competed joyously over just about everything. During the summer, they'd rise at 5 a.m. to run and lift weights in the oppressive humidity. On the way back to their campus apartment, they'd roll up their car windows and crank the heat.

“The competition was who was going to tap out first,” Annetta said. “Sometimes we would go for a half-hour. God, we were stupid, but those were good times.”

Even at that age, Quinn carefully studied the coaches and leaders around him.

“No question,” Annetta said. “You can still see in some of the things he does, some of the ways he talks, they're reminiscent of the way Coach Rotellini and [defensive coordinator] Robb Disbennett talked to us 25 years ago.”

Quinn struggled with neck stingers early in his career.

“Dan, you can't keep playing like this,” Lamboni told him, showing the young athlete tape of his neck compacting on headfirst tackles.

So Quinn rebuilt his tackling technique and worked himself into a bull-necked 270-pound defensive end in the weight room.

“He never had another [stinger] after that year,” Lamboni said. “That's typical of the way he approaches any issue.”

The assistant trainer who worked with him most closely was his future wife. Lamboni had a rule against his student staffers dating Salisbury athletes. So the couple kept their budding romance hush-hush. Lamboni didn't catch on until late in Quinn's senior year, when he happened to see them crossing a park bridge hand-in-hand.

“I think she's the calming influence on him,” he said. “He's rah-rah. She's been the ballast to the ship.”

Quinn, who entered the Salisbury athletic Hall of Fame in 2005, was a true two-sport athlete, perhaps better at the hammer throw than he was at stopping opposing ball
carriers.

“That was something that was really important to Dan,” Annetta said. “I would always ask him, ‘Why are you doing this? You're killing yourself.' But he just loved to compete. That's who he is.”

As a football player?

“I would describe him as a mad dog,” Annetta said. “He was intense, always. He would work himself up before games so much that he'd be on the verge of throwing up. After every game, he was spent. Whatever he didn't have in natural athletic ability, he made up for with intensity.”

The Sea Gulls simply could not keep up with the Division III powerhouses that filled their schedule. Salisbury went 8-37-1 in Quinn's five years on campus (he redshirted his second season because of a knee injury).

“Dan and Len Annetta, those guys were really good,” Vienna recalled. “We just didn't have enough of them.”

Coaching tandem

Annetta and Quinn had a clear plan for what would come next, one they often discussed while staying up late to watch West Coast college games.

“It was let's go get a master's degree and then coach high school football together for the next 50 years,” Annetta recalled. “He and I were going to be this tandem.”

They made their way to William & Mary where both scored jobs as unpaid assistants based on recommendations from Rotellini.

Quinn found them a one-bedroom apartment in a run-down section of Williamsburg, Va., and they relied on the team training table for food, scratching together pocket change with seasonal work.

Within a month, Annetta realized his friend was going to keep coaching, probably at higher and higher levels.

“This was his calling,” he said. “He just had a knack — his work ethic, his attention to detail in the film room, just being a sponge off all these very knowledgeable coaches. It was just really obvious that was where he was going to go.”

After seven seasons at William & Mary, VMI and Hofstra, Quinn leaped to the NFL.

When he took the Falcons job two years ago, fresh off a highly successful stint as defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, he inherited a talented roster known for coming up small at the most crucial moments.

But friends say Quinn never dwells on what a person can't do or hasn't done.

“He looks for the best in people,” Lamboni said. “All these guys had stigmas attached to them. But Dan gets there, and I remember talking to him last summer about his personnel. And he's talking about these guys who'd been labeled problem child, and he kept saying, ‘That guy's a winner.'”

A procession of Quinn's Salisbury associates have visited him in Atlanta since he took the Falcons job. They note the way he's democratized the team cafeteria, insisting trainers, grounds-crew members and maintenance workers dine in the same space as players and coaches. They see the affection between him and his players.

“It's a dang cool thing,” said Vienna, who lives in Atlanta and said Quinn is “walking on water” with the whole city.

Lamboni visited the Quinns last spring and gave them a photo of the bridge where he'd first spied them as a couple.

“What's this?” they asked.

“That's the bridge where I finally found out the two of you were sneaking around behind my back,” the old trainer responded.

“We had a good laugh over it,” Lamboni said.

Annetta still vacations with his pal every summer at the beach in North Carolina, and they still invent stupid reasons to compete.

One ritual neither man would dare miss two days before the biggest game of Quinn's career?

The Friday phone call.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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