Nathaniel Hackett has what it takes and a lot more
|Toronto Star 16 Sep 2021 at 15:56|
It happened in the midst of a 10-hour lab final. A room full of neurobiology majors, donning white lab coats and rigid looks, were dissecting their animal subjects, the culmination of a long year filled with—as Nathaniel Hackett puts it—“real Hannibal Lecter stuff.”
He was 22, and up until that day Hackett felt like he was in his element, in a room full of future doctors. He’d sometimes leave these sessions bleary-eyed, meeting his family with animal blood still spattered on his shirt. They once had to wrangle a genetically mutated rat the size of a housecat. The desire to help and care for sick people was in his DNA. His grandmother Sarah was a long-time nurse and travelled to Haiti in retirement to start a family planning clinic, which mushroomed into a full-service organization for women that provides them with steady work and reliable income.
Along with pre-med aspirations, Hackett was a linebacker at the FCS school UC Davis—his father, Paul Hackett, coached for 40 years, holding the top jobs at USC and Pitt, and making seven stops as an NFL assistant. Nathaniel was also an avid hip-hop dancer, teaching classes throughout college and continuing to take lessons into his late 20s. To this day, he coaches his daughter, also a prospective dancer who has already appeared in music videos, proudly donning his “Dance Dad” shirt at every showcase and competition. But, more than anything, he loved to laugh. And he loved to walk into a room and light the place up.
So that day in the sterile atmosphere of that lab final, he decided to break the tension. He needed to perform. It was just a little prank to loosen things up. So what if a white coat gets splattered a little at the next station over? Wouldn’t everyone work a little better loosened up?
“People were upset with it,” Hackett says. “They were like, ‘This isn’t appropriate.’ And it was one of those things where it hit me. Oh, my God. When you’re out on the football field, and people are hitting each other and you’re messing with everyone and there’s all this activity instead of being locked in a lab. ... I just realized, I can’t do arthroscopic surgery in front of 80,000 people.
“That moment just pushed me away.”
And it provided a strange—but, for Hackett, fitting—push into coaching. Over a nomadic 20-year journey, he found the stage he was searching for all along. Now the offensive co-ordinator of the Packers, his audience includes Aaron Rodgers, who once said of Hackett: “No one brings me more joy.” From the booth, he is Rodgers’s West Coast offence translator, and surveyor, noting when the team’s narrative game plan has punctured a soft spot in the defence ripe for a gutting deep ball. Any new prank ideas, like the one from the lab years ago, are baked into the heads of his quarterbacks, he says.
He can still dance, rising noticeably above the jumbled, white-guy-at-a-wedding fluff. His daily and weekly meetings have become legendary across various stops in college and the pros. Behind the scenes, Hackett has been the cultural energy and schematic force behind some of the biggest turnarounds in the sport. A desolate Syracuse football program became a record-setting Big East contender behind an unheralded quarterback who became an NFL draft pick. The Bills went from perpetual loser to 9–7, nudge-the-Patriots contention with Kyle Orton and EJ Manuel under centre. Blake Bortles went from wayward Frisbee–throwing project to AFC title game participant, with his best numbers across the board coming under Hackett.
This off-season, the Falcons quietly interviewed him for their head-coaching vacancy, pulling the veil off football’s best-kept secret. While Hackett is not the only coach in the NFL with divergent passions and interests—he is also an avid wine enthusiast, and his love for the Austin Powers franchise has helped generate one of the Packers’ signature rallying cries—so few of them allow it all to surface, reaping the benefits of a tighter team that crystallizes around their personality. His revolution is one of joy, laughter and understanding.
“His positivity and energy, it’s infectious,” Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari says. “There has never been a day where I have not seen him come in without greater energy and enthusiasm. He’s literally a walking culture.”
But part of it was psychological. Meetings tend to suck. There is a person yakking on. In football, particularly, coaches tend to lose players en masse as they dissect an opposing defence inside a darkened auditorium with all the vocal energy of a sleep-meditation-app voice artist. When Hackett walks into a room, it is like a live-action comic book panel. One can almost see the speech bubbles with various onomatopoeia pouring from his mouth.
At Syracuse, players remember Hackett once backed an entire meeting to a song by the comedy troupe Lonely Island (once it was clear the somewhat cantankerous Doug Marrone was not around). He would pause, giggle and emphasize his own double entendres regularly. He’d replace the photos of rival defenders with those of stars from classic sitcoms.
“I remember when I got into coaching, part of it was understanding that there was going to be cultural change in how people present and how you’re going to teach people,” Hackett says. “You can’t just go up there and draw on the board. You’re going to need things that stimulate the guys more. That’s how the brain reacts and holds on to different things. How people think and how people operate, teaching just like you would when you’re in high school, people need references to remind themselves.”
While this all seems like low-hanging comedic fruit, Hackett was teaching college students, so he played the part (sometimes the quarterbacks would come to his house for dinner and compete in cornhole matches that lasted well into the night). The team rarely blew assignments or missed calls because they were named funny, innocently juvenile things, backed by some neuron-firing connection to an inside joke they laughed about during the week.
In front of children, he is gregarious and transforms his voice, pulling from a seemingly endless library of sound effects. In front of professionals, he is whatever the moment calls for; it’s somewhat prickly territory for most coaches who find themselves stabbing in the dark with a heap of garbled, motivational jetsam. Hackett, though, always seems to understand his audience. It is rare to talk to a former player who has been coached by Hackett that didn’t remember some deep conversation on a topic that had nothing to do with football.
Bakhtiari, who found himself recently listening to a Neil deGrasse Tyson podcast on good teachers, immediately thought of Hackett.
“He talks about teachers, and what defines a good teacher compared to a bad teacher,” he says. “A bad teacher will always blame the student or the group or the person for not obtaining information rather than reflecting or looking at yourself, finding a way to reach not only the masses but every single person. You can grab their attention and help them learn the material no matter how dry, easy, complicated or in-depth it might be. That personifies his teaching habits.”
Charley Loeb, a former quarterback at Syracuse who now coaches the position as a private tutor, says he met Hackett before the team even knew he had been hired as the new position coach. (Hackett, eventually, became offensive co-ordinator and tight ends coach in addition to his quarterback-coaching duties.) Hackett tracked down Loeb in the team’s field house unannounced and yanked him into an empty office, where he immediately started showing him the footwork necessary to get Loeb out of the pocket faster. They’d known each other for approximately 30 seconds, but Hackett had already seen all his practice film and compiled a dossier.
He was fearless despite being a first-time play-caller. Once, after a miserable off-location practice at the Fort Drum military base, Hackett decided the offence was getting whooped in practice. So, two weeks before the season, he called a meeting, scrapped the entire playbook and installed a Jim Kelly–era Bills K-Gun offence. Ryan Nassib, the quarterback at the time, set school records for completions and yards, and tied the school record for touchdowns in a season.
On the headset during games, he would sometimes answer the booth phone in character, in a kind of faux-Texan drawl to make his jittery quarterback laugh. Awright you slick sum’bitch, let’s go get this.
A Bills player remembers Hackett designing a play so sinister that they ran it over and over during a no-huddle surge against the Jaguars. At the line of scrimmage, the call was “Bob,” and, after a few consecutive gains, the players asked Hackett whether they should start calling it something else, lest the defence start catching on.