Commentary

Howie Long gives son Chris the room to grow as a player

Updated: November 9, 2007, 2:41 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

With only a quick glance at Virginia defensive end Chris Long, the resemblance is almost clear.

The chiseled good looks and short, cropped hair. The broad shoulders and thick, powerful legs. But unless you're familiar with the senior's background or happen to put two and two together after reading the name on the back of his Cavaliers jersey, you might not realize his father is NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long.

That's because Howie Long, the longtime Oakland Raiders defensive end, really doesn't want you to know. After Chris Long enrolled at Virginia in 2004, Howie Long preferred to remain in the background, mostly to keep the attention on his son and off himself.

"There are a lot of former athletes who have sons that play and everyone deals with it in different ways, and I respect that," said Howie Long, an NFL analyst. "My wife and I have the same philosophy. The comparison and story line is always there and it's a convenient hook for people, which I understand. But I do as much as I possibly can to make sure that Chris has the opportunity to be his own man and enjoy his college experience as both a student and athlete."

Now that Chris Long's college career is drawing to a close, father and son seem more alike than ever before. A 6-foot-4, 279-pound All-America candidate, Long has 12 sacks in 10 games, the fourth most in the nation. Only South Florida's George Selvie (13.5), Indiana's Greg Middleton (13.5) and Penn State's Maurice Evans (12.5) have dropped quarterbacks more often. In addition, Long's 16 tackles for loss are tied for sixth-most in Division I-A.

[+] EnlargeChris and Howie Long
G Fiume/Ron Vesely/Getty ImagesVirginia defensive end Chris Long (left) learned a lot from his father, NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long.

Just as importantly, Long has become a run-stopping force in No. 19 Virginia's 3-4 defensive scheme. The Cavaliers rank in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense, total defense and run defense going into Saturday night's game at Miami (ESPN2, 7:15 ET).

With Long anchoring the line, the Cavaliers are among the biggest surprises in college football this season. They have won an NCAA-record five games by two points or fewer, including their last three victories by a single point. Virginia (8-2, 5-1 ACC) is in first place in the Coastal Division and can earn a spot in its first conference championship game by beating the Hurricanes and then rival Virginia Tech on Nov. 24 at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va.

Along the way, Long has become the type of player his pedigree suggested he'd be one day. Scouts Inc. rates Long as the No. 2 player available for next year's NFL draft (behind Arkansas running back Darren McFadden), and ESPN's Mel Kiper ranks him as the No. 4 senior.

Virginia coach Al Groh says there isn't a more complete defensive player in the country.

"Because of the nature of pass rushing, and because it's more visible and more wide open, it's like the home run of defensive linemen," Groh said. "Everybody sees the home runs. He hits a lot of home runs and is among the national leaders in doing that. But on the nuts-and-bolts work on the every-down running plays, he's equally spectacular and effective. He's made some marvelous plays on running plays that you just look at and say, 'Wow, not many guys can do that.' He's developed a complete game and understands all aspects of being a defensive football player."

Long, 22, learned to play football from one of the best to ever play the game. His father was an All-American at Villanova and played 13 seasons in the NFL. Howie Long was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and was named to the NFL's 1980 All-Decade team. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

"I wouldn't be anywhere close to where I am today without my pops," Chris Long said. "I think a lot of a football player's makeup is mental, and I've been blessed to have someone to learn from. Not just from a technical standpoint, but everything he taught me about being a hard worker, a teammate and just being a football player. He taught me there's more to it than just going out and playing football."

The most important attribute Howie Long taught his son was determination. It was that same drive that helped Howie Long escape the rough streets of the Charlestown section of Boston. He grew up in a broken home, was raised mostly by his grandmother and uncles and enrolled at Villanova because of fear more than anything else.

[+] EnlargeHowie Long
US PresswireHowie Long, seen here in his playing days with the Raiders, has given Chris the space he needs.

Howie Long was supposed to attend Boston College on a scholarship, but backed out when coaches told his uncle he'd lose his scholarship if he were injured. Long feared he'd end up back in Boston, working on the shipping docks or doing something worse. Long never lost that drive, even after he excelled in college and became a second-round draft choice of the Raiders in 1981.

"I think the moment you're content is the moment you're heading backwards," Long said. "It's the proverbial quest for perfection, which is unattainable, and therein lies the dilemma."

Even though Chris Long grew up with many of the luxuries his father never had as a child, he never took them for granted. Long knew his bloodlines wouldn't guarantee success, either. In fact, he says his pedigree made life more difficult -- on the field, at least.

"It's kind of the opposite," Long said. "You have to work even harder. You have a bull's-eye on you. There are always more people to prove wrong."

Long certainly isn't the first son to follow in a famous father's footsteps in football. Quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning played at Ole Miss and Tennessee, respectively, in the same conference where father Archie was a star for the Rebels. Former Texas quarterback Chris Simms followed his Super Bowl-winning father, Phil, into the NFL. Former Miami star Kellen Winslow Jr. is the son of one of football's greatest tight ends.

