Henry Burris was locked down in Canada, unsure what was next. A Canadian Football Hall of Famer, Burris was working as a broadcaster for TSN, but the 2020 CFL season was on hold and eventually was canceled.
Then Matt Nagy called.
“I was just on a little getaway with the family because we were locked into our province, so we just drove away for the weekend and all the sudden my phone rang,” Burris said. "I saw this number and I was like, hold up, that's a Philadelphia number, like, who is this?”
Burris, 46, who once played in six games for the Chicago Bears in 2002, was thinking about getting into coaching and had applied for the NFL’s Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, which helps match minority coaching interns to all 32 teams during training camp. His name was among those listed on a spreadsheet of potential candidates for the Bears, which prompted the call from Nagy.
“I actually watched (Nagy) play in high school, one of his 5A state finals against Berwick, and I'm sitting there like, ‘Dude, I watched you play in high school when I was at Temple.’ Just shows you how small the circle of life is,” Burris said. “We just started talking, laughing, joking on the phone and it was like an instant connection. It was like we had known each other before.”
The quick bond wasn’t too surprising, considering Burris and Nagy had similar football backgrounds. They were both quarterbacks who didn’t cut it in the NFL, but found success in other leagues. Burris was just trying to get his foot in the coaching door and Nagy had an opportunity.
The sacrifice was significant though. Burris had to leave his family in Canada during the Bears’ entire training camp with no promise of a job when it was over. As it turned out, the time away from his family was much longer than any of them anticipated. When training camp ended, Nagy hired Burris as an assistant offensive seasonal intern, which kept him in Chicago the entire season.
“Over a year period, I saw my wife and kids maybe five weeks over a year. That was tough,” Burris said. “And I mean, thank goodness for things like all the Facetiming, Zooming and all the stuff, kind of brought us together in some sort of fashion.”
Strict border rules during the COVID-19 pandemic made short trips home impossible, especially since Burris and his wife, Nicole, somehow were never granted citizenship even though they lived in Canada permanently since 2005. And moving the family to Chicago was easier said than done, considering Burris still didn’t have a full-time job. His two sons were born in Calgary and had only lived in Calgary and Ottawa their whole lives. Burris is from Oklahoma and his wife, Nicole, is from Maryland, but for their sons — one a teenager and the other a soon-to-be-teenager — Canada was the only home they knew.
That changed this offseason, when Nagy offered Burris a full-time job as an offensive quality control coach. When the school year ended, the family officially made the move to the Chicago area, while Burris became the third former Bill Walsh Diversity Fellow to earn a prominent role on Nagy’s coaching staff.
Before Matt Nagy was a head coach, he was an offensive coordinator. Before he was an offensive coordinator, he was a position coach. Before he was a position coach, he was a quality control coach. And before he was a quality control coach, he was an intern.
“My two internships with the Eagles that I did, I was staying on campus at Lehigh University with them,” Nagy said. “I was just helping out with drills, I was printing copies of playbooks and really whatever it was — if it meant stocking refrigerators with Coke Zeros or whatever, it didn't matter.”
He interned for the Eagles during training camp in 2008 and 2009, but reality would set in both years after camp ended, when Nagy went back to being a high school offensive coordinator. Finally, in 2010, Andy Reid hired him full-time, and even then, Nagy was commuting two hours a day from Lancaster, Pa., where he lived, to the Eagles’ facility in Philadelphia.
“It was the hard work and loyalty that Coach Reid saw, who I was as a person, and how I was going to work, that made it easy for him to offer me a position when you have one open up,” Nagy said. "That’s how it goes with these guys too.”
Nagy knew he wanted to be a head coach and when he got that opportunity in 2018, he was committed to taking his own internship program seriously, the same way Reid did in Philadelphia and Kansas City.
“He had a process of how he did it. (David) Culley, who is the head coach of the Texans now, helped out with a lot of that (in Philadelphia). Eric Bienemy helped out a lot with it too in Kansas City towards the end of my years there,” Nagy said. “So it's always been near and dear to me and I think it 's a great opportunity to be able to get people in to your organization to see if they like coaching, and also, for us as coaches, to see who is willing to put in the work.
“You get no credit, you don't make a lot of money, you work hard, and you build relationships.”
All teams have coaching interns. Nagy said Reid would usually have 6-8 interns every season. But the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship guarantees internship spots for minorities, ensuring them a foot in the door. Applicants must be former NFL players or have coaching experience at least at the high school level to be considered. They list five teams they have interest completing a fellowship with and those clubs are then notified of the application submissions.
From there, it’s up to each individual club to decide who to hire and how to put them to work, but the NFL recommends that the internship last for the duration of training camp, including all preseason games.
Nagy allows his assistants to have a considerable amount of input. Essentially, they can nominate their own candidates and those candidates all get put into a spreadsheet that Nagy’s assistant, Robyn Wilkey, organizes.
“What I’ll do is I'll get with each coach on our staff and I will have them explain and talk to me about each one of their candidates and give me the backgrounds of who they are and how they work,” Nagy said. “Then we just kind of prioritize that way and we find out, OK, if have 25 candidates, we just start narrowing it down, talking through them until we get down to however many it is we're going to have that year.”
