Pete DeSouza lowered himself into a narrow metal chair that was roped to a picnic table overlooking Byrd Stadium, his battering-ram legs draped in baggy black sweats beneath a clear September sky. Years ago, those legs moved fast across the Maryland offensive line, bulldozing open lanes for running backs and clearing pockets for quarterbacks. He crushed pass-rushers, until an oncoming car did the same to him.
He’s still the same goofball, the cuddly teddy bear despite his battle scars. But these days his paws grip sheets of white paper, formations and diagrams scribbled in red ink.
Once known as Pete, he’s Coach DeSouza now, because chasing this new dream means separating business from friendship, because doctors told him the old dream was dead.
DeSouza became the Terrapins starting right tackle in 2010 after classmate Justin Gilbert tore his anterior cruciate ligament. He was an All-Met at DeMatha and an “all-around good guy” at Maryland, as Gilbert says. And like many of his teammates, DeSouza zoomed around campus on a motor scooter.
One Thursday evening in October of that year, around 9 p.m., Gilbert and Bennett Fulper wondered why DeSouza hadn’t come home. Then they got a call. DeSouza was traveling westbound on Campus Drive when a vehicle smashed into the scooter, breaking both of his legs. Gilbert and others rushed to the scene. They saw scattered parts, a dented car and a totaled scooter, brightened by street lights and the ambulance in which DeSouza was strapped.
He rehabbed like crazy, making it all the way back to Maryland’s scout team. But further progression became too risky. Team doctors saw future injuries. DeSouza saw himself in a wheelchair, unable to play in the yard with his future children. “Life is so precious,” he thought. “I want to live.”
“All of a sudden, realizing the game he loved he’ll never play again,” former DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor said. “It’s been taken away from him for life. Usually there’s an end to something. There’s more of a graceful ending. And this was very abrupt.”
Before one weekend this spring, Coach Randy Edsall brought DeSouza into his office and asked him to become a student coach. He would help direct the scout team, and assist on the offensive line.
“Obviously I’d love to be out there on the 50-yard line blocking, but teaching guys, communicating and talking about the game and stuff, I feel a bigger passion coaching than playing. That’s what I want to be when I grow up,” said DeSouza, as if being 6 feet 7 and 300-plus pounds and working on a Football Bowl Subdivision coaching staff wasn’t already grown up.
DeSouza always knew he’d coach once his playing career ended. He worked McGregor’s camp, where the coach remembers kids calling him Big Ol’ Pete, like some sidekick in a Western comedy. They ooh-ed and ahh-ed at his stature, then listened as he taught them to shuffle and combo block.
“He approaches it with a very business-like attitude,” Edsall said. “He understands what his job is, and he’s doing the job to the best of his ability. I see a guy, given the position that he’s in, trying to show guys what to do. I see a guy who’s just calm, cool, collected in how he approaches the coaching profession.”
The weekend before DeSouza’s first practice as a coach, he went home to Silver Spring and spent time with his mother. They talked about his playing days — and bouncing back — in another light. Then he went to church and prayed.
“I’m sure in the back of his mind he’s saying I wish that hadn’t happen, but he never shows it,” Gilbert said. “He’s embracing the situation he’s in, he’s taking advantage of the situation. Being as close as I am to him, I’m proud of the way he’s taking advantage of this. Does he have regrets? I’m sure. All of us do. But for him to not get out of it and go off on his own, not have anything to do with it? Hats off to him. I’m proud of him.”
It’s an ongoing adjustment process. Getting dressed for games takes five minutes and not 20, mostly because he doesn’t have use for eye-black or cleats anymore. DeSouza wears dress shirts and ties now. “He’s got swag,” classmate C.J. Brown says.
Establishing boundaries with his former teammates, some of whom are older than DeSouza, has been particularly difficult. He still lives with Terrapins and takes classes with them. Upon accepting the position, DeSouza told his friends that things would be different.
“It’s extremely difficult when you have your friends and they want to go do something, hang out, and you can’t do that,” DeSouza said. “The thing is, if they’re truly my friends then they’ll understand. When we step into Gossett [Team House, which houses the football program] and onto the practice field, I’m not your friend anymore. I’m your coach.”
Now he’s ahead of the curve, 21 years old with coaching experience to support his NFL aspirations. Nervous for his first practice, DeSouza has since found his voice. Gilbert says he’s a “talk-to-you coach” with an intensely competitive streak if drills break down. DeSouza says he just hates losing.
He remembers facing his mother and cousin in intense rounds of chess and board games, matches of Battleship that approximated actual wars. He loves the strategic aspects of coaching, memorizing formations and scheming against run blitzes, the competitiveness outside the public’s eye.
A few years ago, DeSouza and Brown were in their dorm, discussing the NBA’s top point guards. Rajon Rondo? Tony Parker? Back and forth, arguing for hours. Brown finally cracked. He couldn’t take the stubbornness. He forced himself to stand up and walk out of the room, away from his hard-nosed opponent with the goofy streak who just refused to give up.