The more famous the father, the larger the shadow to escape.

"The shadow is always going to be cast over you, but I really think it started for me at a young age," said former Miami and current Montreal Alouettes running back Jarrett Payton, son of the late NFL Hall of Famer Walter Payton. "My dad taught me how to be my own person and how to be secure with yourself and how you play. I think it was more difficult when I was younger."

That Chris Long ended up playing the same position in the same defensive scheme as his father was the product of happenstance, more than anything else. When Howie Long retired from the NFL in 1993, he didn't want to raise Chris and his younger brothers, Kyle and Howie Jr., in California. Long and his wife Diane searched for the perfect place to build a retirement home and raise their family. They eventually settled outside of Charlottesville, Va.

Chris Long attended St. Anne's-Belfield School, a small private school, and his father was a volunteer assistant coach there. At first, Howie Long thought his eldest son might end up playing on the offensive line.

"I didn't know what he was going to be," Howie Long said. "I coached him to be an offensive tackle in high school. We dropped him on the nose on defense and just turned him loose. We spent a lot of time working on technique and hands and leverage, but as it applied to offense. I wasn't sure if he'd be a blocking tight end, an outside linebacker or a defensive end. I had no idea."

By Long's senior year of high school, he had grown into a 250-pound lineman. He was ranked among the country's best defensive line prospects, an accolade some suggested was more because of his bloodlines than his abilities.

"I think a lot of people will doubt you because you are your dad's son," Chris Long said. "Anything you do positive, any of the accolades you're given or any of the opportunities you're given, the first thing people say is, 'It's because of who his dad is.' Even when I was being recruited here to the University of Virginia, a lot of people in my own community didn't think I was Division I football material because I played at a small private school."

Even before his eldest son signed with the Cavaliers, Howie Long had befriended Groh, a former New York Jets coach, who unexpectedly resigned in 2001 to return to his alma mater. Groh and Howie Long had each been friends of Will McDonough, the late sportswriter for the Boston Globe. On several occasions, Howie Long visited Groh and they used furniture to discuss the nuances of the 3-4 scheme, the defense in which Long excelled in the NFL.

"Chris takes full advantage of the fact that his dad has the same passion about football as he does," Groh said. "Howie is a tremendous resource for him as far as tips about playing the position and understanding the game.

"To have a Hall of Fame player here, who excelled in the scheme that we run, it was marvelous. I've got one of the best defensive ends who ever played in a 3-4 scheme right here in town as a resource. We used to have a lot of conversations about hand placement and leverage and how to read blocks and stances and things like that."

Once Chris Long enrolled at Virginia, Groh saw less and less of his father. Chris Long was plagued by a bout with mononucleosis during his freshman season at Virginia in 2004 and played in only six games. He had two sacks and 26 quarterback pressures as a sophomore and began to show signs of stardom. Last season, Long had four sacks and 21 quarterback hurries during the Cavaliers' 5-7 season.

[+] EnlargeChris Long
G. Fiume/Getty ImagesChris Long's stellar senior season hasn't gone unnoticed by the NFL.

"He didn't have to prove anything to me," Howie Long said. "I knew what he was. I didn't know what he'd end up being, but I knew what he was."

Howie Long was with his son more in spirit than body. Despite having an open invitation to Virginia's practices, he attends only the sessions open to the public, which are rare. Groh, whose son Mike played quarterback at Virginia and is now the team's offensive coordinator, said he encouraged Howie Long to come around more.

"At one time, Howie was coming around less and less to watch us practice after Chris came here," Groh said. "Having had two sons who played football, there's just no more fun as a dad than coming to watch your sons play and practice. I enjoyed it when I could and missed it when my job or games kept me away from their activities.

"I told Howie, 'Come on around, don't let that keep you away.' I even mentioned to Chris one time, 'Your dad, he's trying to give you your own space, bud. Tell him it's OK.'"

Howie Long attends nearly all of the Cavaliers' home games and usually begins the day sitting with other players' families. But it doesn't take him long to start moving around the stadium, once he's overcome with nerves and anxiety. Long rarely attends Virginia's road games and his TV responsibilities usually preclude him from going to night games. When Long is on location, he often watches telecasts of Virginia games in a satellite truck.

"I'll sit there by myself watching the game," Long said. "I do all the things other dads do -- I get nervous and have stomachaches and worry about every play. I don't go to the road games. It just drives me crazy. I just have a hard time. I'm used to being on the field or in front of the crowd and not in the crowd. It's easier at home games."

Lately, it's been easier for Howie Long to be around his son. Chris Long said he never encouraged his father to stay away, but understands why he did for so long.

"He had a great gauge of how I was feeling," Chris Long said. "I had to reach a point where I was sure of my abilities. I wasn't sure for a while. The better I did and the more I began to make a name for myself, it became a lot more comfortable for him to be in the picture. I like it that way. I like having my dad around.

"But he's always been the one to give me more space than maybe I even wanted just to make sure. A lot of people might want to get more attention and make it about them and me, but to him it's my time."

And these are certainly the best of times for each of them.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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