Mel Kaufman lived second dream as Cal Poly assistant before sudden death

jscroggin@thetribunenews.comApril 24, 2009 

It didn't take long for Mel Kaufman and LeCharls McDaniel to have their jaw-dropping NFL moment.

The two former Cal Poly football players were in Washington, D. C., fresh off a flight from San Luis Obispo on the recommendation of Washington Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard.

It was 1981, and the two rookie free agents were trying to make a Redskins squad helmed by first-year coach Joe Gibbs, who was more than ready to wipe away the remnants of the old regime through the draft and free-agent signings.

Still, Kaufman -- 6 feet, 2 inches and stick thin by linebacking standards--and McDaniel, a 5-9, 183-pound defensive back, were longshots to make the team, especially coming from a little-known NCAA Division II school isolated by the hills of the California Coast.

They saw just how high the odds were stacked against them during their first breakfast in the hotel dining room. There they met Dexter Manley, a fifth-round draft pick from Oklahoma State.

A 6-foot-3, 253-pound linebacker in college for the Cowboys from Stillwater, Okla., Manley dwarfed Kaufman, who'd stuffed his face with protein shakes and peanut butter for weeks before the start of training camp just to get up to an overblown 215 pounds.

"We have breakfast with big Dexter Manley sitting up there telling us he's a linebacker, " McDaniel said, "and we both look at each other like, 'Good God, if that's a linebacker, what's a lineman?' "

The invite of the undersized players from the 1980 Division II national champs looked like a textbook case of nepotism-- Beathard, a former Mustangs quarterback of the late 1950s, bringing in some of his boys from Cal Poly.

But that notion was dashed well before an interception by Kaufman crushed the hope of the rival Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game the following season and sent the Redskins to their first Super Bowl in franchise history.

In an eight-year career, the former Santa Monica High standout and Los Angeles native would play in three Super Bowls, helping Washington to two titles.

He had another key interception against the Minnesota Vikings in the 1987 NFC Championship game and by that time had became one of the most popular players in the locker room.

The Redskins family lost one of its greatest unsung heroes when a pancreas rupture killed Kaufman in February at just 50 years old.

The Cal Poly family, which will honor Kaufman in a jersey ceremony and by naming an annual award after him at Saturday's 2 p. m. spring football game at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, lost not only one of its Hall-of- Fame players but also its first-year linebackers coach.

The Kaufman family, now three times struck by tragic death, lost its greatest hero, a universal father figure that put family before football.

Kaufman found dead

After a few calls, Muriel Kaufman hadn't heard back from her son. It was odd for him not to answer his cell phone, let alone ignore messages.

Mel Kaufman was living in San Luis Obispo County for the first time since his college days, staying on the Santa Margarita property of former Cal Poly coach Jim Sanderson.

Mustangs coach Rich Ellerson hired Kaufman -- whose coaching experience was limited to a five-year span of coaching football, baseball and basketball at a high school for at-risk teens in Gardena through 2005 -- to put an end to the revolving door at linebackers coach.

With much to learn about coaching college football, Kaufman was unlikely to bolt for a quick promotion, and Ellerson was bombarded by phone calls and meetings with alumni recommending Kaufman for the job.

One of the supporters was Craig Johnston, who quarterbacked the Mustangs to the 1980 Division II national title. His son Phil was going to be a sophomore linebacker at Cal Poly, and he reached out to Ellerson in support of his former teammate.

"I guess the best I could put it is there is no person I could trust more with my son from a technical point of view and an emotional point of view than Mel, " Johnston said.

Said Ellerson: "We were anxious to see what would happen with him as a recruiter. His name recognition in Southern California. I was anxious to see what kind of an asset he would prove to be. We never found out."

After just one season, it was Ellerson and the rest of his staff that got the promotion, leaving to take over a floundering Army program and leaving Kaufman to wonder if he had a future with new Mustangs coach Tim Walsh, who seemed to be starting a youth movement with his staff.

Before anything was settled, however, Kaufman started feeling an abdominal pain.

Not the type to needlessly blab about much of anything, Kaufman was private about his aches, and he had many painful remnants from his many collisions as an undersized linebacker in the NFL.

