Headed back to where it started
Former SMU running back Zach Line takes over as coach at his high school after retiring from NFL
Posted on 06/21/2020 by PonyFans.com
Former SMU running back Zach Line, his wife McKenzie and their three daughters have moved to Oxford, Mich., where he earned All-State honors at linebacker and running back ... and now is the new football head coach (photo by Kathy Line).
It’s not like Zach Line hasn’t surprised people before.

The former two-way star was fairly lightly recruited out of Oxford (Mich.) High School, and when he committed to SMU, he was viewed as an inside linebacker … who switched over to offense and became the second-leading rusher in the history of a program with a history of dominant running backs. Then he defied the odds by making the Minnesota Vikings’ roster in 2013, launching a successuful NFL career as a fullback for the Vikings and New Orleans Saints.

Line retired from the NFL Jan. 15 — a decision that many did not expect but hardly could be held against someone who had endured seven seasons at fullback, one of the sport’s most physically demanding positions.

But Line already had the next chapter of his life lined up: he was going home.

Line is the new head coach at his alma mater, Oxford High School, where he has the task of replacing Bud Rowley, who won 264 games in more than four decades as the Wildcats’ head coach. One thing that encourages Line is that he inherits a team of players who resemble their new coach and his brothers, Prescott and Ben, who like Zach were star runners at Oxford and went on to play in college.

“Following him, I obviously have some huge shoes to fill,” Line said. “Of course it’s a huge challenge to follow someone like that, but he left me with players who are disciplined, who work hard and are hard-nosed. Oxford always has had players with a lot of physicality and toughness, and the guys I have now are like that.”

Rowley is partly responsible for Line being in his new position.

“I didn’t plan on coming back to Oxford immediately,” Line said. “They had a great coach who had coached there for 100 years. I figured they’d have his funeral on the field, that he’d never retire. But when I was in town on a bye week, he said he was going to step down at the end of the season — that was the first time I thought about it. I went through the interview process, and I’m very fortunate that things worked out the way they did.”

According to Ryan Clark, Oxford’s co-defensive coordinator who got to know his new boss when Line was in the eighth grade, the challenge of following a legend like Rowley shouldn’t be too daunting.

“I don’t think so,” Clark said, “because Zach is the kind of guy who is unbelievably humble. He has no problem reaching out to anybody, Coach Rowley included. This community loves Coach Rowley, and always will, but this community loves Zach, too. Zach is also a legend in Oxford, with his playing career, so really, we’re replacing one legend with another legend.”

Line was an unquestioned leader on his high school team and at SMU, and was admired in Minnesota and New Orleans for his relentless work ethic and toughness, and willing to do the dirty work of blocking and playing on special teams while more heralded teammates garnered headlines. So the fact that he is transitioning from a player into a leader of players is not surprising, although the timing might be to some.

“I always said I was going to let my body tell me when I was done,” said Line, who was 29 years old at the time of his retirement. “I finished the year fairly healthy, but injuries are part of the game. This past offseason, I had a knee that was bugging me. It was one of those things when doctors said there really was nothing more that could be done to fix it — it was about pain management.”

As exciting as the prospect of going home to Oxford was, giving up his playing career, and specifically leaving New Orleans, was difficult for Line and his wife, McKenzie.

“She loves New Orleans, loves the Saints, just like I do,” Line said. “They do such a great job of building the culture there, where they win games by guys loving each other, caring about each other. That’s the way we had it at SMU, too. It’s hard to leave that kind of atmosphere, but that’s what we’re going to build at Oxford, too.”

Zach Line signed with SMU as a linebacker ... and ended up as one of the greatest rushers in program history (photo by Travis Johnston).
Line said that once football season begins, he does not expect to be wrestling with doubts about whether he retired too soon, even though some of his New Orleans teammates were sorry to see him walk away.

“Guys like Taysom Hill — he did not like my decision, but he understood it,” Line said. “That just shows that the guys we had, like him … it’s a great group of guys. It’s going to be hard seeing guys out there playing. (Retiring) wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t as hard as it would have been if I had more left in the tank. But it was time. I couldn’t be happier with where I am.”

Line insists that nobody ever will overshadow Rowley in Oxford, or even Prescott, who broke his brother’s records when he played for the Wildcats. “Prescott is an Oxford legend,” he said. “He has all the records — he’s the guy. I’m pretty sure when I got hired, a lot of people said, ‘awww, it’s not Prescott?’”

His assessment of his return home, however, might be a bit modest. After all, this is the player who once held most of the Oxford records that now bear his brother’s name. He graduated SMU as the only Mustang ever to score five touchdowns in a game, tied with Eric Dickerson for the school record with 47 rushing touchdowns, and trailing only Dickerson in career rushing yards with 4,185 and in 100-yard rushing games, with 20.

“He is a big deal, a local celebrity,” Clark said. “Everyone followed his success when he went to college. You saw teachers and kids wearing his SMU gear and NFL gear.”

Clark said the news that Line was taking over the program was hugely popular within the Oxford community.

“(Line’s return) was a complete surprise to all of us — a pleasant surprise,” Clark said. “I was thrilled when we found out that (the new head coach would be) Zach, a former Oxford standout player, and not only that but a great guy. I had him as a student in eighth grade. When he moved up to high school, I also moved up and started teaching at the high school. He was one of those kids who, as a freshman, was lifting with the seniors, a strong kid — big, strong, fast, really hard-working. He had that drive that pushed and pushed and pushed. I followed him when he went down to SMU, like we all did. When he went undrafted, that was a bit of a surprise — I didn’t expect him to go in the first round or anything, but we all wanted him to get drafted because the chance of undrafted an free agent making a team is pretty slim. But if there was one who could, it’s Zach. The odds were slim, but I can’t say it was a huge surprise that he made it. That’s who he is, and I was so happy for him, so excited for him.

