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"Football Helps Kids Understand Accountability, Commitment, What it Means to Be a Leader"

Welcome to Why We Play, a series of discussions with current players and NFL Legends about their youth football experience and why they play the game.

When John Parrella went to sign up for the Bellevue, Nebraska Pop Warner team in fifth grade, there was just one problem. 

"I was too big," said Parrella. “They wanted to move me up to the bigger weight class."

Parrella decided to wait a couple of years, first joining a football team in the seventh grade. From that point on, his size helped him star at Grand Island Central Catholic High School and the University of Nebraska.

Parrella was a second-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1993. Listed at 6'3, 300 pounds during his NFL career, Parrella played 12 years in the league with the Bills, San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, accumulating 111 starts in 172 total appearances as a defensive tackle. 

When his NFL career ended, Parrella got into coaching. He started as an assistant high school coach in northern California, before becoming the head coach at Valley Christian High School. Then, he joined the college ranks, coaching at the junior college level at Chabot College, the Division II level at Northern Michigan, and then in the Big Ten as an assistant at Nebraska.

Parrella spent two years as a defensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns, before going back to the high school level as the head coach at Lutheran West in Rocky River, Ohio in 2020. 

Parrella said the coaches he had as a young man helped shape him — not just into into a 12-year NFL player, but as a better man off the field.

"I have always had this theory there’s no bad kids, there’s just lost kids," he said. "I was extremely lost going into high school. It took the power of a great coach and a graceful God to get me back in line. To me, I always thought it was awesome to get a kid who was lost and help him find his way."

“There’s no question whether you’re a Pop Warner, or middle school, or high school coach, you have a lot of influence. I think about my high school coach, Carl Tesmer; my college coach, Tom Osborne; my position coach in college, Charlie McBride. They all helped me so much."

Now, Parrella is doing the same for the young men on his team at Lutheran West. 

“For kids, (football) helps them understand accountability, commitment, what it means to be a leader, all the things that we’re trying to build with kids,’’ Parrella said. "I hear parents say, 'I don’t want my kids to play sports, I just want them to go to school and come home.' I thank God my parents didn’t say that. Look what football did for me.

"Our kids (at Lutheran West) don’t like football — they love it. They love what we’re doing."

As a high school coach, Parrella has a few policies. He will never yell at or berate a player in front of the team. "If we have to get on a young man, we’ll sit him down in the office and talk about what we’re not liking in his actions."

Another program, which Parrella calls "Champions for Life," teaches his players core values such as faith, character, commitment, and leadership.

"There are kids who don’t think about their future, where they’re going to college, any of that until their senior year," he said. "We start that with them as freshmen."

During his NFL career, Parrella had coaches tell him all the time he would make a good coach one day.

"I thought they were crazy," he said. “And here I am coaching. It’s become a passion."

Photo: AP/Paul Spinelli