The Times West Virginian

Sports

February 25, 2014

Former WVU linebacker Damon Cogdell gets second chance as a coach

MORGANTOWN — Damon Cogdell was sitting at a circular table in the dining area at Milan Puskar Stadium, moments after Dana Holgorsen had delivered his state of the West Virginia Mountaineers pre-spring practice football luncheon.

It was symbolic, for his life had come full circle. It had taken 17 years, but he was back, somewhat amazed at the path his life had taken.

In 1997 he had been paired with John Hadley to give the Mountaineers the linebackers they needed to put together a team that was blossoming into something special. They were a dynamic duo, as WVU surprised the world and got off to a 6-1 start, only a loss to Boston College a mark against their record, their last game having been a 30-17 victory over No. 19 Virginia Tech.

That victory took the Mountaineers to No. 17 in the country as they left for a huge game at Syracuse, one that would turn into a 40-10 disaster.

As you sat at the table with Damon Cogdell, you asked him if he remembered that Syracuse game.

“Oh, yeah, at Syracuse, Nov. 1, 1997, in the Carrier Dome,” he answered without so much as a second’s hesitation to think about it.

Why shouldn’t he remember it, though, for it was the day his life changed and started him down the path that eventually led him back to the spot he now holds at WVU as assistant coach in charge of the defensive line?

That was the day Damon Cogdell broke his hip.

“I was trying to pick up a fumble. It was a freak accident. I was trying to scoop and score,” he said.

His season ended with 66 tackles in those seven-plus games, 50 of them solo.

Was he NFL-bound?

We’ll never know, but like all kids he thought so.

They told him he’d never be the same, that he might never play again, but he tried in 1998.

Why shouldn’t he try? That really was going to be the year of years for Mountaineers.

They were No. 11 in the pre-season polls and had talent you would not believe. Think for a moment of team that had all these players, most of them NFL-bound:

 Perlo Bastien, Anthony Becht, Antonio Brown, Marc Bulger, Avon Cobourne, Eric de Groh, Chris Edmonds, Shawn Foreman, Rick Gilliam, Barrett Green, Pat Greene, Khory Ivy (who also broke his leg in the Syracuse game), Solomon Page, Mark Plants, Brian Pukenas, Tanner Russell, David Saunders, JuJuan Seider, Boo Sensabaugh, Rick Sherrod, Gary Stills, Nate Terry, Shawn Terry, Gary Thompkins, John Thornton, David Upchurch, Amos Zereoue.

This group was ready for the national spotlight and got it, opening at home with No. 1 Ohio State.

Win this game — which they fully believed they could do — and they would be legitimate national championship contenders.

But on national television they got stomped, 34-17, and there went the season. They rebounded to win four straight and got it back to No. 13 in the country, only to lose back-to-back to Miami and Virginia Tech, finishing the year at 8-4.

Cogdell tried to go. He played nine games, made 41 tackles, 26 of them solo. Good stuff. But no longer NFL quality. He played a couple of years in Canada as a starting linebacker in British Colombia, helping them to a Gray Cup championship before the hip would let him go no longer.

It was a hard time for him, he admits.

“Believe it or not, I always go back and ask God ‘Why me?’ I was one of the top linebackers in the country and ended up hurting my hip. I wondered why. It took me years,” he said.

Damon Cogdell took up a new route in his life, one in which football remained at the forefront.

He became a coach.

“It took me years to realize, this was what God had in mind for me. Here’s a young man who can turn these boys into young men,” he said.

He wound up back in Alpharetta, Ga., as linebackers and running backs coach, being named Assistant Coach of the Year by the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association in 2002 after helping lead Centennial to the state playoffs both years.

That was when he left and went home to Miramar, Fla., and became a legendary high school coach over more than decade. He arrived as a physical education teacher in 2002 and served as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator through 2006.

His defense finished No. 1 in Broward County three times, five of his players going on to play at either Division I, II or III.

He was named head coach in 2007 and went on to compile a 72-19 record against some of the best high school competition in America, winning the 2009 state title and finishing second in 2011.

In all he sent more than 50 players into college football, including WVU’s Geno Smith and wide receiver Stedman Bailey, both in the NFL, as well as Tracy Howard, a standout linebacker at Miami now.

“It’s been great for me, coaching in Georgia two years and then south Florida,” he said. “I ended up being a D-coordinator and assistant head coach, then become head coach and athletic director at my high school. On Saturday they just opened up a new weight room and named it after me.

“The more I’ve seen of this, it’s the path God laid out for me,” Cogdell concluded.

As he said, though, accepting it did not come easily or quickly.

“It took maybe until my first state championship game in ’09 to realize how many lives you change,” he said. “Even some of the kids in Georgia still communicate with me … and to go back to Miramar and do what I’ve done with those guys … now I’m back in Morgantown.”

He knows he was blessed to have talented kids to coach, but he will not admit that it was easy.

“No kid in south Florida is easy to handle,” he said. “You’ve got to be firm; you’ve got to be fair. You’ve got to let these kids know you care about them. If they know you care about them, they will run through a brick wall. You may have to strain and curse and do things out of the norm there are certain kids you won’t reach. If you let them know you care about them, that’s half the battle.

“That’s why I think I was so successful through my high school career.”

 Even Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey needed to be pushed in the right direction, as talented and as good a kids as they were.

“I had some great players but you have to guide them in the right direction,” he said. “To this day I talk to them. These kids just need mentors.

“I had to work with Geno all through high school,” he said. “Even when he was here, Stew and Dana sometimes would call me when he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do. I had that relationship with him and with other kids all over … Syracuse, Northern Illinois, Miami, Florida.”

Cogdell was satisfied as a high school coach, but wanted to challenge himself at a higher level.

“I had an opportunity to coach college a while ago but I wasn’t ready yet. My daughter was still in high school, I’d just had a son, who’s 4 now,” he said, explaining why he turned that down.

This, though, he could not turn down. It was chance to come back to West Virginia at a time when his family was ready for the changes they would face.

“The hardest part is not to seeing my family. My wife isn’t moving here yet so she’ll be traveling back and forth,” he said.

And what does he bring with him from his high school days?

 “It’s hard to say that yet because I haven’t been on the field, but the part that is working for me now is being myself. Those kids know I care about them and we’re going to win together,” he said. “My whole philosophy is if they are doing what it takes off the field, it makes their job and my job that much easier when we’re in the classroom.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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