This year, the Bears welcomed four Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellows to training camp, including two high school coaches (Brandon Gibson and Dialleo Burks) and two college coaches (Siriki Diabate and Jason Henshaw). The NFL has a similar program — the Nunn Wooten Scouting Fellowship — on the personnel side, which led to the Bears hiring their first ever full-time female scout, Ashton Washington, this week after she interned during training camp.
On the coaching side, Nagy has promoted four interns to full-time roles since he arrived in 2018.
“I just think it gives minorities a great opportunity for us as coaches to be able to hire and help develop and teach and grow. And then you build your own little system with people that are here,” Nagy said. “In a perfect world you have great coaches that are moving on because you can’t keep them because everybody wants them.
“I have players that come up to me talking to me about how good of coaches these guys are and how much they like them, like, ‘Hey Coach, if you can create room, man, you gotta find a job for these guys.’ When you hear that, you feel good that you picked the right guys. It’s a really cool deal.”
As for the tasks the interns perform during training camp, Nagy makes it perfectly clear: “Just listen. You’re an observer when you’re here.”
“They are in all the meetings. They'll do literally whatever the position coach or coordinator wants them to do,” Nagy said. “They are basically an assistant to the quality control coaches. So whether it's helping out a drill, if it's doing computer work, watching film, doing film cut-ups, breakdowns. But we also tell them on the front line, we'll say hey listen, you gotta stay in your lane too.”
For Nagy, he wants his interns to learn and build relationships, telling them that they never know when they’ll get a full-time opportunity, whether it’s with the Bears or another team.
“They're here during normal coaching hours. Everything we do, they do and it's just really neat,” Nagy said. “It’s cool seeing them on the sideline too on game day when they go to their first game. It's really neat.”
Chris Jackson was on vacation in St. Thomas with Matt Nagy in 2010 when the future Chicago Bears head coach was just starting his first full-time opportunity with the Eagles.
“He was just telling me how much speed — from Michael Vick to Jeremy Maclin to Shady McCoy to DeSean Jackson — he was just telling me, ‘The speed on that field, I've never seen anything like that before,’” Jackson recalled.
Nagy and Jackson played together with the Georgia Force in the Arena League from 2005-06 and hit it off as close friends. Once Nagy got into the NFL, he started recruiting Jackson, a former wide receiver who spent time with the Buccaneers, Seahawks, Titans and Packers before starting in the Arena League.
“He used to tell me all the time, ‘You need to coach, man.’ I wanted to one day, but I spent so much time away from home as a player, I just really wanted to get my kids and everything situated back home and so everything just kind of worked out from a timing perspective,” Jackson said.
Today, Jackson, 46, is the Bears’ assistant wide receivers coach, and it was his Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship in 2018 that launched his NFL coaching career. Before that, Jackson was a physical education teacher before going into special education and then merchandising. He was coaching high school football and junior college football before he finally made the jump to intern for Nagy.
“It’s a whole new direction. I’m going into Year 3 and loving every minute of it,” he said.
Jackson was one of the first interns Nagy brought in when he was hired in 2018 and the former wideout immediately latched on to Brad Childress, the former Minnesota Vikings head coach who joined Nagy’s staff as a consultant/analyst in 2018.
“When football really started to make sense to me was when I played with the Seattle Seahawks under Mike Holmgren,” Jackson said. “That was the first time I learned that West Coast offense and that was kind of the system that Brad Childress came from.”
Jackson — brand new to the NFL coaching world — was suddenly working with Childress on a daily basis.
“I'm watching Coach Childress take notes and this is a former head coach in the NFL and this is technically his West Coast system — or version of it — and he was taking notes like literally everything was being installed for the first time for him. That was powerful for me,” Jackson said. “So even though I'm a coach now, I still looked at it as if I was still a player and I had to take these notes and I had to be up on my game from a scheme standpoint. That was just powerful sitting next to him and watching him and talk about the game of football with him. That internship was phenomenal.”
But being a close friend of Nagy did not guarantee Jackson a job. In fact, unlike Burris, Jackson wasn’t kept around after training camp in 2018.
“(Nagy’s) exact words were the same thing Coach Reid told him many, many years ago and that was: ‘You got your foot in the door, now the rest is up to you.’ And there were no promises,” Jackson said. “There was nothing.”
After the internship, Jackson went back to Arizona and coached junior college football. In February of 2019, he was driving on a freeway with his wife when Nagy called.
He had an offer, but there was a catch.
“I said, ‘I don't care what the tweak is, I'm game. You give me an opportunity, I'm going to take full advantage of it,’” Jackson said.
The tweak was that Nagy didn’t have a job to offer on the offensive side of the ball. But Vic Fangio had just left to take the head coaching job in Denver and there was a ton of turnover on the defensive side. Nagy made Jackson a defensive assistant and had him work closely with secondary coach Deshea Townsend under defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. Nagy told Jackson to learn the game “from the other side of it” with the intention of eventually moving him back over to the offensive staff.
