If you have some time today, I encourage you to check out some of my long talk with East Forsyth High Coach Todd Willert, who coached Maryland quarterback Danny O’Brien throughout high school and who remains very close to O’Brien and his family. I recently took a trip down to Kernersville, N.C., where O’Brien lived from sixth grade through 12th grade, to visit with O’Brien’s family and also Coach Willert for a feature on O’Brien. I want to thank Coach Willert for carving out time to spend with me and for showing me around the high school where O’Brien would spend hours and hours watching game tape. O’Brien’s the face of Maryland’s football program, and this should provide more insight into his character, work ethic and personality, while also showing how he dealt with being overlooked in recruiting, seeing his offensive coordinator leave after last season and having his high school coach be harder on him than any other player in his 19 years of coaching.
Q: What are your early memories of first meeting Danny and seeing him play?
It was toward the end of his eighth-grade year, and everybody is telling me about this kid who can change the program. We had heard of him. He lived in our school district. We have choice transfer here in our county. You put paperwork in and you can kind of go to whatever school you want to. We had just come off a tough season. I had a bunch of people come up to me. We don’t have middle school football here. We have Pop Warner football. I have my thoughts on Pop Warner football, good and bad, you know. You hear this kid is a Pop Warner superstar. I’m like, well, you hear that stuff, see that stuff all the time. Then I come to find out he is from Minnesota. I am from Wisconsin. Kind of a connection right away. Then I find out he’s from St. Paul, Minn., which is about 40 minutes from me. My dad at the time was general manager of a pizza place, great pizza place off Seventh and Lafayette. His parents come in and want to break the ice. ‘You’re from Minnesota. Ever been to Seventh and Lafayette.’ They said yeah. That was the icebreaker and it was unbelievable. Right there. Danny was actually a very talented basketball player and that was what everybody thought that was the pursuit he was going to take. Football was a secondary thing for him. Somehow he fell in love with football. We had that connection there. There were some rumors that he might go to another high school to play basketball. To this day, I still tell the owner of that pizza place that that was the clinching moment, to make a connection with somebody like that.
We got him in here and it just was not what you’d think. A lot of Pop Warner kids come in here and they have an attitude. Danny was just humble: ‘yes sir, no sir.’ Tall, lanky kid. But the first time you saw him throw a football, you knew what he had. A lot of kids these days can’t throw a football. They don’t go in the back yard. They are throwing a football on the TV screen, playing Xbox or whatever it is now. He just had all the skills. His mom and dad are divorced, but I have gotten to know both parents. I think that’s where it really starts. You can always tell a good kid if they have that good background right away. He has a lot of good people surrounding him. His parents do a wonderful job. Everyone kind of sees him as a rock star, but when he comes around here he still has to listen to mom and dad and all that. It’s a good groundwork. He has always been supportive of our program. We had a special relationship, we always used to go at it on the sidelines. I was hard on him. We were really expecting him to do good. He fell short his junior year.
He started quarterbacking for us his sophomore year. We switched the senior quarterback out, those two actually did it. The quarterback, Kenny Swab, played baseball for Virginia, and Kenny and Danny came to me one day. Danny was playing wide receiver for us. They said, ‘Hey, I think we need to switch.’ I said, ‘If this is what you two think is best for the team we will do it.’ It all started right there. It was kind of Kenny’s idea. For a senior quarterback to kind of give those reins to Danny, it helped us out. It was a unique thing. A lot of people may say, ‘Oh, Coach Willert did a great job.’ It had nothing to do with me his sophomore year. Danny and Kenny decided to switch positions. I wasn’t really thinking about making it. Danny was playing wide receiver and quarterbacking on JV nights. Kenny had worked really hard to be that quarterback and was the senior. Kenny wanted to switch and wasn’t a selfish guy at all. When Danny was a sophomore, maybe Kenny could feel the leadership that Danny has or that persona that Danny sets off. And people respect him. His teammates have always respected him. He is not a rah-rah guy, but kind of ‘watch what I do and follow me.’ They just came to me third or fourth game of the season. That was kind of the beginning of it.
Q: How did you two usually go at it on the sideline?
