Tony Pape was frustrated.
The year was 2005, and Pape, now the offensive line coach for Richards High School’s football team, had just finished his season playing for the Berlin Thunder in NFL Europe. He had just put together a very impressive season as an offensive lineman, helping to lead the Thunder to the World Bowl and earning First-Team All-League honors.
Still, Pape felt burned out. He needed a break from the frustration of not securing a regular NFL roster spot, only making the practice squad for the Miami Dolphins.
“Stupidly, I felt like, not that Miami owed me something, but they just never gave me a shot,” Pape said.
So, he decided to take the year off. It was a choice that Pape doesn’t regret.
An Experience of a Lifetime at Michigan
Pape went to high school at Hinsdale South (Class of ‘99), where he racked up the accolades, including USA Today All-American First-Team honors. He had his choice of colleges, and while he was tempted to play at the University of Miami, he decided to go to Michigan based on its academics, its strong tradition of lineman and its relatively close proximity to Chicago.
As a young lineman, Pape had to endure a somewhat nauseating ritual at Michigan. The night before every game, the team gathered in a hotel lobby for a formal dinner. However, Pape couldn’t eat the food because the seniors had the self-granted right to take it from first-year linemen. His meal came in the form of “the drink.”
“The drink,” which had developed into tradition for Michigan linemen, consisted of anything and everything the seniors could think of—salt, horseradish and Tabasco sauce being just some of the ingredients. Pape, and every other first-year lineman, had to drink it.
Pape, indeed, drank it all in, and his fortunes began to change as he started the next three years, including starts in 31 consecutive games.
Two games stood out in Pape’s mind: Michigan’s 2002 home game against Penn State and his final Big 10 game, the 2003 home game against arch-rival Ohio State.
Pape remembers well the tightly contested game against Penn State during his junior season in 2002. In overtime, the Nittany Lions made a field goal on their first possession, leaving the door open for Pape and the Wolverines to win the game with a touchdown. Pape had a game plan for Lloyd Carr, Michigan’s renowned head coach.
“I remember going up to coach Carr and saying, ‘Listen, we need to run the ball four times in a row and we’ll score this thing,’ ” Pape said.
Sure enough, Michigan did just that and won the game 27-24 on a Chris Perry touchdown run.
The memory of rejoicing on the field of Michigan’s “Big House” after the Wolverines beat Ohio State during Pape’s senior year stands out in his mind. The Wolverines had clinched their ticket to the Rose Bowl, so Pape clenched a rose in his teeth, celebrating with family and friends.
Pape had grown a lot at Michigan.
“(Carr) was an amazing coach," he said. "I think the tradition he brought with him was that he would turn young boys into men. That’s really what his job was."
And Pape had turned into a top-notch college player. He was selected to the AP All-American second-team and he was a two-time first-team All-Big 10 performer.
Whether it was the wisdom of Coach Carr, or the bond he shared with his teammates, Pape had learned a lot. He needed all of that growth for the next stage of life, which was full of ups and downs.
The Ups and Downs of an NFL Hopeful
Pape was a seventh-round draft choice of the Miami Dolphins in 2004. After making the Dolphins’ practice squad, Pape was sent to the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe, where he had his successful season, helping to lead the team to the World Bowl.
While Pape enjoyed the football, he said he didn’t enjoy his experience in Berlin, especially because he felt forgotten by the NFL in Europe.
“Was it exciting? Yeah,” Pape said. “But it was a steppingstone to the NFL and it almost felt like it was going on unwatched eyes.”
So, Pape took the 2005 season off. He worked with one of his best friends, who had opened a health and wellness facility that specialized in working with kids with autism.
While the decision to take the year off might not have been the best decision for him in terms of making an NFL roster, he doesn’t regret the mental refresher and renewed love for the game a year off allowed him.
“I don’t regret that decision because it helped me to get where I’m at right now, and I’m happy where I’m at right now,” Pape said.
After giving it another shot with the Dolphins in 2006, Pape tried to hook on with the Chargers the next year, and even went back to NFL Europe for a more enjoyable experience, this time with the Amsterdam Admirals.
That set up a do-or-die scenario for Pape. With a three-year restriction for players on a practice squad, Pape knew he had to work as hard as ever heading into the 2008 season, as he tried out for the Chargers.
“I did everything I possibly could to make that roster, and played absolutely as hard as I could,” he said. “And I made it so close, but it didn’t happen.”
A Changed Course
Pape decided to pursue coaching after his last season with the Chargers, and he started as a graduate assistant at Central Michigan for the 2009 season. After deciding coaching college football wasn’t for him, he came back to Chicago and started classes at North Central College in Naperville to earn a teaching certificate.
That’s when he received a call from Richards coach Tony Sheehan, whose wife worked with Pape’s fiancée at the time at Eisenhower High School. Sheehan invited Pape to join the Richards staff, and Pape came aboard last season.
“God was looking down upon us that day," Sheehan said. "He’s been a huge help."
In just over one year with the program, Pape already has made a big impression.
“He really relates well with the kids,” Sheehan said. “They love him and they love that he played college football and that he got drafted … they’ve bought in and they really work hard for him.”
All of Pape’s experiences—everything from the Rose Bowl berth his senior year to his trying times with the NFL—are serving him as a coach now. He even gives his offensive linemen quizzes before games, introducing techniques he picked up in college and professionally.
“I love coaching at Richards,” Pape said. “I’m so glad I made that decision, because after playing, I feel that’s my calling … coaching high school football. I love it, it’s so fun.”
He calls his offensive line “The Fist,” with the five fingers standing for the five offensive linemen.
He strives for unity and camaraderie among his players, just as he learned while chugging a drink containing horseradish or blocking for a game-winning touchdown at Michigan.