Danny Kepley - Linebacker - 1975-85 - East Carolina University
Cap'n Crunch was one of the wildest of the Wild Dogs
By Ron Cherubini ©2004 Bonesville.net
On the outside, Danny Kepley was always hailed as a vicious hitter, the biggest, baddest dog in the famed East Carolina Wild Dog defenses of the early 1970s.
So bad, that the Quaker Oats Company should have been paying him an endorsement fee, as it was common on Fall Saturdays in Greenville for local grocery stores to be running short of the popular cold cereal.
The cereal boxes were off the shelf and in the stands at Ficklen, fastened to the ends of yardsticks and mop handles in makeshift banners of support for the Pirate linebacker who terrorized Southern Conference offenses.
On the outside, Kepley was a player who never lacked confidence, as he owned the space between the sidelines, every bit the Associated Press All-America he would become as a Pirate.
On the inside… on the inside, Cap’n Crunch was driven by the notion that he was not good enough for the big time. The University of North Carolina was not interested… in fact, no other Division I school save East Carolina was interested in the 185-pound running back and safety from Goldsboro High School.
Yet… from Goldsboro High School, he made his way to Greenville and achieved superstar status at East Carolina and within the Southern Conference and then carved himself a permanent spot in the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame.
His six championship rings, his hall of fame status, and his lofty position as one of the most recognizable athletes in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada history are testament that he was certainly good enough. Always was… still is.
When the Edmonton Eskimos defeated the Montreal Alouettes 34-22 in November, Kepley added another ring to his collection – his seventh. This time, it was his first as a coach. Kepley, today, is in his second year as an assistant coach with his former team – appropriately mentoring the linebackers.
He has worked past the pain – the deepest in his experience – of leaving the only life he knew — the one as a player. He has hobbled through the sadness of a divorce, and he has put behind him alcohol-related legal troubles to emerge where he had always best functioned — football heaven.
Kep is happy now… way happy. The coaching has taken root and he can once again be within eyeshot of a gridiron without feeling a wrenching in his gut. Yet, he is grappling to make the transition from player to coach almost two decades removed from his playing days.
“I’m still trying to figure out this winning… as a coach,” Kepley said. “I didn’t know what to do. As a player, you just find the first bottle of champagne and go out and have a good time. As a coach, I was watching these young guys jumping up and down. I had lost (the Grey Cup) as a coach last year and it was the worst. I’d rather take an ass kicking than lose. I sat back watching the players and coaches that had never won before. I was watching our offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator… to watch their excitement and know in your heart that you had something to do with it is very satisfying.”
Satisfaction took a long, hard path back home for Kepley, who went into a depression of sorts after having to hang up his cleats in 1985.
“It was the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life,” he said of retirement. “The morning after I retired, I looked in the mirror and I saw just Danny Kepley instead of number 42, and I had no idea who that man was. I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t have an idea of how to go about anything, really. For me, football had been my entire life.”
That life… that football life, was one that all Pirates cherish, as Kepley was such a dominant personality on and off the field at East Carolina that even the mention of him stirs up football feelings in Pirate country. He was as equally hailed as a downtown patron as he was a player, as Kepley never let the engine idle. He was a wild dog, 24-7.
From Goldsboro to Greenville
Even as a 156-pound junior in high school, Kepley knew one thing for sure: he loved to hit. Football allowed him to hit and be revered for it. Still, bulking up to 185 by his senior season didn’t draw a flock of recruiters from Division I universities. In fact, it was a flock of one.
“The honest part is that East Carolina was the only team that offered me a scholarship,” Kepley said. “They gave me an opportunity.
“I was born in Albermarle and my dad was a military guy,” he said. “Thankfully, dad being transferred all over the place – from Hampton, VA, at Langley, over to Hawaii at Hickam (air base) and then back to Seymour-Johnson in Goldsboro – exposed me to so many well-coached and well-organized programs as far as sports were concerned. My dad and mom and brother David – who also went to ECU as an offensive lineman – were my greatest fans.
“(Goldsboro) played at (Greenville) Rose a few times, but that was about the only time I was in Greenville (before college). I knew nothing about the school, but I did know that these people were going to give me a chance to play football. Honestly, the school could have been in Timbuktu.”