Danny was a smart guy now playing quarterback. At that time, I was still calling plays. He would see a lot of things. When he changed a play and it worked, it was great. But when he changed it and it didn’t work, I would be all over him. Not in a disrespectful way. There was just a bond between us. I would say what I had to. I was pretty hard on him. And he would take it and give me the gestures or look at me. But he never gave up. There’d be times on the sideline when we would be talking loud to each other. The key thing is that his parents always supported what we were doing and what I was doing. His parents and Danny were always close to me, anyway. A lot of parents, with how hard I was on Danny, probably would have pulled him away. They were very supportive. And a lot of kids could not handle the pressure I put on him.
Q: Mental pressure?
The mental pressure. A lot of kids have dreams of being Division I athletes. A lot of kids could make it there physically. It’s the mental part that breaks a lot of kids now. Danny has some type of special gift up top. I don’t know. His mind works great somehow. The inner confidence he has in himself. He is one of those guys who says, ‘I want the ball at the end. I always want the ball.’ One of the biggest tells going into his senior year was when we had a real good running back who had hurt his ankle. I think it was the third game of the season, we’re playing RJ Reynolds. We had just got done with the JV game. I am stressing out because we don’t have a running game at all. Danny is not a big running quarterback, obviously. He wants to throw the ball. We knew they were going to game-plan for his passing. At about 11 o’clock, I’m sitting there stressing out, trying to think of what to do. All of the sudden my phone goes off and I get a text message from Danny. He goes: ‘Coach, just give me the ball. I will take care of it.’ He rushed for over 100 yards that game. Whatever it takes, he will do. He actually threw for more yards his junior year than his senior year. He rushed for almost 800 yards his senior year. But he just bought into the system. We switched a little bit, wasn’t mad we weren’t throwing as much. We went 12-2 that season with him, lost to the guys who won state.
Q. Regarding the changes in the coaching staff at Maryland
Danny is going to do whatever it takes. He adapts really well into any system. He is a natural leader in that form.
Q: How early in his freshman year, did you realize he was a little different?
If you coach, you can go out and watch a kid for 10 minutes and watch him interact with other kids, or watch him throw a football, or block or tackle and you can just tell the way he handled himself on the football field. The confidence he had, almost an at peace when he is on the football field. When you see someone who is at peace on the football field, you know they are confident in what they are going to do. He was not intimidated by the older guys when he was a freshman. We had him out there with the older guys. He was wearing 86. We have pictures. Big curly hair. Just had an air about him. Just wanted to play, loved to play. He loves to play any sports. That’s what he does.
Q: When did basketball start to recede into the background, and football became the emphasis?
I think sophomore year when he started becoming the starting quarterback. We’re in the biggest division in North Carolina. It takes a lot of time to do it. We had a lot of talks with his parents. A 6-3, probably at the time a 175-pound kid, they had goals, he had goals, wanting to play Division I sports. You sit there and say, if you go basketball, most schools may give about three scholarships a year and he is 6-3, a shooting guard/small forward guy. I said in football now, a drop-back quarterback, 6-3, you probably put on weight, there’s a lot of roster spots for you. He kind of took that under his wing. We were successful his junior year and he was a gym rat. If he wasn’t lifting weights, he’d be shooting baskets. If he wasn’t shooting baskets, he was throwing the football. He was always doing something. After that sophomore year, seeing how he was already a leader. A lot of kids can’t see much further than the next day ahead of them. Danny can see three, four, five years down the road. He already has plans about where he wants to be in life.
Q: How long did it take in the recruiting process for colleges to finally catch on and see what he can do?
