When cornerback Corey Fuller retired from the NFL after the 2004 season, he admitted he sat on the couch for months with no idea what to do next.
During his 10 years in the league, including 1999-2002 with the Browns, Fuller was always known as a leader. He was active in charity work. He earned a degree in child development and criminology from Florida State. He never hid the fact he was raised in the projects of Tallahassee, Fla., by a single mother.
Still, it took him a while to realize his calling, to understand that his next mission was to change young men’s lives.
“I’d been associated with football for so many years, then turning around and doing nothing every day ... I was aimless, depressed, sitting around the house for two years,” Fuller said. “Then I got up and went to work.”
Fuller volunteered as a coach at his alma mater, Rickards High School, at first unsure whether he was willing to put in the “crazy hours” required. After three seasons as an assistant there and at West Gadsden High School, he took over as coach at East Gadsden, a moribund program that had never been to the playoffs and went winless in 2004. In three years under Fuller, East Gadsden compiled a 23-11 record, including a 10-3 season in 2011 that included a region championship.
“I had to bring some toughness, discipline and structure to the program. They always had players there,” Fuller said of East Gadsden. “It wasn’t very hard with my background in football, where I came from, my name in this area. It was tough convincing myself. I was used to being a player and controlling my own destiny, now I’ve got kids, turning them into grown men was the challenge. It was a great challenge.”
This year Fuller’s journey led him to Florida A&M University, coached by former Browns linebacker and Fuller’s childhood friend Earl Holmes. Fuller, 42, will handle defensive backs today as the Rattlers visit Ohio State for a noon game at Ohio Stadium.
It will not surprise those who knew the outspoken Fuller that he is making no concessions to the fourth-ranked Buckeyes.
During a telephone interview Wednesday, Fuller said he was telling his players, “Hey, you can shock the whole world.”
“We’re going to be ready. We’re coming to fight. We’re not going to lay down on them,” he said.
Holmes, 40, and Fuller grew up together, with Holmes promising if he ever became a coach he would bring Fuller in. Also on the Rattlers’ staff are Holmes’ former Steelers teammates Levon Kirkland (defensive coordinator) and Ernie Mills (wide receivers).
But Fuller said Holmes wanted experienced assistants.
“Everybody who plays can’t coach,” Fuller said. “He said, ‘I didn’t hire very many of my friends.’ All of us were coaching, though. He didn’t give anybody a job off the sofa.”
Former Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews has been one of Fuller’s mentors for years. At FSU, Andrews said Fuller always wanted to know not just the “whats” of football, but also the “whys.” Andrews said Fuller called him during his time at East Gadsden when he had questions about how to handle a situation. They talked more when the FAMU job came up about whether Fuller could reach older players. Andrews said being a college coach is Fuller’s goal.
But the people part, the part of Fuller that led Florida A&M’s website to describe him as “one of the most compassionate coaches in the state,” does not surprise Andrews.
“Even when he was in college he was always trying to reach out to the kids from the area of town he was from,” Andrews said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Tallahassee. “He has a lot of leadership qualities.
“He was not only compassionate, he was passionate as well. It was important to him. He worked at it. I think that’s part of his makeup, reaching out and trying to mentor. What our country needs are people who will make a difference in young people’s lives. Corey has that desire.”
University of Akron cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley played two years with Fuller at Florida State in 1990-91. Buckley isn’t surprised by the direction Fuller’s life has taken.
“He’s always cared about guys with what he’s done in the community,” Buckley said after practice Thursday. “The things he did in high school as far as trying to help the young men get to the college level and help them become better men. … If that’s your goal in life more than just playing athletics — college, better life, better husband, better son, better friend — coaching is just a natural flow.”
Buckley said Fuller’s NFL experience is also an asset.
“It’s people who haven’t played who say [being a former player] doesn’t matter. It matters because I tell the corners, ‘I know how you feel,’ ” Buckley said.
Although Fuller finished his pro career with the Baltimore Ravens in 2003-04, he still remembers his anger after being cut by Browns coach Butch Davis in February 2003 as part of a $25 million salary-cap purge. Coming off a 9-7 season when the Browns made the playoffs, their lone appearance in 14 expansion seasons, Davis let six players go, five of them starters, including Holmes.
“I thought it was very unjust, I had just taken a [$2] million pay cut,” Fuller said. “And it wasn’t like I was playing bad, I was still playing at a high level. But you know what, what goes around comes around. He [Davis] is going through it right now. Can’t find a job …
“To be honest, I don’t think the organization has recovered from that. That set the organization back. You cut all your players who were part of the playoffs.”
Among those Fuller still keeps in touch with are former Browns assistant Todd Bowles, now the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals, and defensive back Earl Little, now defensive coordinator at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla.
Since he volunteered at his alma mater, Fuller knows he’s had help. He is no longer in charge, but he’s thankful for the opportunity to take the next step in coaching.
“You don’t want to just sit around and waste your life when you have so much to offer the world,” Fuller said. “There were a lot of lives changed in the arena of football, from the players’ side to the coaching side. A lot of things that change lives forever, so I embraced it.”
Beacon Journal sports writer George Thomas contributed to this report. Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.