Originally, Kepley was expected to play running back for the Pirates, but a rash of injuries to the linebacking corps changed those plans and in turn expedited Kepley’s path to playing time.
“(Assistant coach) George Rose asked me if I wanted to try linebacker,” Kep recalled. “I didn’t give a s***, I wanted to be on the field, so I said, ‘Alright.’ At first, I was not so excited, but then I saw some of those young brothers who could turn a 4.4 (in the 40 yard dash).”
Kepley took to his new position on the freshman squad.
“Fortunately for me, the one thing that was inbred in me – which I didn’t know at the time – was that I always wanted to hit… to stick my nose in places where it shouldn’t go. The coaching (I received) and (the love for contact) married up pretty nicely together.”
Kepley recalls a great time at East Carolina.
“It was a terrific place,” he said. “ECU, I think what little bit we did see the campus, it was good. Obviously, the ratio of women to men made it extremely exciting. It was a nice campus.”
Kepley admitted that football was the primary motivation at ECU, not campus. Kepley flourished in the football-first environment and acknowledges that his greatness on the field was only the result of the support he received from his coaches and teammates.
“At that time, Coach Rose was the head coach (of the freshman team) and then... we moved up and Sonny Randle came in my sophomore year,” Kepley said. “Being able to play with the older guys. Jim Post took me under his wing and took me further (as a player). The defensive coordinator was Carl Reece, the bulldog, who (until recently was) the defensive coordinator at the University of Texas. He was also the linebacker coach. He is a man that really did educate me about football. Things like reading keys and straight lines going to places.
“I think I was a student of the game. The more I realized that I wasn’t the most physically intimidating kind of linebacker, the more I realized that I had to be smarter. Six-foot, 205 pounds doesn’t scare many people (at the collegiate level). I had to study film and anticipate what people were going to do. It was certainly one of the keys for me.”
As time would bear out, however, Kepley’s name did intimidate and the results of a taste of Cap’n Crunch often proved ugly for the crunchee.
He admired his varsity coach in Randle, a man with a reputation that Kepley understood.
“Coach Randle was a very, very unique man,” Kepley chuckled. “I would bet there were more stories about him than the players during that time.”
But that freedom to be wild was perfect for Kepley and it paid immediate dividends for the Pirates.
As a freshman in 1971, he was named to the Southern Conference all frosh team.
“I was… I was surprised at my success at ECU,” he said. “Even more so now because I have an understanding of team sports that I didn’t have then. Success is never made alone. I was surrounded by very good players. Guys like Butch Strawderman and Billy Hibbs. Defensive lineman like Kenny Moore and Buddy ‘Big'un’ Lowery and Jimmy Bolding. Don Shenk at fullback and Mike Shea at receiver. The kind of guys that make you look good.”
The championship over William & Mary was a huge moment for the Kepley as a Pirate.
“I can remember when we won the Southern and we played William & Mary,” he said. “Lou Holtz was their coach, though his name didn’t mean as much then as it does now. But I remember watching our team. I remember Jim Post was so hurt and was gutting it up so much. He could barely run, but he was not going to come off the field. I remember the tears in his eyes. That’s how we all were. It was amazing.”
He also recalled another moment involving Holtz.
“We played State on national television and got our butts kicked,” he said. “But to show you what a small world the football world is, our head coach here in Edmonton, my boss, Tom Higgins, played at N.C. State ahead of a guy named (Bill) Cowher. I was named the Defensive Player of the Game in a losing cause. Four days later, I got a letter from Coach Holtz about my play on the field. That letter meant a tremendous amount to me.”
He was as impressive a linebacker as ever wore the purple and gold.
Though Kepley was one of a talented group, his name more than many evokes the memory of the famed Wild Dog defense that dominated the Southern Conference in the early ‘70s.
“It was amazing,” Kepley recalled. “Coach John Madlock coined that phrase. He was100 percent in your face and he once told us that we were going to ‘cover this f***ing thing like a pack of wild dogs’ and (the moniker) stuck. It was great to be part of that. We were in the top two or three in the nation.”
Kepley and the rest of the Wild Dogs brought home the Southern Conference title in 1972 and 1973 and number 42 was named to the All-Southern Conference team in each of his three seasons on the varsity club. Though they did not win it in ’74, Kepley recalls that year as being pivotal for him as a player.
