Most Virginia football fans would probably recognize Howie Long at Cavaliers games. But finding Long in Scott Stadium could prove to be much more difficult. Long begins most games sitting in the Virginia parents' seating area, but then moves around the stadium like he is still chasing NFL quarterbacks.
Long, an NFL Hall of Fame defensive end for the Oakland-Los Angeles Raiders and current studio analyst for Fox, tries to stay out of sight and mind during Virginia games. Long said he had enough of the spotlight during his pro football career, from 1981 to 1993, and now wants the attention on his oldest son, Chris, a starting defensive end for the No. 25 Cavaliers.
"I try to be as anonymous as I can," Howie Long said during a telephone interview Thursday. "If you can find me in Scott Stadium, then you're pretty good. We're just trying to be like everybody else. Plus, I'm a bundle of nerves. Watching your son play is tough. You're taking every step with him."
When a photographer approached Long and his wife, Diane, before the Cavaliers' Sept. 3 opener against Western Michigan, and asked them to pose for a photograph for this story, Long politely declined and said, "Go take some pictures of Chris."
Long, 45, has gone to great lengths to ensure that Chris, 20, and his younger brothers, Kyle, 16, and Howie, 15, live normal lives. Long moved his family to Charlottesville shortly after he retired from the NFL in 1994. Long said he and his wife searched from "Oregon to Cape Cod" for the right place to raise their sons and build their retirement home, and eventually settled in Charlottesville.
"It just felt right here," Long said. "We thought it was a good place to raise our three sons. We didn't want to raise our kids in Los Angeles for a number of reasons. They'd just had the earthquakes, floods, fires and riots and we knew we didn't want to stay there."
Their sons enrolled at St. Anne's-Belfield School in Charlottesville, and Long has been a volunteer football coach there during the past several seasons. But Long doesn't coach during games because he fears his involvement would be a distraction.
"I try to be as inconspicuous as possible on game days," Long said. "I think it's their time. This is Chris's time. I think Chris respects who his dad is, but he's the one playing college football, not me. He's already accomplished so much more than I did in college football."
Howie Long said comparing his son to him is unfair because they played in two different eras. Howie Long was an all-American at Villanova, but didn't face the level of competition his son faces every week in the ACC.
"I think the comparisons are inevitable when your son plays defensive end and you played defensive end," Howie Long said. "But I think that's unrealistic because we're two different people and we played in two different eras. I played against 255-pound offensive lineman in college. He's playing against 320-pounders. The world is bigger, faster and stronger than when I played college football. It's a completely different level now."
Chris Long, a sophomore who missed most of last season because of mononucleosis, seems comfortable having a famous father. If being Howie Long's son was too much pressure, Chris said, he would have chosen another sport (he also played baseball, basketball and lacrosse at St. Anne's-Belfield School) or certainly a different position in football than the one his father played.
"I think there's pressure, but it's good pressure and it is pressure I'm appreciative of," Chris Long said. "It's nothing new. It's something I've dealt with for a long time."
But being the son of a Hall of Famer also has its benefits. During Howie Long's first eight seasons with the Raiders, after he was drafted in the second round out of Villanova in 1981, Long played in a 3-4 defense. The Cavaliers are one of the few teams left in NCAA Division I-A football that still play a 3-4, instead of a 4-3 alignment.
When Virginia Coach Al Groh left the New York Jets in December 2000 to coach his alma mater, it didn't take long for Howie Long to show up at his office. They were friends of late sportswriter Will McDonough of the Boston Globe; Long knew McDonough while growing up in Charlestown, Mass., and Groh befriended the longtime NFL beat writer while working as an assistant for the New England Patriots. McDonough died of a heart attack in 2003.
After Groh settled into his job at Virginia, Long's visits became more frequent. The men would move furniture in Groh's office to simulate a 3-4 defense and often discussed technique and strategy.
"It was just amazing to be in the office and watch Howie move around," Groh said. "Every time he'd do it, I'd be like, 'Whoa, what an amazing athlete!' You could certainly see all of the Hall of Fame skills."
So imagine Groh's delight when he learned Long had a son at a nearby school who had the athletic potential to play Division I-A football. By his senior season at St. Anne's-Belfield, Chris was ranked among the country's top defensive line prospects and the school retired his jersey number.
"Let's just say we were very glad Howie and Diane didn't decide to move to Ann Arbor, Michigan, or somewhere else like that," Groh said.
Before Chris orally committed to play for the Cavaliers, his father told him about the rigors of playing the 3-4 and how demanding Groh can be.
"Obviously, we talk a lot, but I don't think you can really understand the 3-4 until you play the 3-4," Howie Long said. "It's probably the most difficult system a defensive lineman can play. It's very physically demanding. You will not shine statistically. If you have a great game, the linebacker will have 14 tackles. It's very difficult to get pressure on the quarterback. I told him playing the 3-4 is a bear."
While Chris Long has only played seven games for the Cavaliers -- he had seven tackles and 21/2 tackles for loss in the 31-19 victory over Western Michigan -- Groh said he sees his father's best attribute in his son.
"He's got a great passion and energy for football," Groh said. "He had pretty good training before he got here."
Long said he was grateful that Groh recruited Chris like any other prospect. "Al didn't try to recruit me," Howie Long said.
Long's younger sons also play football. Kyle, a sophomore at St Anne's-Belfield, is a 6-6, 264-pound lineman. Howie, a ninth-grader, is a 6-foot, 170-pound quarterback.
"I think anything that my three sons do gives me far greater joy than anything I've ever accomplished," Howie Long said. "I can't tell you how proud I am of Chris, whether he becomes a great football player or not. I'm more proud of the person he has become."