On a crisp December evening in 2003, the Marist School football team trails by five points late in the fourth quarter in a playoff game.
Inside a packed stadium with bright lights and a fog rising from nearby Nancy Creek, the coaches call a time-out to discuss a couple plays. Sean McVay, the senior starting quarterback, puts forward another idea.
‘Let’s run ‘Wham Naked,’” says McVay.
It’s a risky, all-or-nothing play. The Marist War Eagles game — and season — are on the line.
“Me and the offensive coordinators shake our heads, shrug our shoulders, and then say, ‘Go for it,’” recalls Marist head football coach Alan Chadwick, standing near the school’s football field earlier this week.
What happened next turned a moment in Atlanta area high school football into the kind of story that gets repeated over and over here at Marist and beyond — especially as that quarterback who wore No. 18 is now the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, who will square off against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl this Sunday.
It’s third and goal from the 3-yard line. McVay fakes a hand-off and hides the ball against his stomach. The entire defense on top-ranked Shaw High School falls for it, and McVay runs in the other direction, cruising into the end zone untouched.
Marist wins the game, and then two more games, to win the 2003 Class AAAA state championship.
The Super Bowl is a homecoming for McVay, who graduated from Marist in 2004. He played football at the Miami University in Ohio before quickly landing assistant coaching jobs with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Washington Redskins.
At 33, he is the youngest head coach to lead his team to the NFL’s championship game. In the two years since he took the Rams’ helm, McVay has taken the league by storm, turning around a struggling franchise with a creative, high-scoring offense. As young as some of his players and charming, with a model girlfriend, he’s a media sensation.
McVay is from a storied football family. John McVay, his grandfather, helped oversee five Super Bowl wins as an executive with the San Francisco 49ers. Tim McVay, his father, played football at Indiana University and was the longtime general manager of WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News before retiring recently (WSB is owned by Cox Enterprises, which also owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
Not that Sean McVay talked much about his NFL ties growing up. Chris Ashkouti, McVay’s backup quarterback at Marist and a friend, said McVay never mentioned his family’s connection to the 49ers. McVay continued to be modest about his own meteoric rise in the NFL.
When McVay was about to be named head coach of the Rams, though, he knew it was going to be big news. A few hours before the announcement, Ashkouti got a call.
“He tells me I’ve been an inspiration in his life, that ‘I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you,’” said Ashkouti. “The guy has so much humility, how can you not root for him?”
For all the accolades and success at Marist, many who know McVay from his high school days describe him as someone with little ego, open to new ideas, eager to try new things. After winning the game against Shaw in 2003, McVay deflected lavish praise directed toward him. In interviews, he gave credit to his offensive line and blocks from his teammates.
Last week in California, McVay told reporters about his enduring bond to Atlanta and Marist, a private Catholic co-ed school in Brookhaven with about 1,100 students and a sprawling, pine-filled campus dotted with red brick buildings.
“Atlanta, specifically where I went to high school, that place has been great to me,” McVay said. “I’ve had so many influential coaches. They really pour into you. They teach you about how to be a man. How to handle things whether it be success or some adversity and that’s what’s real.”
“Some of my closest friends in life are guys that I was able to play high school football with,” McVay added.
McVay also played soccer and ran track at Marist but football, which he began playing in the 8th grade, was his real passion. Former teammates and coaches say he seemed to have a photographic memory, easily recalling minute details of football games months and years later.
While students went out on weekends for pizza to hang out, McVay often stayed home to watch game tapes with his dad, said Dan Perez, the offensive line coach at Marist. McVay would go out on Friday night, but only after victories, when he joined his teammates for a post-game meal at Waffle House. Because he never packed street clothes (he didn’t want to be presumptuous about a win), he’d wear his Marist uniform: gray slacks, white buttoned up shirt, and blue and gold letterman jacket.
“He was just one of those football nerds. He started really soaking it up. He would prepare like no other I’ve ever seen,” said Perez.
As McVay’s back-up quarterback, Ashkouti remembers watching game tapes for hours on end on a school night at Marist.
“After three hours, I would say it’s getting late, and the coaches aren’t even here,” said Ashkouti. “And then my mom would call me at 11:30 p.m. and say, ‘where the heck are you?’”
Paul Etheridge, offensive coordinator at Marist, said while McVay worked hard, he also had an innate understanding of the game.
“You know when Beethoven sat down at a piano and it just kind of made sense to him?” said Etheridge. “Some kids just get the game, they understand angles, they understand leverage, they understand defenses, they just have a good feel for it. And that was always Sean, it just made sense to him. And you could tell that at a young age.”
McVay has always been highly competitive – whether he was playing football or playing cards or Madden NFL on the Xbox or running sprints with friends. After defeats in senior year, “he was crying in the locker room and we could barely get him home. He was a wreck,” said Ashkouti.
Not surprisingly, McVay also really liked watching professional football.
“You would go to his house and all he would want to do is watch the NFL channel,” recalled Bud Crawford, a Marist teammate. “I love football but after three hours, I would have to be like, bro, can we watch ‘The Office’ or something?”
Crawford was always impressed with McVay’s modesty and his focus on his team’s success instead of personal accolades.
“It was very clear he was the best player on the football team, but you would never know it talking to Sean,” said Crawford, who was a defensive lineman. “To this day, the only way to make Sean uncomfortable is to give him a compliment.”
Many of McVay’s Marist teammates - including Ashkouti and Crawford - plan to be in Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Sunday’s kickoff. McVay’s name also echoed through the halls of Marist this week as coaches and teachers reminisced about his time at the school.
“We are so proud,” said Paige Lange, 15, who plays lacrosse at Marist. “We will all be rooting for the Los Angeles Rams.’
And those who’ve known him long before he became a coaching sensation expect him to be prepared.
Ashkouti, who played football at Georgia Southern University and now works for a family real estate business, said he and other friends visited McVay when he was with the Redskins and wanted to roam. But first there was a stop in McVay’s office — and some watching of game tapes.
“We were like kids on Christmas wanting to see the facilities and we get stuck in his office,” said Ashkouti. “And he rolls out game tape, and the hours and hours go by and we are like, bro, can we see the facilities?”
Here is a video of the Ashkouti brothers celebrating with McVay after the win against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship to secure a spot in Super Bowl.
Kelsey Russo, Parker Johnson and D. Orlando Ledbetter contributed to this article.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.