It was the craziest thing. Danny’s class was the first class we really had some Division I athletes come through here. I’m not sure which coach it was, if it was the Clemson coach. I was having a hard time getting people to believe because Danny has those intangibles that you can’t put on a tape to show college recruiters. I’m like, ‘This kid is great. He watches film. He understands the game.’ I am trying to tell this one guy, it might have been a Clemson coach at the time. He goes, ‘He plays basketball, right?’ A lot of people were afraid of how athletic Danny was. I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you what, on his highlight film, I want to see him dunking a basketball.’ I said, ‘Easy enough.’ So me, Danny and one of my assistants, Doug, went in there and we’re throwing alley-oops. I’m filming. Bouncing it off the ground and Danny is dunking every which way. The next thing I know, my phone starts ringing. It was the craziest thing. Then the key was just getting guys on the campus. Duke came down here. East Carolina came down here. The guys who sat down and talked to Danny saw the intangibles and saw what kind of kid he was. Every coach who talked to Danny or met with Danny during the recruiting process, a lot of those guys when they left said, ‘Okay Coach, we’ll get back to you.’ I remember Coach [James] Franklin saying, ‘Well Coach, I’ve got to see three or four more quarterbacks, we’ll get back to you.’ I don’t think he even got a half-hour down the road and he called me and goes, ‘We want Danny.’ That’s the way it was during the recruiting process. When these guys met Danny face-to-face, he is just a special kid. To think, at 17 he had that about him. A lot of kids want to take four or five official visits, they want to get wined and dined. We were heading up to a visit at Maryland and Virginia was trying to get us to stop by. We were sitting in the hotel room and we looked it up. They had four or five quarterback already. I just remember Danny saying, ‘I’m going to be loyal to the people who came and saw me.’ He didn’t want to go on 100 visits and visit all these campuses. The people who showed interest in him, I think it made him be a better player because he does have a chip on his shoulder. Being overlooked, people not believing what kind of quarterback he was just because he did run a 4.6 40 and all that stuff. The recruiting process for him was kind of crazy. And he kind of has a chip on his shoulder for Wake Forest because Wake Forest came in early on him and what kid would not want to play for his hometown. And they kind of snubbed him when it came down to it. Carolina went with Bryn Renner. [N.C.] State was not interested at all in him. It has made him a better person and I think fuels him inside. He is five hours away so you can’t just come home when times are tough. To get away and make a new identity up there really helped him.
Q: Did you try to pitch him to Wake Forest after they had come in early?
They had Riley Skinner. Their offense was a little different. It’s more of a read. They wanted an athletic quarterback who could run the ball a little bit more. Danny did not fit into that pro-style type offense at the time. The guy recruiting him, who is now the offensive coordinator at Charlotte, he ended up going up to West Virginia. They brought in a different quarterbacks coach and this guy liked other kids. The recruiting coordinator at Wake Forest, McCarthy, we are pretty good friends. He really wanted him, but he is the defensive line coach. Now Wake wishes, maybe, but every college team in America has missed out on guys they should have had. But Wake Forest coaches want Danny to do good every game but one, when they play them. They are still very supportive and call me. And that’s the kind of kid Danny is. Danny Pearman recruited Danny a lot. He is now at Clemson. Every time I see him, he asks about Danny. He is really one of the guys who found Danny back in the day. All those guys root for Danny on Saturdays, just because he is a great kid. The Duke guys always ask me how Danny is doing, what a great kid he is.
Q: What happened with Notre Dame?
There was a little interest. At the time, he was 12th, 15th on their board. They were getting that kid out of California. We went up there and visited. That’s where his dad went to school. That was one of the best recruiting trips he ever went on, I’ll tell you that. They didn’t show a lot of interest. He was down on that board. They take one, maybe two, maybe, a year. And they had guys in front of him. Danny and I have talked, all those times you thought you were getting snubbed, you realize that sometimes things work out most of the time for the better. You could not write anything any better right now for his life or his career in football . All those hard times not getting recruiting, not getting the pub, at the time and now seeing where he is at. Perseverance and staying focused and great things can happen.
Q: So the main mark against him was a perceived lack of athleticism?
That would be a lot of what I would hear from coaches. Just not athletic enough, Coach. His senior year, I tried to show people that he could run and was athletic. Plus, he put on about 20 pounds from his junior year. That was the biggest knock.
Q: How apparent early on was the bond that he had with James Franklin?
It was. You could just see the bond. I don’t want to say that me and Coach Franklin are alike, but he can get pretty fired up, too. I’m pretty fired up on the sideline. Coach Franklin saw that leadership in him. Coach Franklin wants to watch film all the time, too. He would ask Danny questions. You could see that bond right away. And he loved the Maryland area. That as another big key. You can always come back to Carolina. But you may not ever have an opportunity to live in the capitol of the United States. Why not go there? You can always come back after you graduate. It has turned out great. I know he loves the area. And he wants to get into the business world. What a great place to be at for that.