“My senior year, obviously, was a very important year for me,” he said. “Being slightly more mature, which I suppose was debatable — I was more mature, at least, as a football player. But being able at the end of the year to know that you were an AP all-America; to realize that you are one of the best nine linebackers in the country. You go, ‘Holy s***!’. Those are the things that you never think of happening, but when it does happen, your realize that your teammates helped you get there.”
The all-America status was huge validation for Kepley, who always measured himself against the standards the naysayers said he would never reach.
“Quite honestly, you hear enough through the course of your life that you are too small… you hear enough people telling you that, it gets to you,” Kepley said of his doubters. “Every time I stepped on the field, it was to prove somebody wrong… to make a few more believers.”
That year, his senior year, a change in regime at East Carolina was under way. Outgoing was the idiosyncratic Sonny Randle and incoming was the up-and-coming Pat Dye. Many times, regime change leads to instant assessments of starters and in many cases, personnel changes. But for Kepley, who admired Randle, Dye represented a necessary ingredient for the Pirates middle linebacker.
“Pat was a very, very great coach and man,” Kepley recalled. “When he arrived, we had a linebacker coach named Frank Orgle. (Dye) didn’t change things. (Dye) made (the great defense) a little better.”
Kepley held Dye in high esteem and the coach was able to help his star linebacker prepare for the next step.
As NFL pundits passed out the “too small” judgment on Kepley, it became obvious that the all-America linebacker would have to earn his way into a camp in the league.
“My senior year, the same thing happened,” Kepley recalled. “(NFL gurus) were saying, ‘You’re undersized.’ I knew I was pretty quick, but I did not have the stature. I was not 6-2, 6-3.”
Still, Kepley had a few fans in the NFL. Legendary Dallas Cowboy corner back and five-time pro bowler Cornell Green (1963-74) took note of Kepley and let the linebacker know that the Cowboys were very interested in him.
“I remember him telling me to be patient during the draft,” Kepley said. “But I never got the call. Those two days were the most devastating two days in my career (at that point).”
Undrafted, Kepley was not sure what he was going to do, but then Brown showed up at East Carolina looking for Kep.
“Green came to ECU and met with Coach Dye to talk about me,” he said. “And I signed a free agent contract. Coach Dye actually talked me through the whole contract. There wasn’t much negotiation. I signed a three-year deal worth $16,000, $18,000, and $20,000. I remember they gave me a $1,000 signing bonus and I can tell you that when the check arrived, it was $729 dollars and something. I called Cornell and said, ‘You said you were going to give me a $1,000.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘No sir, it was $729.’ Cornell laughed and said, ‘Danny, we got to take out the income tax.’
“I was upset. I said, ‘you promised me $1,000.’ I remember thinking, ‘Damn, (ECU running back great) Les Strayhorn (who was with the Cowboys at the time) bought a new car and I got $729. I did buy a car, though. I bought a 1974 white Corvette Stingray. It cost me $6,000 at the time and I borrowed some money at the bank. My Godfather, Ule Gambella, lent me money, also.”
The NFL Experience
Kepley knew it would not be easy for him to stick in Dallas, considering that while he waited for two days during the draft never to hear his name called, the Cowboys were picking linebackers. Hall of Famer Randy White was the number two overall pick followed by Tom “Hollywood” Henderson and Bob Breunig. If that weren’t enough competition, Kepley also knew that Lee Roy Jordan, D.D. Lewis, and Dave Edwards were all in the lineup.
Still, that cast offered a glimmer of hope and motivation for Kepley.
“I thought I had a chance,” he said. “I saw their sizes – all undersized – and thought I would have an opportunity.”
But, agonizingly, the Turk did visit Kepley at the bitter end of camp.
“It came down to being the last guy cut in 1975,” he said. “It was between me and Hollywood Henderson.”
For all of his success in college, Kepley could not help but feel defeated.
“It hurt bad,” he said. “It was the first time in my life that I suffered defeat. I was cut from a ball club. It hurt. But, the great thing about that experience still to this day, and I like to say and have the honor to say that one of the coaches there who took me under his wing was Coach Dan Reeves. He was in my ass every day telling me what to do and that I needed to work harder… to do this and that. He really tried to help me make that team.
"The (Dallas) General Manager was Gil Brandt and they were trying to help me get somewhere. I bounced around a little bit. I went to Cleveland for a week and then to Denver because they lost a couple of linebackers and were thinking about carrying an extra linebacker.
