Jim Kelly VIP Charity Gala with Football Coach Bobby Greco

I have met, interviewed and spoken with many coaches throughout the years, with some of my favorite including Mack Brown, Pete Carroll, Jim Tressel, Terry Bowden and the assistant coaches at Williams College.  But I was truly honored and intrigued to meet and interview coach Bobby Greco at the Jim Kelly VIP Charity Gala this year. I think the most significant distinguishing factor between all of these other coaches and Bobby is that they began their careers playing football and perhaps dreaming of a career in the NFL, while Bobby did not.  He never aspired to play football and in fact, he may be the only football coach to have actually coached football when he was in high school rather than play it.  Bobby knew that he wanted to be a coach from the time he was five years old and that’s what he pursued.

Bobby’s entire world of football exists mentally in his head rather than physically on the field.  It’s perhaps why that part of his teaching ability is so strong.  With the amount of time that players must spend off the field learning concepts and understanding playbooks, it’s that ability to explain the physical in a purely conceptual way that makes him special and unique.  This is evidenced by the fact that Bobby was the most requested coach for Jim Kelly’s 25th Anniversary Football Camp this year.  When he made his debut coaching appearance at the camp in 2011, players were somewhat skeptical of his unique approach.  But by the end, they all were overjoyed to have had the opportunity to learn from Bobby and his entire team requested to have him again this year.

Bobby Greco

As Bobby puts it, “because I can explain things and make it simplified, I make each step of what they have to do easier for them.  I try to explain it the way I see it.  Because I’m seeing it in a more practical and visual way, if I can come up with a way to explain how I’m picturing it, it usually helps the player out and he’ll be able to picture it the same way.”

So why would it be such a surprise that someone who has been working towards his coaching aspirations for 18 years already would be so successful in communicating with and coaching his players?  It seems like a natural fit.  But the reality about Bobby is that he has never caught a football or thrown a pass.  He has never run up and down the field.  Bobby has never walked.  That’s because Bobby was born with arthrogryposis, which is characterized by multiple joint contractures found throughout the body at birth, and as a result he has never had the full use of his arms and legs.

He endures challenges every single day that most of us cannot even imagine.

“My joints were locked when I was born and in different positions so I had to have a lot of surgeries over the first two years to unlock them.  My right arm was like my left arm, like the elbow can’t bend, but there was enough muscle in it to turn it.  And they had to do that to my hips. I had to have surgery on my knees and on my feet—just to reconstruct them so that my body was in a normal position.”

Bobby has ALWAYS loved football

But Bobby sees the positive in things.  “I can understand things so much better and in coaching I can explain how to do something really well—but I don’t know exactly why.  I guess it’s just being able to be really visual with things because I can’t use my hands.”

And yet when Bobby talks about his life, he describes certain aspects as a dream come true.  At Geneva High School, Bobby coached the offensive line for his football team and helped lead them to a state championship his senior year.  He was also crowned homecoming king.

“It feels so cliche by saying we won a state championship because it almost sounds like you’re lying.  I never thought of this great story with all these guys coming together, all of your friends and you’re in a wheel chair coaching.  That’s a movie.  That’s what you want to see happen—and it actually happened.”

Bobby continued in the role of offensive line coach at St. John Fisher College so he has considerable experience and elaborated on the complicated role of the offensive linemen.

“[The offensive linemen] aren’t just blocking the person in front of them.  There’s always more that goes into it.  There can be zone blocks, man blocks, combo blocks.  Instead of me just going to block the person in front of me—it would be like if me and then the lineman next to me would both go to him and then whoever could get to the linebacker first would just leave and go.  It’s just a more efficient way to block everybody. It’s taught within each play—each play you’ll either have zone or man. But a lot of time because the defensive line has less people on it, there’s an extra guy, so he helps out where he can and then will move to the next level.”

But understanding the intricacies of playing offensive lineman seems simple compared to what Bobby has had to endure in his life while living with arthrogryprosis.

I’ve had 22 surgeries.  I’m 23 years old today.  Most of those occurred in 16 years. And I’m more susceptible to getting things.”

As a result of complications from his scoliosis operation, Bobby was in the hospital for six weeks and the wounds kept opening up.  And he tends to get everything that goes around because he’s not moving.  He’s endured so much that excruciating kidney stones don’t even rattle him.  He was sitting there in pain during our entire interview with a kidney stone he was trying to pass and yet there was no hint of pain or discomfort.  I only learned about his intense suffering because his mother brought it up while trying to provide examples of the difficulties he endures on a daily basis.

And yet he gets up every day and keeps going.  I asked him about where he prefers to be and where he is most comfortable.

“Home.  Going through everyday life I do it different than I would prefer.  When outside home, [I have to ask,] are there stairs or a ramp? Having to do everything the difficult way—different from straightforward.”

Leaving his home means that he may have to endure additional challenges and difficulties.  It’s inspiring to think about.  But what inspires Bobby?

“I have no idea.  It’s just because I’ve never been treated different so I just live life like that.  Even something like the kidney stones that were horrible last night—I didn’t even know if I was going to come today with how bad they were.  Just shake it off and keep going and I think because I’ve never been treated different, I can keep going.”

His normal life is thanks in part to the incredible group of people around him.  His family and friends have helped him every step of the way.

“That’s really worked out for me—besides him (joking and pointing to one of his best friends, John Warner, who was by his side the entire time that weekend).  Especially going to college I was always able to have a friend or a cousin in to be my aide for the day—someone who already knows how to do everything for me that I would need done instead of having to have a person come in and get trained that I don’t know at all.  It makes transitioning to things so much easier because I don’t have that next step.”

And what is the next step for Bobby?

“Finishing up classes and getting a real job where I’m paid.  And I’m doing a bunch of speeches.  We’re setting it up now.  Thursday I did my first one in Rochester at RCIL.  Now we’re just figuring out where I would talk.  It’s a whole motivational tour.  The title is Living Outside Your Comfort Zone.  That’s something I always have to do.”

It’s not just that he lives outside of his comfort zone that makes Bobby so inspiring.  It’s that he’s truly just a wonderful person to be around.  His kindness, energy and enthusiasm for life are unparalleled and I found myself smiling when I was in the room with him.  His NFL dream job is to coach the Buffalo Bills and his college dream coaching job is at Notre Dame.  I don’t know where he’ll end up, but I can’t wait to turn on the TV one day and see him coaching on the sideline.