Globetrotting Coach and NFL Legend Ron Heller Shares Lessons He Learned in Youth Football
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.
Thanks to his dad, Ron Heller got an early start in football.
“You were supposed to be eight years old to start playing," he said. "I was only seven, but my dad worked out a deal with the coach so I could play."
Playing youth football from a young age in Farmingdale, N.Y. taught Heller lessons he has carried throughout his NFL and coaching career.
“I played all the way up to high school with the same group of guys," he said. "And we were always in first place, always won the league. We had a good team, a lot of good players.
"It taught me how to be a champion. We has such pride in what we did. We went on and won state championships in high school. (Youth football) taught me to be proud and to win and be part of something bigger than me."
From his state championship teams at Farmingdale High School, Heller earned a scholarship at Penn State. In 1984, the big offensive tackle was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the fourth round. He played 12 seasons in the NFL for the Bucs, Philadelphia Eagles, and Miami Dolphins.
Heller decided to hang it up after the 1995 season, the same year that legendary Dolphins head coach Don Shula retired. Despite encouragement from the Dolphins new head coach, Jimmy Johnson, Heller knew his playing days were over.
"I was done," Heller said. “I didn’t have anything left."
Johnson offered Heller a coaching position, but at the time that was the furthest thing from his mind.
"I told him he was crazy," Heller said. “I went home and my wife asked me how it went. I told her he wanted me to be a coach. She said, ‘Did you tell him he was crazy?’ At that time, I felt like I wasn’t a coach. I was a player."
Almost a decade later, Heller ran into Johnson again before a Dolphins-Broncos game. At the time, Heller was operating a successful business in Montana.
"(Johnson) asked what I was doing," Heller said. “I told him about my business and how well it was going. He said, 'If you listened to me you’d still be in the NFL.'"
After Heller sold his business, he began to wonder if Johnson was right. So he interned for a summer with then-Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, who Heller knew from his days in Philadelphia. Fisher advised him to get experience in NFL Europe.
Thus began an international coaching odyssey for Heller. He started out with the Amsterdam Admirals in 2004 as an assistant offensive line and tight ends coach. After four years in Amsterdam, Heller became the offensive line coach for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL.
The next year, Heller got his NFL chance when Jack Del Rio hired him to the Jacksonville Jaguars staff in 2010. After two years there, he spent a season with the UFL's Omaha Nighthawks before joining Rex Ryan's New York Jets staff in 2013.
Heller has been out of coaching since 2015, but still reflects on his football career. He said much of his success stems from the youth football fields back in Farmingdale.
"Even at a young age, in high school, I would look at the logo on my helmet and say ‘I can’t believe I’m a Famingdale Hawk,'" Heller said. "It was such a great program, and I was a part of it. I built friendships that lasted, because we were part of something special.
"Sports teach you responsibility, accountability, how to work with others. It gives you confidence that you can do things."
Photo: AP/Paul Spinelli
- NFL Players and Legends
- Youth Football
- High School Football