“And then they lost two defensive backs and that scared them. Of course, they had Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson there, but I had hoped to hook on there.”
That quickly, the NFL dream was over for Kepley.
Defeated, Kepley accepted the fate that if he was going to play football for a living, he would have to find another league willing to let the wild dog be wild. He still had something to prove if not to everyone else, at least to himself.
“Again, I knew that if I was 6-4 240 and ran like crazy, I could make tackles with my arms and get the job done,” Kepley said of the prototypical stature the NFL seeks. “But for me, I had to be very good at the basics and techniques. When I hit a person, I tried to hit with everything. My hero was Dick Butkus. You would watch how intimidating he was with the Chicago Bears and you wanted to be that way. As a smaller guy, they were going to test you all the time, and you had to show you were not going to take some s***. Someone had to know that I’m going to bring it.”
It would now be a matter of finding an opportunity to show once again… any opportunity.
“I ended up coming back to North Carolina,” he said. “I was getting ready to sign with the Charlotte Hornets of the WFL. So, I went to Charlotte and worked out for them on a Tuesday. They told me that they had an away game that week and to come back on Monday to get all signed up. They offered me $300 a week plus a percentage of the gate. I was thinking like most 20-year olds do, ‘Let’s see, $300 a week, four weeks a month, that’s $1,200 a month! I can survive on that!’”
Kepley came that close to the probability of being a football side note until timing finally fell in his favor.
“Frank Morris was the top scout for the Edmonton Eskimos at that time,” Kepley recalled. “He called me on a Wednesday and told me that they lost their middle linebacker and that they wanted to bring me up for a tryout. He told me that (the Eskimos) were guaranteed a playoff position and that they would pay me $3,000 a game for the four remaining games plus the playoffs.
"I was pretty good with numbers and I could figure (the economics) out. I had no clue where Edmonton was. This was in October and it was 60 degrees (in NC) and I got off the plane in Edmonton and it was blowing snow like you would not believe. I had a golf shirt on and I could tell from Frank’s face that he was thinking I was some redneck. Fortunately, he had a down-filled jacket for me.
“We kept driving and driving and driving and I’m like, ‘Where are you taking me?’ He pointed to Clark Stadium and said, ‘There it is, your new home.’ Clark held maybe 15,000 people and East Carolina held over 20,000 at the time, but I didn’t give a s***. It was time to play. I signed the contract on a Thursday and I started for them on a Saturday.”
Kepley once again had hope in the form of an opportunity to show just what the NFL refused to see even when it was right in front of them.
“I lined up and I was flying around and doing what I do and they liked it,” he said of the Eskimos management and fans. “They liked it and we went to the Grey Cup in Calgary. It was 30 degrees below zero, I’m a starting linebacker playing for a championship, and at the beginning of the game a women jumps out and streaks across the field and I thought to myself, ‘This is a crazy ass place, I can play here.’”
This time, no draft choice would receive preferential treatment; no incumbent would gobble up the roster spot. This time, Kepley was the man and he proved as much in training camp the next year, winning an all-out battle royal with former Missouri star backer Sam Britts – whose injury opened the door for Kepley in Edmonton. Kepley emerged entrenched as the starter and Britts packed his bags in a trade to Hamilton.
“This was football to me,” Kepley said. “You grow up watching the NFL and the guys you admired and you prayed you’d have the chance to do the same thing. But, when it came to it, Edmonton was my chance to continue to play and do what I love. And, man, I love this game of football. To be in Edmonton as the starter, coming off a Grey Cup championship, for me, was like asking a nympho to be a hooker. I remember thinking, ‘They are actually paying me to do what I love to do.’”
Adjusting to the rules north of the border presented some early laughs at Kepley’s expense.
“Oooh, the rules,” he lamented. “That was a little difficult for me at first. When I arrived in Edmonton, the coaches spent most of the Thursday and Friday giving me a crash course in the defensive system and my role. Didn’t get much on the rules. I remember one game against Calgary, I was trying to call a time out and our defensive end, Ron Este who played at LSU and was a real Cajun guy who you could never understand a word he was saying, starts yelling to me. I am walking down the line of scrimmage trying to get a time out and they pitch the ball to Willie Burden (former Raleigh Enloe and N.C. State standout running back) and I ended up making the tackle. Este had been yelling to let me know that in the CFL, there are NO time outs.”
