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Meet the NFL head coach who preaches the importance of love


By Poppy Harlow and Callum Sutherland, CNN

(CNN) — While the NFL playoffs near their finale with this weekend’s conference championship games, one person who won’t be involved is Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell.

O’Connell’s Vikings missed out on the postseason this time round, but that has left him plenty of time to enjoy other aspects of life which are often lost in the hectic world of the National Football League.

The 38-year-old – one of the youngest head coaches in the NFL – has had the opportunity to focus on how to make the most of time with his kids, his approaches to coaching and what got him there in the first place.

CNN’s Poppy Harlow sat down with O’Connell to discuss the importance of love, both within the dressing room and at home with family.

On life as a quarterback alongside greats

Poppy Harlow: You were drafted by the [New England] Patriots in 2008. You are playing on a team with Tom Brady. What’s that like for you?

Kevin O’Connell: There’s nobody better in the league playing the position, and now, I’m in the room with him as a pretty raw quarterback prospect. You want to try to impress him… try to look like you belong. But that was the best part is he never made me feel like that.

He sure was a part of me learning and creating my beliefs… In my case, some of the greatest football minds, whether it’s Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Sean McVay, the list goes on, have impacted me.

PH: Did you struggle with adversity, as a quarterback?

KO: I experienced a lot of it, you know, through college – never quit being able to get my team to be that successful team… And then the adversity of being cut, being traded, being told that you’re not good enough. The beauty of it, it normally coincided with a compliment of, “We think you’re going to be a heck of a coach.” But when you’re trying to be a player, that’s not always the greatest thing to hear.

Leading with love as a coach

PH: You lead not through fear or intimidation, but through relationships. You don’t yell at them, not very much. Why are you so nice?

KO: When you build things the right way and people trust you, they know you’re going to be the same guy every day. They know you’re going to hold them accountable… and it might be one of our captains pulling a younger player aside. The players are carving their own identity and imprint into the team.

PH: You’re building them as leaders?

KO: I think that’s the best way to empower this whole organization, to build leaders upon leaders and empower them.

PH: Is it right to say that this is a team you’re trying to lead with love and empathy?

KO: It’s more than right. It’s what I view as the standard and first things first is you have to have a world where you’ve got to be willing to be vulnerable enough to say the word ‘love,’ to say, “We do this because we love our brothers,” and when you use that term, I think it takes these guys to a place where they think about brotherhood and teammates and what that means to them, almost as a family member.

PH: What’s it like to talk to a room of NFL players about being vulnerable?

KO: They probably look at me crazy sometimes, but I think you earn the moments to speak like that to them. You’ve got to be a resource of just love and support for them, or tough love sometimes. These guys will respect you if they think that they’re getting the real you, if you’re authentically being yourself. And I think that the word trust comes up a lot.

‘That’s what matters. It’s their time with dad’

PH: Your dad was an FBI agent for more than two decades. What was that like and what did it teach you?

KO: He wasn’t home a whole lot at certain times, and then all of a sudden, he’d be home a lot. I learned to really squeeze every moment I could out of him when he was around.

I know now, doing what I do, you have a choice to make. There’s enough hours in the day, there just might not be enough to sleep sometimes, but there is enough to be there for everyone.

PH: I think especially dads often don’t feel like they can say “no” to some stuff to prioritize kids even though they want to prioritize family. I wonder what you say to them?

KO: That’s a great question and it’s one that I’m still working on as much as possible. But my number one most important thing is my family at home.

The number one thing that I would say is there will always be time down the road to make up for your personal time lost. But there’s not going to be time to make up for their time with you.

There’s times where I’m tired, I’m exhausted, and all I want to do is just sit down and not think about football… But then it’s time to go play football in the basement and that’s their Super Bowl. That’s what matters, it’s their time with dad. The moment I ever get to where I don’t have the energy and the focus to give them everything that they need, I won’t do this job anymore.

For the full interview, watch the Coaching Life with Poppy Harlow segment with Kevin O’Connell.

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