Friends and family can somewhat piece together Kaufman's ailments: From more common things like arthritic joints and high blood pressure to scarier ones like a benign cyst on his Achilles' tendon.

Not one person seemed to know the entire extent of his health concerns, not even Muriel, who lost her husband to a heart attack at 39 years old when Mel was still in high school.

Mel Kaufman had long been the "man of the house."

Spurred by Muriel from her home in Los Angeles, Mark Grosz, a former Cal Poly teammate and one of the friends Kaufman reconnected with when he joined the Mustangs coaching staff, drove out to check on Kaufman.

On Feb. 8, one week after Super Bowl Sunday, Grosz and Sanderson found Kaufman dead in his room.

The stomachache turned out to be a symptom of acute pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas whose symptoms may start off mild, according to a government Web site on digestive disease, but soon become severe.

Though he'd gone to an urgent care facility in Paso Robles earlier in the week, Kaufman was never checked into a hospital. He bled to death.

"There was Pepto Bismol in the bathroom. Some medication, " Grosz said. "I just think that he was in a lot more pain than he wanted people to think he was in."

Mel makes it in the NFL

When he first came to the Redskins, Kaufman had that slight build, and a quiet personality to match.

Teammate Mark May was Washington's first-round pick in 1981. The 6-foot-6, 280- pound Pittsburgh offensive tackle--the Outland Trophy winner as the top college lineman and a future member of the College Football Hall of Fame -- saw Kaufman as an easy target.

Players mockingly referred to Kaufman as "Junior, " since he was quick to bond with linebackers coach Larry Peccatiello.

"He was quiet as a church mouse, " said May, now an ebullient college football analyst for ESPN.

"He was so funny because you could start talking trash to him because you know he wouldn't say something. But then his second and third years, he just started talking."

That first year, though, Kaufman let his hips speak for him. They're what got him on the field in spite of his light weight.

"He had incredible explosiveness, " said Beathard, who furnished the protein and peanut butter hoping to see Kaufman balloon to 220 pounds and instead watched him shrink to 208 in the heat of training camp.

"He was just one of those guys that had explosion in his hips and in his hitting."

Said Peccatiello: "Mel had that natural leverage. We call it being a knee-bender. Getting his weight down and maximizing his strength and power.

"Once he made the team, he was pretty much sold to the players. I guess they took a liking to Mel because he was sort of an underdog, you know?"

He eventually did get up to 225 pounds, but shoulder and neck injuries abruptly ended Kaufman's career at 31 years old. He followed that up with a near decade-long tenure as a talent scout for the Redskins.

Starting 78 of 91 games, Kaufman had 18 UNKNOWN_HIGHBIT_bd sacks, seven interceptions and five fumble recoveries in eight seasons for Washington. Among other highlights, he returned a 70-yard interception for a touchdown against the St. Louis Cardinals and a 30-yard fumble recovery for a score against the Atlanta Falcons.

Those are the types of things on the back of Kaufman's football cards. What doesn't appear is how he spent his offseasons: Mentoring a Washington teen through the Big Brothers program, hosting his nephews for summer-long sleepovers and going back to school at Cal Poly, where he earned his degree in 1984.

Football takes a back seat

Every offseason, Kaufman brought his oldest nephew, Chris Jones, and sometimes a couple of other nephews from Los Angles to live with him in the summer.

"He didn't want them to end up on the wrong side of the tracks, gangs and getting involved in that type of lifestyle, " said Muriel, 70. "He wanted to show them there were better things in life.

"He spent a lot of time with each and every one of them. He was like their knight in shining armor. Everybody was proud of him."

The oldest of three kids from Mel's sister Gwendolyn, Jones was about 7 or 8 years old and flying solo for the first time as he chatted all the way with a Capitol Hill politician on his first flight to D. C.

From grade school to college, Jones had many of his biggest adventures in Washington with Kaufman.

There was his first fishing trip with NFL Hall of Fame Redskins Art Monk and Darrell Green, after which Jones had a nightmare of the toothy pike he reeled in.