There were other times.
“At practice, one time, I see two guys go in motion at the same time,” he recalled. “So, I hit the center in the mouth and a fight ensued.”
After getting a grip on the rules, what followed for Kepley still must feel like a dream life.
“When I arrived in 1975, it started,” he said. “The thing that has always driven me is that you are only as good as the last game. People will do that to you. You have to do this every day. Kind of like at East Carolina. As a smaller guy trying to make an impression on a team and a league, there is no gray area. You have got to do things to an extreme. You want your teammates to say they want to go to war with you. Those same challenges continued for the 10 years that I played.”
Kepley had found a home and was not going to lose it.
“Look, I negotiated all my contracts myself,” he said. “It was not like the NFL money today and I thought that I could represent myself and be able to establish my position and understand their position and it worked out very, very well. At one time the general manager was Norm Kemple and I had put a clause in the contract that if I won MVP or was named All-CFL, I would get this kind of bonus. Well Norm said to me, ‘Do you mean that if I don’t agree to these bonuses, you’re not going to play to this level?’ I liked that, so I got rid of the clause.”
Straight forward, committed to winning and excellence. And the fans were the same.
The Edmonton fans instantly accepted Kepley and his style of play. Though he had displaced a well-regarded linebacker, his instant impact in the lineup made the transition much easier for the Eskimos in the stands.
“The passion in the CFL is amazing. As significant as it can be in any NFL city. They are diehard,” he said. “(The fans), I’m sure, wanted to know if I was a one-hit wonder. I’m sure they were thinking, ‘Can he be consistent? Is he going to be that way every Sunday?’”
Obviously, history bore out that he was a big-time gamer, leading a defense that would win five-straight Grey Cups (1978-82) and garnering the league’s top defensive honor, the Schenley Award, three times (1977, 1980, and 1981).
He was a five-time Western and CFL all-star (1977-1981) and was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 1996. He was also added to the Edmonton Eskimo Wall of Honour in 1987.
More than that, however, he was one of the most recognizable star athletes in Edmonton, which was emerging as a city of champions – a moniker officially bestowed on Alberta city – at the time.
“The Eskimos were the only thing they had going in this city, then,” he said referring to the late ‘70s. “Obviously, hockey was big, but in '78, when (Wayne) Gretzky came and the Oilers became part of the NHL, we were winning five Grey Cups in a row. In 1978, they had built a brand new stadium for the Commonwealth Games and one of my fondest memories was dressing in that little locker room in Clark Stadium and then walking across into a 50,000-seat stadium to play in front of a packed house every game. If we had had 60,000 seats (which it does now) in 1981, we would have had 54,000 season ticket holders. The city was nicknamed the city of champions because of us and the Oilers.
“It was an unbelievable time (to be a young, star athlete). It was like downtown at ECU only multiplied by a million times.”
At 25 years old, Kepley’s gang of friends included a teen-aged Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Yari Kuri, and Kevin Lowe.
“We did quite a bit of hanging out,” he recalled. “All of us were single guys then. We are all close friends to this day.”
It was a good time, for sure, and Kepley embraced his new community full force.
“The Edmonton franchise is a community-owned team,” he explained. “We have a president and a CEO, a COO, and a board of directors made up of prominent people in the community. This made it even more important for us to be part of the community. The American players came up, bought homes and stayed year round and would be visible. I do consider Edmonton my home… I really do. I have been here basically since 1975. The mid-90s I was in Philadelphia when I was with ESPN and ESPN 2 doing college and arena games, but largely, I consider Edmonton home.”
Again, Kepley is quick to point out his 10-year run was due to his teammates.
“I could not have written it any better, honestly,” he said. “God is good and I was blessed. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to be in a situation that when I came in Edmonton we had guys who were able to stay together a long time and be successful. Everything was a sixth sense and you needn’t communicate because you just knew what every guy was going to do.
"Tom Townes and Dale Potter, two Canadians, played beside me for eight years. We were a linebacking trio for eight years — that is unheard of. The same held true in the defensive line and virtually the same on offense. Then this young kid named Warren Moon came out of Washington. I know Warren could still play better than some of the quarterbacks in the NFL even now. And we had this guy out of Wyoming named Tom Wilkinson, who is a Hall of Famer here.”