Q: When Franklin and Ralph Friedgen left, that was hard on Danny. . .
It was hard. It would be hard on anybody. Right now, if my AD left or my principal left, it would be hard and I am a grown man. When you have people that you work for, and I am not saying Danny worked for them but they were his coaches, and you are five and a half hours away from your family and you are in D.C. and just had a great year, for a kid that age, he’s probably thinking, ‘Wow, why would they do this?’ I think Coach Friedgen and Franklin were both great in the fact they said, ‘Okay Danny, this is life, you move on, you do what you’ve got to do.’ There’s some hard feelings. But those two coaches want what’s best for Danny too. And to stay that course. Life is about changes. I think this new coaching staff that has come in, I have not gotten a chance to talk with Coach Edsall yet personally, but Coach Lee Hull still talks a lot to me and Ryan Steinberg, I talk to those guys quite a bit still and they take great care of Danny. Everything I see about the program up there, I think Coach Edsall has done a great job. People are scared of change. I think Coach Edsall has come in and done it the right way. And he comes in a tough spot when they were successful. I couldn’t imagine that. I know Danny really respects Coach. He has transitioned great. It was tough for a couple weeks. But he is right back focused.
Q: Any advice you shared with him at that time?
I remember we were at his mom’s house, his mom and stepdad, Steve. We were upstairs. At the time, he was probably 19. It was tough. But you sit there and say: ‘It’s just like recruiting, man. Nobody wanted to recruit you. There’s a change here. But you’ve got to be a leader here. You’re the quarterback. This is where you’ve got to be a leader and bring them all together while they go through the process of finding someone. Let’s go to the Military Bowl and go win.’ It was tough for a while, but he has obviously adapted pretty well.
Q: Do you have any specific memories of going at it on the sideline with Danny?
We lost one game to Grimsley. Our game got rained out on a Friday night. We had to play Monday. Danny plays horrible. I think he threw three interceptions, one was a pick-six. I am irate. They stayed out Sunday night, sluggish. He still claims he was sick, he had the flu. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter anymore. (laughs) We’re going at it. I am getting on him pretty hard. They were the best team in our conference and we really thought we could get them. I am getting on him hard. Luckily his parents are so close to me because most parents might have come and jerked me up. To this day, we laugh about it. He still says it was because he was sick and not because he stayed out late and didn’t get enough sleep. I came back to my office the next day and I had about 10 emails blasting me, saying ‘You have a great quarterback. You are too hard on him.’ I had a couple cards, notes hand-written saying lighten up on Danny. He’s a fan favorite up at Maryland. He was a fan favorite down here too. We had some other ones. We were beating our cross-town rival. They had put it on us his sophomore year. His senior year we are beating them 40-something to nothing. We were going to take him out at the end of the third quarter. He had thrown for 200 yards and three touchdowns already. I remember him changing the play so he could throw one more touchdown, not for him but to one of the senior wide receivers who didn’t get many touches. I remember him calling an audible on the play. We were going to do a run play. And he runs a quick slant audible. One of my other offensive coaches said, ‘Coach, don’t go crazy on him.’ You could see Danny come running off with that little smirk, that smile that he’s got. He kind of went around me. I just sat there and smiled after the game.
Q: When he didn’t play well against Grimsley, who wrote to you, local fans?
Fans that watched me on the sideline. There were a couple times I was in his face and he just took it. When you look back at it as a coach, you can see something special in a kid like that. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone back to Danny and apologized to him. And he always says, ‘Coach, if you weren’t hard on me then, I wouldn’t be like I am today.’ I don’t know if I really believe that because I think he would be where he is today even without me being like that. But every time I apologize he says there is no need. That makes me feel better as a coach. And obviously we’ve become friends. On Fourth of July this year, I told him, ‘I still feel awful.’ He said, ‘No need to apologize, Coach. You helped me get to where I am today.’ There were three or four kids I was really hard on that year. When you see kids who really want that Division I goal, obviously you push them a little more. Looking back, I was lucky they all had great parents who supported the program. I have been a head coach nine years and have been doing this 19 years. I had never had a kid like Danny O’Brien, a special kid as a quarterback. Danny was just like a coach. There were times when we called bad plays and Danny made us look really good. He tries to make the best thing out of the worst situation. Times throughout his career, the coaching change, after the initial shock, that’s what he tried to do.