He remembers challenging Kaufman to playoff series on the pool table, going head-to- head on one of the earliest Nintendo video game systems and cutting his teeth on Kaufman's Porsche after he was old enough to get a driver's license.

When Jones was very young, he remembers the duo being hit in a traffic collision, and Kaufman chasing down the other driver on foot as he tried to run away.

"He showed me right from wrong, " said Jones, who's always viewed Kaufman as another dad. Married once and divorced, Kaufman never did have kids of his own.

"I used to send him Father's Day cards."

The Kaufmans are quick to recall the time Mel bought-- well, they aren't sure if it was one live cow or two--but he personally delivered the freshly carved meat to every member of the family.

His charitable actions extended outside the family, too.

After retirement from the field, Kaufman worked as director of the minority internship program and a training camp director for the Redskins. Aside from his work with Big Brothers, he served on the board of directors for the local chapter of the American Lung Association and was a speaker to children and adults on behalf of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U. S. military.

Back in Los Angeles, Gwendolyn was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1999 and died just three months later, leaving behind Jones, who was by then a college graduate, and younger siblings Nicholas and Schuyler Smith -- both just toddlers at the time.

Kaufman left football and returned to Los Angeles, telling friends that he was committed to helping raise his sister's kids.

From that point up until Nicholas and Schuyler were in their preteens, Kaufman repeated the guidance he showed Jones, taking his niece and nephew swimming, bike riding, on trips to the beach, to his backyard barbecues and to their recreational sports practices.

"They were his world, " said Jones, at 34 now a service technician for AT&T. "Especially being that he didn't have any kids, we're like the kids he never had, and that's how he treated us."

It was around that time Kaufman began as a mental health counselor and athletic coach at Masada High, coaching sports year round.

In 2006 and 2007, the former two-time Super Bowl champion could be seen in vertical stripes on youth and high school football fields, officiating in the Pacific Coast Conference.

As the kids got older, Kaufman began putting feelers out to see if he could get into the coaching profession. When the Cal Poly community rallied around his hire, Kaufman told Jones that after 27 years away, he was finally going back home.

"All during his college years, he would come home during the summer, " Muriel said, "and he would explain, 'Mom, I'm not going to be here that long because I don't like living in L. A. I love everything about Cal Poly.' "

Leaving a lasting impression

Brooks Wise was Kaufman's roommate in the athletic dorms at Cal Poly.

Now president of Mission Community Bank, Wise was delighted to see Kaufman coaching in the press box from an adjacent luxury suite at Spanos Stadium.

"You could tell from the outside of the box looking in that he was focused and he was intense about what they were doing, " said Wise, another member of the 1980 championship team. "He was excited when they were making big plays."

There's been discussion on the toll coaching may have taken on Kaufman's health. After initially hearing of his death, Ellerson said he hoped the strain of the job wasn't a contributing factor.

Grosz is certain Kaufman's year at Cal Poly extended and enriched Kaufman's life and helped encourage others.

Kaufman, Grosz said, gave his moral support to beleaguered kicker Andrew Gardner after Gardner missed three extra points in a one-point overtime loss at Football Bowl Subdivision opponent Wisconsin in November.

The Football Championship Subdivision Mustangs had led the entire game and were poised to pull off the biggest upset in school history. A fourth-quarter comeback by the Badgers forced overtime, where the game ended on a kick by Gardner that bounced off the upright.

The missed kicks drew the ire of many Cal Poly fans back home, and Gardner was devastated.

"He wasn't returning mom's calls, he wasn't returning dad's calls. The first one on the bus sitting with him was Mel Kaufman, " Grosz said. "That in itself just shows you what kind of character he has."

And that character will leave a lasting legacy.

Walsh came up with the idea to give a Mel Kaufman Award to the Cal Poly player who most exemplifies the virtues Kaufman became known for off the field.

The first honoree will be announced in a ceremony at the spring game after the team presents Muriel with a framed Cal No. 56 Cal Poly jersey, the number Kaufman wore.

"We all say we're not role models, " said McDaniel, the fellow Mustang who broke into the NFL alongside Kaufman, "but he was a role model. He took it seriously that he was an example."

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