During his tenure in Edmonton, he had opportunities to go to the NFL, but by then, he was settled in and not willing to leave.
“I had a couple of chances to go back to the NFL,” he said. “Dallas and Denver. But I was very happy in Edmonton and contented that I worked so hard to get to where I was in this league. I was a big fish in a little sea and the NFL offered no guarantees.”
And then, it was over
Kepley spent a lifetime in the CFL in football years. He played for 10 seasons in a sport where the average guy is lucky to see four. Still, the end came entirely too soon and without warning, at least as Kepley could see it.
“I really didn’t know when it was time to hang them up,” he admitted. “I was one of those guys who was a little crazy – a lot crazy. There was never a time when an injury was going to keep me from playing. Pills, needles, it didn’t matter. I was going to play. Then – I think it started in 1984 – I came to camp and I was in really good shape and feeling excellent and we were running sprints and my knee started bothering me. I played the whole season getting the knee shot up twice a game until it became bone on bone and there was nothing I could shoot into.
“I had lost a step, maybe two. My mind was working well, but I couldn’t get from A to B like I used to. It made no sense (for Edmonton doctors) to pass me (physically) the next year from a business point of view. It was time for the old dog to hang them up. It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make in my life. For me, it was that football had been my entire life. Playing and being one of the boys, setting the standard and the bar.”
Depressed and possibly in shock, Kepley immediately accepted a coaching position under his coach, Jackie Parker (a Tennessee Volunteer legend).
“Jackie hired me as a linebacker coach,” Kepley said. “He was really trying to help me out… to take care of me. He didn’t want to cut me loose. But, when I walked into that Eskimo lockerroom where the players go straight and the coaches turn left… I couldn’t make that left turn. I had no concept of it. Every fiber only told me how to be a player. I struggled terribly. (To be there and not play) was like rubbing your nose in it. I didn’t know how to be on the sideline. I left at the end of the season… mutually. I apologized to Coach Parker because they didn’t get my best. I didn’t know what to do. It was like reopening a wound every day. I didn’t feel old, I was just 32.”
If there were darker days for Kepley, it was the time just after he left the game.
“I didn’t know what to do. Losing football – next to losing my grandfather – was the worst death I have ever experienced,” he said. “I was absolutely lost. I floundered around for almost a year and eventually got into real estate and worked for ReMax in 1987, and then in 1989, I got into color commentating in Edmonton on the radio. When I started my commentating, I loved it.”
Kepley went from radio to television in 1991. At the time, the top CBC color commentator, Ron Lancaster, had left the booth for the sideline to coach the Eskimos, creating a vacancy at the largest Canadian broadcasting company.
“I auditioned and replaced Ron Lancaster,” he said. “That work led into branching out into the United States. I eventually was doing CBC and ESPN work at the same time. It was a form of Heaven for me. If I couldn’t play it anymore, at least I was talking about it and being paid money to talk about it.”
Kepley also liked having something to conquer.
“Broadcasting was a challenge, a whole different learning curve,” he said. “My name was still well known and players knew me. I had a good rapport with players, management, and coaches. But, it came back on my shoulders to get the information out to the viewing audience.
“To tell you how hard it was not to be biased in coverage, I had to concentrate to not say ‘We’ or ‘Us.’ It was even to the point I was over critical and sensitive to Edmonton as not to look like a homer. (Commentating) is hard.”
His success in the booth only added to his celebrity in Edmonton, where to this day he still participates in celebrity events.
“Celebrity is one of those things,” he said. “The good is over-exaggerated and so is the bad. You get used to it. I don’t have the pleasure of enjoying the Wayne Gretzky celebrity. But, we did have a run of five Grey Cups in a row. As players, we had heard the history of the 1954-56 Eskimos who three in a row and we were driven by this history to do better and are recognized for this still.”
His broadcasting work carried him to Philadelphia for a while, but it was when his son, Michael, began high school, that Kepley decided he needed to return to Edmonton to be the father he could not be when he was a player.
Still in Edmonton, Still an Eskimo
Kepley gave up the commentating work and left Philadelphia to return to Edmonton.