Q; In 19 years as a head coach and assistant, were you harder on Danny than most players? Than any other player?
Than any player. The reason why is because I knew he respected me. I know he knew I respected him. And he knew that was my coaching style and how I was. With those notes, I wrote back, ‘It’s easy to judge somebody on a Friday night or a Monday night after the game. But until you spend the other 18, 19 hours with us outside of football and see what we really got through together, watching film, doing other things, don’t judge our relationship on three hours of a heated rivalry.’ Because both of us just want to win. We’re passionate about what we do. If you asked other players or coaches who Coach Willert was most hard on, they’d probably say Danny. I remember specifically one email. I don’t remember the lady’s name. I told her that she would never understand the respect and love Danny and I have for each other. And I went into the recruiting trips that we had been on. Honestly, she said, ‘You’re right. I don’t know that. I respect that.’ But she still said, ‘I still think you should be nicer to the young man.’ (laughs) I’m still pretty fired up on the sideline, but not as much as I was with Danny. The one person who matters most is Danny and he has forgiven me or thinks it was a great thing and that his parents respect me. As long as the O’Briens and the Wrights understand, that’s what matters.
Q: Outside of his family, he said you are the main person in his inner circle. . .
It’s a weird thing. It’s a weird bond. Honestly, I don’t know exactly why it is that way. You think of all the guys and why something happened with Danny. I think it was two guys who really wanted to win. We were kind of at a crossroads. Here at East we were kind of a doormat. Everybody wanted to beat us. Danny hates losing. I hated losing. Together, we thought we could change a whole school and an environment. Danny kind of has. It has changed the outlook of this program. Now people worry about us. He is a hungry, driven guy. I think he will do the same up there for Maryland. Whether he goes to the pros or into the business world, he’ll do the same thing. He’s got a plan if he makes it to the pros. He’s got a plan if he does not make it to the pros. He has got it all laid out.
Q: And you challenged him more mentally than physically?
It was a mental thing all the time. Watching film. Well, he may have challenged me more watching film. (laughs) As a coach, you’ve got your playbook and this is how I want to do things. Danny actually kind of opened up our offense. When I first got here, we were straight, being from Wisconsin, I-formation guy, we’re going to run the ball, run it, run it, run it. Danny opened that playbook. A lot of stuff we do now because of Danny. I don’t want to give it out now. But we have some plays that Danny has put in that we have used this year already. In the scrimmage, we used a couple pass plays that Danny drew up for me and helped me with the playbook now.
Q: He still does?
He comes down here and helps. My coaches love it when he comes down here. I will be in my office. When Danny is here, it doesn’t even matter any more than I am the head coach. You’ll see all my offensive guys around Danny. And he’s telling them, ‘This is what you need to do here. This corner here. This safety is here.’ He will sit there and talk to my coaches. We have a couple real good plays from Danny. Probably three of our main pass plays are from Danny, that he has drawn up for us. Every time he is in town he is here. If he is not at his mom’s house or not at his dad’s house, he’ll be here. He works with our quarterbacks and receivers. When he invited me to the ACC award, I said, ‘Danny, I need some help.’ He said here it is. He helped me break down film on West Forsyth, the team we just played Friday, as a matter of fact. We took old tapes from the season before and we sat down and he said, ‘This is the coverage, this is what you need to do.’ That was probably in February and March. He loves the challenge. I don’t know if he plays chess, but I betcha he’d be a hell of a chess player because he can think ahead of everybody. I remember the North Forsyth coach came in during the spring and wanted to sit down and talk to Danny. That’s how respected he is. The head coach came in and Danny sat down and talked with him. He’s just got that much knowledge. It’s unbelievable that a kid that young can have that much knowledge, it really is. It is a humbling experience being a football coach to think that I worked my whole career to try to understand something when you have a kid coming in and saying, ‘Coach, you’ve got to do this.’ I have been doing this for almost 20 years and he sees all this stuff. I don’t say much to him anymore. The one thing he has got to stop doing is throwing late on the out routes, that’s the one piece of advice I give him. Besides that, he’s teaching me everything.
