From early on, new Chicago Bears defensive corrdinator Desai showed promise
The game against West Haven was always a big one. West Haven ran the Wing T offense and ran it well.
Shelton High School freshman football coach Rob Darby had seen this story before. Those West Haven teams always had three or four quality athletes who could run the Wing T to near perfection. This was Connecticut high school football in the early 2000s. Few schools were lining up four wide receivers and putting the quarterback in the shotgun. But find a good, consistent offense with enough deception to fool a defense -- like the Wing T -- and a team could win a lot of games.
Leading up to the 2001 game against West Haven, Darby didn't know "if we should've been on the field with this team." It was late in the season. They had a big enough sample size to know this year's West Haven team was another good one.
Privately, with his young defensive coordinator, Darby expressed doubts about the upcoming game. His young protégé, who was helping coach while studying at Boston University, wasn't having any of it.
"You don't have anything to worry about," Sean Desai told Darby. "Just call the offense."
Desai wasn't yet 20. Darby brushed it off as a young coach's overconfidence.
Game day arrived. This was freshman football on Thursdays after school. Shelton traveled to West Haven. The young defensive coordinator studying philosophy and political science had done his football homework. He had a passion for football, even if at that moment he had no idea how far it would take him. He channeled that passion into studying West Haven's Wing T offense.
"He had every tendency down for a freshman game, something you wouldn't really see with most guys coming in to prepare for a game," Darby said. "He just had the kids believe that they could beat this team. He knew if this kid comes in motion we're sending this guy, and he literally set it up as automatic blitzes."
Shelton beat West Haven by three or four possessions. Darby didn't know what to say to Desai other than "that was awesome."
Darby couldn't have known he had a future NFL defensive coordinator on his freshman football staff. Desai was on a premed track. Football wasn't a career. Not yet anyway.
"Twenty years later, I'm still thinking about that game when you bring up (Desai) coaching," Darby said. "This is his first coaching that he's ever done in his life and he literally shut this team down, and now he's the defensive coordinator for the Bears and what am I doing?"
Darby thought about it for a moment and chuckled.
"I'm coaching the freshman team still," he said.
'Defined by learning'
The Bears promoted Desai to defensive coordinator last month, replacing retired coordinator Chuck Pagano. At 37, Desai is entrusted with retooling the Bears' defense with head coach Matt Nagy.
Few in Shelton, Connecticut, could have predicted Desai would come this far in coaching. But there's no denying that his work ethic was evident from the beginning.
"My career has been defined by learning from a lot of different people and then applying it to my own philosophies and beliefs," Desai said Monday, speaking to the media for the first time since his promotion. "I think that's one of the reasons why (Nagy) promoted me."
There is no one clear, definitive path to coaching in the NFL. Desai isn't even the highest-ranking coach in Halas Hall who started his career at the high school level. Head coach Matt Nagy coached at Manheim Central (2001), Cedar Crest (2002-2003) and Palmyra (2008-2009) high schools -- all in Pennsylvania -- before breaking into the NFL as a coaching intern with the Philadelphia Eagles.
After Desai finished his undergraduate studies at Boston University, he earned a master's in higher education from Columbia University in New York. While at Columbia, he embedded himself with the football team for a class project. His connections at Columbia helped him land a graduate assistant position at Temple in 2006 when he went to the Philadelphia school to study for his doctorate.
That eventually turned into a full-time coaching position with Temple, where he coached through the 2010 season.
He bounced from Miami (2011) to Boston College (2012) to a job with the Chicago Bears in 2013 as defensive quality control coach. Desai has since worked his way up through the Bears' coaching ranks, culminating with his promotion last month. He is one of few NFL coaches of Indian descent, and he is the first Indian-American NFL coordinator.
Back home in Shelton, current varsity head coach Mike DeFelice said he was amazed reading the stories online when Desai was promoted.
"He definitely deserves it," DeFelice said. "Just knowing the hours that he's put in and all the stuff that he's done over the years. It's nice to see him get that chance to prove that he can do it."
Just a kid who studied
Over the years, Desai kept in touch with the Shelton coaches. Darby and DeFelice grew up Bears fans; both were kids when the Bears won Super Bowl XX and fell in love with that team.
When the Bears were struggling through the final years with quarterback Jay Cutler, they gave Desai a hard time about the team's struggles, despite the fact that Desai was a low-ranking defensive coach.
"We were like, 'Look, if things don't work out I still have your defensive coordinator position at the high school with the freshman team,' " Darby said. "He was a little upset with that one."
Darby's relationship with Desai goes back to Darby's first years at the school in the late 1990s, when he had Desai in his honors biology class. DeFelice's first year coaching happened to be Desai's freshman year in 1997. DeFelice was in his early 20s then, studying in college and volunteering with the freshman team -- much like Desai would do a few years later.
That freshman class featured an up-and-coming quarterback named Dan Orlovsky, who later played in the NFL and is now a commentator on ESPN. The coaches at Shelton knew that class was good. DeFelice had played for Orlovsky's dad, and Orlovsky was a ball boy when he was on varsity.
When they were freshmen, Desai stuck out because he asked a lot of questions.
"He just always seemed to have that mind for football where he was breaking it down," DeFelice said. "(He was) kind of analytical about it and able to get what we wanted (the players) to get."
Desai and Orlovsky helped Shelton win a state championship in 2000 when they were seniors. Desai was a defensive back.
"He was a good player but he didn't jump off the field at you as a player," Darby said. "But he didn't just know his position, he knew what the whole defense was doing. He knew what the offense was doing, what the receivers were doing on the back side. He was just a kid who studied and in his classes he studied and knew what he needed. On a football field, he brought that same work ethic."
That work ethic has allowed Desai to rise from quality control coach to coordinator in Chicago.
Teach at highest level
Even while coaching in the NFL, Desai taught classes at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. His professional career could've gone so many other directions. But he kept coming back to the football field.
For Desai, it all comes back to teaching. The classroom and the football field aren't so different.
"This is a form of teaching, and I get to do it at the highest level and do it on the grass in an interactive way," Desai said. "So I think that's what always brought me back to coaching and, quite honestly, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the support I had."
There has been all sorts of support. At home: his parents, his wife and kids. On the football field: from Darby at Shelton to Al Golden at Temple to Vic Fangio in Chicago. Desai called Fangio, the former Bears defensive coordinator who now coaches the Denver Broncos, his "biggest mentor" in the NFL.
The thing about teaching is you first have to learn. Desai has done a lot of that along the way.
Desai learned about defensive approach from Fangio, about detail and planning from former defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, and about communication and relationships from Pagano.
"The good thing about the roles I've been assigned to is all those coaches and coordinators have given me different spots and different areas of responsibility," Desai said. "So I was able to get a good picture of the defense and how to build a defense."
Desai has surrounded himself with coaches who have coordinator experience at the college or NFL level. The Bears hired former Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as a senior defensive assistant. Inside linebackers coach Bill McGovern was twice a college coordinator, and defensive line coach Chris Rumph was twice a coordinator at SEC schools.
"This is going to be an open environment," Desai said. "Everyone's going to know who we are and what our identity is, and if there's things we can balance each other off of, then I'm all for that."