“It's unbelievable the knowledge that I was able to bring back. Just really learning the secondary from their responsibilities, from their technique, whether it be outside technique or inside technique by the nickel and why were they inside and outside,” Jackson said. “So when look at film now, I'm able to pick up on a couple things just from their techniques, why they're playing those ways, and what's the tough routes to guard with those techniques. So I'm able to explain to the wide receivers when they see a particular technique what's the best way to attack it.”
After the 2019 season, Nagy made Jackson the assistant wide receivers coach, rewarding his still relatively inexperienced assistant for taking advantage of the opportunity given.
On Jan. 3, 2019, Ronell Williams moved to Atlanta to take a job at Georgia Tech.
On Jan. 16, 2019, Ronell Williams moved from Atlanta to Chicago to take a job with the Bears.
It was a crazy two-week period, but there was no hesitation. Like Jackson, Williams was a Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellow during training camp in 2018. And like Jackson, he returned to his previous life when training camp ended. For Williams, that meant returning to Temple, where he was a defensive analyst.
But unlike Jackson, Williams did not have a previous relationship with Nagy. His connection to the Bears was Bill Shuey, who at that time was a defensive quality control assistant on the staff. Shuey was a long time Eagles assistant who ended up coaching linebackers at West Chester University in Pennsylvania from 2012-13. It was there where he coached Williams, a linebacker.
“He taught me the details of the game. That was his thing,” Williams said about Shuey. "He was a stickler on the fundamentals and the details. And that's where I made my money. So that's where he kind of taught me the game essentially.”
Since Nagy allows his staff to have strong input on the interns he hires, Williams was given a shot after Shuey’s strong recommendation. Right away, Williams could tell that Nagy took the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship seriously.
“He has a plan for his staff. He has a plan to grow and develop his staff,” Williams said. “For me, in my role, I went from the linebacker room and got moved to the defensive backs room for my growth, and that move has been astronomical for me. But it's part of his vision when you come in, regardless of how you come in. Definitely, because of my path, I can honestly say that man believes in that program.”
After spending the 2018 regular season back at Temple — and 13 days at Georgia Tech — Nagy called Williams and offered him a full-time role as a defensive quality control coach, a position he’s now held for three seasons. Shuey, meanwhile, was promoted to outside linebackers coach when Ted Monachino left after the 2020 season.
For Williams, who is married but doesn’t have any children yet, he’s all-in on the coaching profession. His alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. every day and he’s at Halas Hall getting a work out in between 5-5:30 a.m. From there, he works until he needs to, putting in the grueling hours necessary during the season.
“I was no stranger to the danger,” he said. “It wasn’t new to me.”
As a Bear, Burris is best known for appearing on that long, notorious list of quarterbacks who have started for the Chicago Bears during the Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers era in Green Bay. And Burris’ one start came in a 15-0 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers — in Champaign, Ill.
2002 wasn’t exactly a great year to play for the Bears. Soldier Field was being renovated. The team went 4-12. John Shoop was the offensive coordinator.
And yet, Burris — who threw his last NFL pass in that game against the Bucs — remembers Chicago as the place where he took his wife on dates when she would fly from Philadelphia and Baltimore to spend time with him during the season. He talks fondly of Cliff Stein, his former agent who has been employed by the team since 2002 and still serves as the organization’s general counsel. It was Stein who gave Burris a recommendation for the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship.
“I came here as a snotty nose, wet behind the ears, breath smelling like Similac quarterback, and now to be coming back as a father who went through all those learning experiences, dealt with so many different coaching minds and different coordinators and things like that, a lot of successful guys I was able to learn from and take tutelage from as far as different ideas and things like that to help better myself,” Burris said.
It’s Burris’ long, winding football journey that makes him a valuable resource to the Bears’ current roster of players. Today, the former quarterback is easy to spot on the practice field, usually standing tall with a big smile on his face. After working closely with offensive line coach Juan Castillo last season, preparing things like blitz protections, Burris now works directly under Nagy and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor putting together the game plan and preparing the scout team.
“I help handle the drawings and everything for the powerpoint presentations for Coach Nagy on a daily basis. Just to make sure all the small details are listed, things are where they need to be, and make sure I keep the coaches all aware of different things that are happening on the offense when changes are made and just try to make sure when we need to put together the playbooks on a weekly basis, drawing up the game plans and stuff, that's kind of my role,” Burris said. “It helps me, puts me in that position where I can still shadow the people that have helped give me this opportunity and continue to learn from them. It's enjoying the process, more importantly.”
Burris’ long road back to the NFL looks promising as a coach, and like Chris Jackson and Ronell Williams, all he needed was a foot in the door to prove himself. From the CFL, to the Arena League to Division-II college football, all three coaches are proving that you don’t need longevity as an NFL to player to coach in the NFL.
More than anything, you need opportunity, something not always granted to minorities.
“The minority internship allows a pipeline for people to be able to have opportunities and chances,” Nagy said. “And that’s all a lot of people need, is a chance.”