As one chapter closed, a new day was dawning.
With the sun lingering above a thick, hazy mass of Georgia sky on a recent spring morning, one native Middle Georgian discovered the Earth wasn’t the only thing receiving some much needed light.
So was his future.
Preparing for a golf outing with some of his Georgia Tech buddies the day before one of friends was to be married, former Yellow Jackets linebacker James Liipfert received an unexpected, but well-anticipated phone call.
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“This was early, early in the morning,” Liipfert said, recalling the May 15 conversation. “The person on the other line told me they had a job for me, and they asked me if I wanted the job.”
The call came from Massachusetts, and the offer was — for now — Liipfert’s dream occupation. Although it didn’t have the greatest pay, and he knew the hours would be long, Liipfert still believed the job — for him — was the perfect fit.
Offered an assistant’s position within the New England Patriots’ scouting office, the former Westfield standout player accepted with hopes that it would be just the first of many doors opened along a path toward coaching for a professional franchise.
“I grew up with folks talking about 9-to-5s. Well, 9-to-5 does not exist in Foxboro, Massachusetts. By 9 o’clock, I hope to have been at work about two-and-a-half hours,” Liipfert said earlier this month as he chuckled into his cell phone from his New England hotel room.
By the start of training camp in late July, he hopes to be living in his own apartment near the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium.
“The best thing about it is if I had a job where I was just trying to make a paycheck, 14 hours would trickle on by,” Liipfert said. “But this job is so fun, and it goes by so fast. Next thing you know, 5 o’clock gets here, and then 6 o’clock.
“Life could be a lot worse. There are certainly people who would like to switch places with me, I know.”
ENTERING THE ‘REAL WORLD’
Fresh off Georgia Tech’s midtown Atlanta campus, the past several weeks have been a whirlwind for Liipfert.
Less than two weeks before receiving his now unforgettable mid-May phone call, he received an undergraduate management degree from Tech.
Fast forward to the end of the month, when he found himself on a plane headed to Boston, just in time for the Patriots’ organized team activities (OTA) camp, and the circus of moving into post-graduate life had his head spinning.
“I was blown away,” Liipfert said. “It didn’t all hit me until I got on my flight, got to Boston, saw the stadium and was filling out a work application. That’s when it really hit me.”
It is rare for a person at 23 to land a job with the magnitude and responsibility as the one Liipfert now has. At that age, most recently graduated college football players are either making their way into the NFL as players, or with reality settling in, they’re searching for more “real world” business jobs.
Those types of professions, Liipfert said, have never been a part of his vocabulary.
“As a kid, I was like a lot of kids in saying, ‘I want to be a player, I want to be involved in sports,’ ” Liipfert said. “But I realized early, if I was going to go far in anything, it wasn’t going to be football. It was going to be table tennis or something.
“Seriously, I realized there were other routes. There was coaching, there was scouting and administration. So the closer I got to graduation from Tech, I thought about it and said, ‘Well, I’ve got two options. Do I want to get into coaching or do I want to get into administration?’ ”
The administration-side of professional football is more closely tied to the logistics, sales and marketing aspects of team operations, he said. A former walk-on at Georgia Tech who received a scholarship from head coach Paul Johnson last summer, Liipfert contends he never wanted to be around the business part of a franchise.
His goal was always about interacting intimately with the team itself.
“My really big decision-maker was, whatever I did, I wanted to be around ‘football people,’ people who understood the game,” Liipfert said. “Nothing wrong with people who make their money off sales, but they make their living off business and that kind of thing. I wanted to be around people that have been through what I’ve been through. I feel that people that played have that similar connection and a similar workhorse work ethic.”
Because of that intense love for the game, Johnson believes Liipfert will achieve his goals much sooner than later.
“James would be successful no matter what he does, and that’s because this is something he has a passion for, and I think he’ll do well,” Johnson said.
Things got serious in Liipfert’s senior season at Tech.
With time running out on his career, the backup linebacker and special teams player had to do something to start making his football dream become a reality. And just how would he do that? He turned to the NFL combine.