Q: So the North head coach comes to speak with Danny for his own benefit, not for Danny’s benefit?
For him, he wants to get some ideas from Danny. Coach Pete Gilchrist. I told him when Danny would be in town. Danny will sit here, even now, and his mom will call me and say, ‘Can you get him to leave, please. It’s time for him to come home and see the family.’ We’ll be here and I’ll finally say to Danny, ‘Okay, Danny, lock it up, I’m leaving.’ Danny works really hard with Ian Thompson, who is now a tight end at Louisiana-Lafayette. They will sit here and talk football. I say I’ve got to get home, ‘lock up, boys.’ They will be the last ones here.
Q; When he was in 10th, 11th, 12th grade, did he try to challenge you with film even then?
Oh yeah, he would say, ‘Coach, I think we could run this play here, because the corner will be off and the safety will be here.’ By his junior and senior year, Danny called a lot of the offense, just because you believed in what he could do and he could see it better on the field than I could from the sideline. When we watched film, I would watch it with him. But the other impressive thing is that he would watch it by himself and he’d have the other kids watch it. Sometimes as a coach, you have your players in there and it’s the same old routine, coach is telling them this and that. But when you have one of your peers in there saying, ‘If you do this, I will throw you the football.’ That’s a little more meaningful, knowing from the quarterback that if you run the route right you’ll get it. He would always have ideas. Danny would come back on a Monday morning and have a game-plan written up from watching film on his own. ‘Coach, I think we can do this.’ I remember our last game against the team that won the state his senior year, he is on offense and playing pretty well. He came up to me and said, ‘Coach, if we run this on defense we can stop their offense.’ He was even seeing it from the other side. He just sees the game. He would see things on tape all the time that I didn’t see. He would see it all. As a kid, he knows what he can do and what he can’t do. As a coach, you’re thinking that every quarterback should be able to make this throw in my offense. Danny knew what he could do, what he couldn’t do. To this day, we don’t run many out routes because a lot of high school kids can’t make that throw. We gave Danny, he put it in, he’d run 05 or 03, which means we’re going to run one guy deep and send a guy out. We have not had that back in our playbook since Danny was here because that was something that he said he could do and he was very successful with it.
Q: Teenage years can be an up and down, unpredictable time. But he just seems so poised and steady. Did he ever show some of those ups and downs?
No, he is just a unique human being. He really is. He got along with everybody, whether you are on the football team or in science or math club. He relates to everybody. He doesn’t judge people or put people in categories or cliques. He wasn’t really like that. He had his group of friends. A lot of guys he hung out with weren’t really sports guys. Music guys. His inner group of friends. If you saw the guys he hung around with, wow, that just doesn’t seem, but Danny just got along with everybody. Danny will sit and talk to everybody. Hopefully he will stay that way. He was never late. You never had to worry about him being in trouble at school. All the accolades he got, he never put it in anybody’s face. He was grateful. His senior year, I remember one day he was parked in a no-parking zone and actually got his car towed from East Forsyth. Yeah, you’re the quarterback and a star here, but you still have to follow rules. He was fine with it. The teachers respected him. He is a different person. You didn’t look at him as a kid. When you sat here and talked to him as a junior in high school, even a sophomore, you’d think you’d be talking like me and you are, two grown-ups talking. Just mature way beyond his age.
Q: Ever remember him down about anything?
When we lost a game, he would get down after a game. But he is just a focused kid. I don’t know how to say this, but a lot of kids are excited about girls in high school. Danny was focused. He had girlfriends and this and that. But he had his priorities a certain way, and one of them was to become a Division I athlete. He knew he needed to have great grades and needed to focus on sports, whether it was basketball or football. And that’s what he did. Yeah, maybe Danny wasn’t as athletic as some of these quarterbacks, but I challenge any to be as focused as Danny was. It think that’s what separated him in high school and why people respect him.