“My son was a football player in high school,” he said. “He was a very good running back with good speed… which he obviously got from his mother. When I lived in Philly, I would get to see him quite a bit. I flew him back and forth and one day, he called me and said, ‘Dad, I want to play football and I would like to have you here.’ I left Philly and ESPN to come home and be with my son.”
It wasn’t long after he returned to Edmonton that Kepley decided to take another stab at coaching. And this time, he was emotionally ready for the role.
“When I came back to Edmonton, I got involved with the University of Alberta as a part-time coach,” he explained. “Then the Eskimos invited me to their training camp as a guest coach. Then Coach Higgins asked me to consider staying on as an assistant coach full time, so I did.”
He could now take that left turn and his fiery style fits well with the players, who he now must reluctantly refer to as “kids.”
“To be able be in that locker room where I grew up and played a Grey Cup game and now stand on the sidelines, tears were rolling down my face when the national anthem was played. (The first game) was one of the most ultimate feelings. I thought, ‘Everything is good. This is where I should be.’
Of course, he also has learned the business from the management perspective.
“Once you start to learn the coaching business is that the chord must be cut sometimes,” he said in reference to the ultimate possibility that he may depart Edmonton. “If things work out, if better opportunities emerge somewhere else, then of course I will have to consider it. My next step up the ladder is to be good enough to be a defensive coordinator. I’m not ready to become a coordinator yet, but I hope for a long future in coaching.”
He is in great physical condition still and is a young 50.
“When I turned 50, these young guys presented me a rocking chair,” he said. “I look at these kids and I realize I have Nike shoes in a box older than they are. Honestly, one of the greatest minds – going back to my rookie days with the Cowboys – was Lee Roy Jordan. He came up to me and he was 36 years old then and he said ‘I been watching you and you are pretty quick. I know you are a lot faster than me.’ I remember when he said this, I swelled up my chest and then he took his finger and he pushed it three inches into my chest to my heart and he said, ‘I have 16 years up in here and you got jack all.’
“Well, after my 10th year up here, I called Lee Roy just to tell him, ‘I know what you mean, I finally got it. My legs can’t get me there, but my mind does.’”
As a coach, Kepley admits that he has a very soft spot for the “small” guy, the overachiever, but now sees the athletes as a coach.
“I do gravitate to some of the guys who are like that,” he said. “But I also try to get those gifted guys to maximize. And these kids do get the (meaning of Edmonton) history. They keep me young and I won’t let them see me as an old man. I’ll challenge their ass every day.”
His players respect him and, oftentimes, his passion makes him appear to be the head coach on the sidelines. And, he is a player’s coach all the way; as you listen to the respect he has for his players.
“We have a rush end from Clemson, Rahim Abdullah, who is simply so gifted, and a receiver from Carolina, Korey Bailey, who is a fine, fine receiver, even if I always have to hear it from him about us losing to UNC. I’ve even tried to bring (Marcus) Crandell – he’s a good one – over to us.”
He is jacked up in preparation for the upcoming February draft and the excitement of heading into the season as the defending CFL champions. The dark days seem so far away.
“Absolutely, I see myself coaching for years,” he said. “Then, all I knew how to be was a player. I wasn’t strong enough then. That pain was too much to handle. Now, to work the hours and make a plan comes together, there is nothing like it. It is time to go to work. Next year, everything is turned up a couple of notches.”
He harkens back to his old coaches. Randle, Dye, Henry Trevathan, guys he says dedicated themselves to ECU – some for a short while, others for life – and he wants to be that kind of a coach. East Carolina will always be in his thoughts and, according to Kepley, you just never know…
“Are you kidding? I would love to go back to ECU and coach linebackers there,” he said. “I like that idea a whole lot. Coaching these young players is amazing. They really are so much like sponges and take in what you can give them. You tell them to get the work done and they go do it. It would be a win-win situation for me. Sometimes, it is like that in the pros, but it is very hard sometimes in reality to talk to our starting rush end, who is an all pro, and tell him how to play. You can only share insight. They know how to get the job. But in college, they are the sponges.”
We can all hope one day the Pirates give him a call. But if it doesn’t happen, don’t think for a minute that Kepley won’t be loving his life.
“The Edmonton Eskimos have been my life for 25 years,” he said. “Green and Gold. So many great athletes, similar to ECU with a great sense of camaraderie. In a fight, we are all together fighting out of the alley or all found dead in the alley.”