“He’s one of those guys who, if you give him a chance, he’ll make something of it. Now he has a chance to coach at Oxford, and he’s going to make something of that.”

Clark said the perspective of viewing Line as a coach instead of a student and player is an adjustment — mostly for Line.

“I think it’s more weird for him,” Clark said, laughing. “Zach has yet to call us by our first names. I’m still ‘Coach Clark’ to him.”

Anyone who has gone through a career shift knows that such a transition involves countless changes. Line is grateful that trading in his helmet for a headset comes with a built-in support system. Presumably he’s kidding when he says that “80 percent” of the reason he took the Oxford job was because of a network of babysitters, but it’s a valid thought: he, McKenzie and their three daughters live less than 10 minutes from his parents. Prescott is now a police officer in nearby Farmington Hills, and Ben has begun a career at Northwest Mutual. Sisters Chelsey and Madison also are nearby; Chelsey is expecting her fourth child, and Madison runs the fitness center owned by the Lines’ parents, Joe and Kathy.

“It’s a luxury to have them around,” he said. “When I first showed McKenzie our house, I asked, ‘what do you think?’ She asked where it is, and when she found out we would be eight minutes from my parents, she said, ‘awesome, let’s do it.’

Line said his retirement impacted the lives of many, especially his family.

“I heard from a lot of people: teammates, friends and family. When I was thinking about it, I called my dad — he’s one of the first I talk to about everything — and asked what he thought about it. He said he was bummed, because now he couldn’t watch one of his kids’ football games. Well, now he can, because he’s got somewhere to go every Friday night.”

Throughout his career, Line said, his steadying force has been McKenzie. “She encouraged me when I didn’t get drafted, throughout my playing career. She does so much with the girls when I traveled in the NFL, and she gave me the confidence to take the Oxford job. She’s a rock.”

Like every other team in the country, Oxford’s offseason was affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which cost the Wildcats several spring practices, the strength and conditioning work that is put in during the month of May and some seven-on-seven work. The team just recently resumed outdoor offseason conditioning workouts within the restrictions set by the Michigan High School Athletic Association, sometimes with his wife and daughters — “my cheerleaders,” he calls them — there to watch. “When we’re back in action, they’re running around. I want my family around, I want the coaches’ families around. I want the community to know we’re open.”

Line did not go into detail about what kind of offense and defense the Wildcats will run, other than to acknowledge that there will be changes from last year’s team, which finished with a 1-8 record.

“I don’t want to get too into that,” he said. “Week 1 hasn’t come yet. But it’s still about blocking and tackling. Defensively, Wade Phillips said it best: ‘you have a job: get the football.’ The biggest stat, other than the score, is turnovers, so that will be a major area of emphasis. Tempo, to me, isn’t going no-huddle — it’s hustling to the line, hustling to the ball, and we’re going to do those things.”

Line and his staff are doing some off-field teaching, largely through Zoom calls, but the fact is that his first season at Oxford will be his first as a coach at any level.

“Zach is a little different, a little unique,” Clark said. “Yes, he has not formally coached football, but he is a teacher. He has three kids at home. At the ETS training facility — (Minnesota Vikings wide receiver) Adam Thielen is one of his partners in it — he has been training and working with high school kids during the offseason. Two years ago, he’s the one who put together our summer workouts and weightlifting program. Coach Rowley would allow him to go back out on the field and work with the kids. He has had a lot of contact with kids, working on their conditioning, and he builds a great rapport with them.

“The football part — he knows more than anyone. He has three-ring binders five inches thick. As far as Xs and Os, he’s got that all down, but he’s really ahead of the game as far as relationships with the kids.”

Raising three daughters who are under the age of five is not the same, obviously, as leading a team of high school football players. But Line said that there are definite overlaps between the two roles.

“I think I have to have even more patience at home than I do as a coach,” he said. “If the four-year-old does something wrong, the three-year-old will follow suit, because she looks up to her sister. It’s the same thing with players: the seniors need to be the leaders. If they do something wrong, the younger guys will follow suit. When your leaders establish the way to do things, the others follow suit. They learn by example.”

That is at the core of Line’s goals for his first season as Oxford’s coach. He won’t get baited into attaching a number of victories to his expectations, and he won’t make any bold predictions about the Wildcats’ position in the standings. Instead, he is focused on teaching the game and teaching his players to do things the right way, counting on the fact that if they do, the results will come.

“I’m really excited to be back,” said Line, who added that SMU head coach Sonny Dykes and his staff "absolutely" get first dibs on any Oxford players they want to recruit. “With the NFL on my résumé, I guess that gives me some credibility, as far as Xs and Os, but I’ve been lucky to learn from some great coaches, and I want to pass along what they taught me. We need our guys to stay out of trouble, stay on track, not do bonehead things. I want these guys to embrace our core values, to give relentless effort and prepare like we’re going to win every game.

“We’re going to talk a lot about ‘our one 11’ — our one team is made up of 11 guys on the field, which is a nice way of saying ‘do your job.’ I’m never going to say how many wins we’ll have. We’re going to teach Oxford football, and that means doing things the right way. When they understand those things, the team will be successful.”

After getting bypassed in the 2013 NFL Draft, former SMU star Zach Line carved out a seven-year career with the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints (photo by Saints & Vikings PR).

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