Each year, several weeks before the NFL draft, college football players from across the country go to the NFL combine in Indianapolis to train in front of professional scouts for spots on NFL rosters. Liipfert wasn’t there to do any on-field training, but he was there to receive as much behind-the-scenes scouting training as he could get.
“I was fortunate to have the (Indianapolis) Colts have me up to work for them for about a week. I kind of call it an internship,” Liipfert said. “They were nice enough that while I was up there with them, they told me to try to network with people and get to know as many people as possible just in case they weren’t going to hire or anything. So I took advantage of that, got to know a couple of coaches from the Patriots. I sent a resume up and ended up sending it straight up to the scouting department.”
In all, Liipfert said he sent resumes to 16 teams, but he got the biggest bite from the Patriots. There were members of the Atlanta Falcons and the Colts’ scouting departments, however, who helped give him pointers along the way.
But the biggest assistance he received during his job search may have come from a member of his former coaching staff.
Charles Kelly, the Yellow Jackets’ cornerbacks coach made a phone call to the Patriots, Liipfert said, that put his early career in full motion.
“He knew someone from within the department, and that person ended up calling me, and I ended up doing a phone interview,” Liipfert said. “Then I flew up the next day to do an actual interview. Two weeks after I did my real interview, I was hired.
“I got lucky. I know there’s a lot of people trying to get in the game, and I ended up with what I think is the best team in the league. And for me to be 23, it’s an opportunity that’s unbelievable, and I’m very blessed to have it.”
Luck had nothing to do with it, Johnson said.
“I don’t know how much help I was, or my staff, because James is an outstanding young man, and that’s something he wanted to do,” Johnson said, “We just tried to put the word out that he was looking to do that, and James just did the rest on his own.”
TIME FOR WORK
Although Liipfert’s playing time at Georgia Tech was mostly limited to kickoff coverages and blowout games, he spent plenty of time playing alongside some of the team’s brightest stars.
Two of the most recognized names from recent Yellow Jackets history — Gary Guyton and Darryl Richard — join Liipfert in New England this fall, as the pair competes for playing time on the field.
A hard-hitting linebacker from southeast Georgia, Guyton joined the Patriots before last season and saw limited action. It was his first year in the NFL after leaving Georgia Tech the year before.
Richard, a 290-pound All-ACC defensive tackle, was drafted by New England in the seventh round of this April’s draft. One of the most vocal players in Georgia Tech’s locker room last season, Richard was among the team’s top leaders.
“Those are two outstanding ballplayers, outstanding class acts,” Liipfert said. “Those two guys are at the top of the list of guys I played with at Tech who I absolutely enjoyed.”
Regardless how jovial Liipfert’s relationship with Guyton and Richard at Georgia Tech, it will have to change mildly now that they are all in New England.
“On the flip side, they’re players, and I’m in scouting,” Liipfert said. “The organization, it doesn’t frown on it, but they don’t encourage me hanging out with the players because it could lead to trouble. What goes on in the locker room vs. what goes on in administration are two different things.
“As far as me, Darryl and Gary hanging out six nights a week, that probably won’t happen, but we still will be really good friends, and we still will be together from time to time. But I have to respect the rules of the people who hired me.”
Liipfert has learned early on that the career path he is heading down is part of a business and that professionalism can sometimes trump friendships.
That kind of aggressive attitude, in part, has helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls in the past eight seasons. At the end of the day, Liipfert knows that is what he was hired to help them do: win.
“I haven’t thought about being on a team that’s a Super Bowl favorite or whatever, but I do know with this job and working all the hours, it is a grind,” Liipfert said. “So I could imagine that it could be a tad easier than being with most other teams. I would find this job a little harder to do if you’re with a team that’s going 1-15 or 3-13 or something like that.
“On one hand, the job is automatically a lot of fun, but it’s another thing when you’re winning. If we’re winning, I’ll work 25 hours a day. I’m sure everyone on the team is willing to do that. It’s definitely comforting to be on a team that knows how to get there, knows how to win one.”